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Today’s Commencement of 2013 comes at the end of an extraordinary academic year, one that has been marked by an astonishing and discouraging display of extreme violence in our nation. The year 2012 closed with the December massacre at Newtown, and this spring we witnessed the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
We want to take comfort in the idea that violence is an aberration, a stranger to our way of life, an exceptional and perhaps momentary disturbance. But it appears that the reverse may be true. Violence is not an isolated and rare phenomenon. It is imbedded in our history and way of life. We are taught that the American republic, our democracy, was the work of deliberation and debate, the consequence of reasoned discourse of the sort enshrined in the Federalist Papers. We celebrate the learning of John Adams, John Jay, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Yet even the most conservative of modern historians have begrudgingly conceded that this triumph of enlightened and philosophically informed discourse was based on a foundation of brutal killing of the native population and extreme violence among competing and feuding colonists of different religious persuasions and cultures. The literate civility exhibited by our founding fathers was made possible by decades of horrifying physical violence. The European experience is no better; from the Thirty Years War to Stalin’s forced resettlements and the most recent breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the civilization it produced is likewise framed by blood and barbarism we ignore only at our peril.
We have become so accustomed to violence that we crave it in our entertainments, from movies to music to computer games; consider how we continue to celebrate a picture of the quintessentially masculine, far from the Byronic ideal of sensibility, elegance, eloquence, and aesthetic refinement; we have rejected an 18th-century ideal in favor of the brawny, muscular, imperial warrior hero whose allure is defined rather by ruthless physical strength, and an arrogant pride in his own ignorance and the capacity to harm cloaked in the presumption of fearlessness and courage. Sexual prowess and seduction are still uncomfortably but acceptably tied to the fantasy and reality of violence.
Implicit in this cultural romance with violence is a contempt for learning, a suspicion that speech is not action, that words matter not and that the only way to be present and accounted for in the world—to make a difference—is with the proverbial fist and not through argument and persuasion. We dispense with dissent and the difficulty in gaining agreement and consent in favor of the ambition to accumulate power. The glorification of violence has its parallel in our infatuation with money and wealth. If the poor are disenfranchised because they are powerless, those who privilege not money but rather thoughts, art, science, and words are equally so, since the domination of force and power makes a mockery of the rhetorical embrace of notions of individuality, freedom, and democracy.
For most of us, the significance, rights and privileges of being a citizen have become hollow and empty. It should then not come as a surprise that so many of our fellow citizens cling with an uncommon intensity to two commonplace symbols of force and violence, ones to which we feel we have a God-given right to own—our cars and our guns. Most of us legitimately feel irrelevant to our political life. No one seems to care for an individual’s opinion; all that seems to matter is the massive war chest of money and politics, now in the hands of a tiny elite. Therefore it seems that only in our ability to drive alone (not in public transportation) anywhere at will, in our freedom of movement, or in our right and power to do harm (in the name of self-protection) with instruments of violence to others will each of us be noticed, if not heard. It is easy for those of us who oppose the proliferation of guns, particularly deadly automatic weapons, to condemn opponents of gun control without an empathetic understanding that the recalcitrant allegiance to gun-owning is an expression of rage and frustration at the widening gulf between the rhetoric of freedom and individuality and the anonymous existence we face as members of the body politic.
Is it any wonder that we, in 2013, share so little respect for the sanctity of every single life, so little confidence in the potential of the objective biological uniqueness each of us possesses? The horror of the concentration camps and gulags of the last century has not led to an advance in civility, genuine tolerance, human solidarity, and a decent respect for the divine gift of life absent fear, suspicion, and harm. The violence in our culture is a mirror of an essential loneliness, despite the presence of social networks and tweets; our power to hurt seems to be the only plausible antidote to our distorted sense of being superfluous.
It is in this context that I appeal to you the class of 2013 to cherish the values that this College has sought to instill in you. The traditions of learning and service that define Bard are those of speech as action; the cultivation of a sense of beauty; a celebration of the individual imagination; and the love of the arts, ideas, and the life of the mind. It is in this protected space here in Annandale that for four years we together have sought to strengthen the human potential to live without violence, but rather with curiosity, conversation, and affection for the wondrous possibilities of the human mind, the fruits of contemplation and the values of human activity apart from brute force and the pursuit of material wealth.
The world this campus cultivates is an endangered form of life. We are increasingly bombarded by the claims that liberal learning—the arts and the humanities and the pursuit of basic research in the sciences—are irrelevant, expensive, and impractical, at best mere supplemental luxuries of the human condition. Teaching and learning—the conversation absent any technology, face to face in real time—is said to be obsolete, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I therefore implore each and every one of you to resist and challenge such facile claims and to carry with you for the rest of your lives the values, experiences, and habits we have sought to inspire. It is in the gift of language, the acquisition of knowledge, the pursuit of inquiry, the engagement with the aesthetic dimension, and the daily human contact without gadgets that each of you can and will find meaning in your lives, and will locate and sustain the source of your uniqueness and significance.
The best of humanity springs from that which this college stands for. The proper route to freedom and peace can only be charted with the skills and ambitions you have developed here as students. Never cease to inquire, to study, to debate, to doubt, to argue, to listen, and to act with speech. These forms of life are the only hope for personal happiness, much less the renewal of democracy and justice. And no college is more determined to defend and sustain these forms of life than your alma mater. Whatever path you take in years ahead, join with us to redefine our public life and our culture, to eradicate the heritage of violence and replace it with the life of the mind and the imagination. Help us place thinking, creating, and imagining at center of the world we share together.
In this respect, no graduating class in the history of this College has shown more promise and given us more cause to hope. Do more than protect the traditions you have encountered here. Commit yourself to them for the rest of your days. In that commitment rests the path to self respect, civility, justice, and freedom, and therefore a true democracy.
In that spirit and with that expectation, I congratulate each and every one of you.