Bard College Commencement

Bard College Commencement

Bard College President Leon Botstein's Charge to the Class of 2017


President Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 27, 2017.


This year’s class, the class of 2017, is graduating at a moment of unprecedented discontinuity. The last comparable time was in 1989 and 1990, when the Berlin Wall fell and the world was awash with high expectations following the end of the Cold War and hope of an unimpeded rise of freedom and democracy. The discontinuity we face now in 2017 is different, but it holds the same opportunity for each and every one of you that radical change brings.
What we now face is the opposite of 1989; it is the collapse of any expectation of progressive progress. If we take the three things that are in the Declaration of Independence, we take life, the equal human right to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and compare these aspirations to this moment in 2017, we see an increasingly imperfect world. The access to healthcare in our country will decline, the quality and support of education will decline, as will the fairness of access to either. Peace and understanding among ourselves—and with our neighbors, (Mexico, for example) and the rest of the world—will not improve. There will be growing inequality as we threaten to enact a tax code that favors the rich and makes the middle class and poor worse off. So, life and the pursuit of happiness are not looking as if they are getting better.
 
Now we come to liberty. We actually witnessed a non-functioning democracy in 2016, when half of the electorate didn’t even show up to vote. There are too many limitations of access to the ballot box, and there is a growing fear that our basic civil rights might be endangered. This is not only true here in the United States; it’s true all over the world. A fear and a deafness to debate dominates and leads people to embrace autocracy, to take refuge in charismatic leaders and not in shared governance and the procedures of democracy. We see this in Hungary, we see it in Turkey, we see it in Russia, in the Philippines, in Poland, and, sadly, in our own country. It is as if the procedures of democracy—just consider elections themselves—have been hollowed out of content, and the ethical essence of freedom and democracy no longer influence our behavior. And in its place there’s a lot of anger and cynicism. We seem to be short on shared ideals.
It is in this context you now graduate. I believe the education you’ve received here will arm you to confront this somewhat bleak picture I’ve drawn because your education can help you to locate the unique opportunity that exists for each and every one of you. You will use your education to face the arrogance of people and beliefs, including those we ourselves hold, and a pervasive blindness that prevents us from seeing a common ground.
 
So, I thought I would remind you, before you come forward to get your diplomas, of the origins of this college. This college was founded by John Bard, a deeply committed Christian. We’ve heard a lot over the years that we are a Christian nation and born out of a Christian faith. And many of our fellow citizens believe that religion is the proper link to an ethical conduct of life and democracy, despite the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion. John Bard certainly thought so.  
Indeed many of our traditions of democracy derive from an interpretation of Christianity, the Bible, and the example of Christ. The original motto on the seal of this college, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life,” represents the faith that John Bard had that education could in fact deepen not only one’s faith in God but one’s commitment to democracy and to freedom and to human dignity.
 
So I though I would do the improbable and follow this line of thought and give you eight pieces of advice that actually parallel the Eight Beatitudes that Christ uttered during the Sermon on the Mount and are recorded in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. I want to express my apologies to the Bishop of the Diocese of New York and to all theologians here today: I am an agnostic and a Jew. I am looking at this sacred text from the point of view of its possible contemporary meaning to us, whether we are Christians or not. So, I’m going to try to interpret the Eight Beatitudes in a way that gives you direction in how to conduct your lives from the moment you leave this tent with your degree.
 
The First Beatitude is perhaps the most difficult: “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I came to the following interpretation: someone who is “poor in spirit” is someone who is poor in human arrogance, who is actually concerned with more than his or her own self-interest, and is not a narcissist, is not addicted to fame, and to daily measures of mass popularity. So, the First Beatitude suggests this advice: don’t emulate such people, some of whom are in high positions, who are simply looking out for themselves, gazing in their mirrors and courting short-term fame.
 
If the First Beatitude is about containing one’s ego, let’s turn to the second one: “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is a call to empathy, to the recognition of our mortality. When we mourn, we acknowledge our dependence on others. When members of our family die, we recognize how important our families and friends have been. We mourn only if we have the capacity to mourn, which means we must have the capacity to love. If so we are not people who put me and people like me first. Patriotism does not been putting my nation first in all things.
 
If the Second Beatitude urges you to be empathetic, the third, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” has been widely criticized as suggesting a kind of slave mentality, but I actually read it differently. If “they shall inherit the earth” who are they, the meek? The meek are those who respect nature and the environment, who do not spoil the gift of our planet and the air we breathe and the land on which we live. They are those who limit the damage coming from our own behavior. Those shall inherit the earth are they who show generosity of spirit and wish that others share in our good fortune. The “meek” are those citizens who don’t rely on guns to protect safety and don’t wish to have them.
 
The Fourth Beatitude is “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” My version of this is the hunger and thirst for righteousness is nothing less than curiosity, the love of learning, and the love of knowledge—an appetite for skepticism, self-doubt, and a desire to have dialogue, and to pursue inquiry. These are people who actually cherish the life of the mind. So you above all should continue those practices; they are, after all, the behaviors that brought you here today.
 
The Fifth Beatitude is “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” This is a call for fairness, and to sharing our wealth. That means welcome taxation, and do not resist it. The merciful are those who do not live their life seeking revenge and punishment and do not celebrate a nation that has the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world.
 
The Sixth Beatitude is “blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” This is especially poignant for all of us here because I think that contains an admonition to make art, to use your imaginations, to invent the things have not been invented before, to use language with beauty and with clarity, and to embrace both ambiguity and complexity. The aesthetic offers the way to see the divine. Music after all is the language of divine. It begins where human speech ends.
 
The seventh is the most perhaps famous: “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” My reading of this admonition includes not only the obvious one, which is about avoiding wars, and substituting diplomacy for guns. But it also avoiding needlessly creating enemies. False news, alternative facts, and slander now flourish, particularly on the internet and on social media.  Peacemaking means not legislating so that people who believe different things from others are prevented from leading their lives as they should, as for example the rights of women. It means seeking common ground, not more conflict.
 
And, the last is “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I do fear those who think for sure that they’re righteous. Moralists can be a curse in a democracy. Skeptics are, by comparison, a joy. However, being persecuted for righteousness can mean that one is persecuted for daring to think, for thinking differently, and for acting differently. The phrase is not about moralists who know what’s right, but those who have taken the risk actually to act on their conscience, to dissent, and use their freedoms.
 
So with these eight secular and quite denatured readings, I admonish you to embrace the same Christian tradition that fundamentalists and conservatives now use against liberals and progressives. Recognize that there is a great liberal, progressive, and anti-xenophobic tradition in our religious heritage. Dedicate your life to what is implied by the Beatitudes. They helped shape the virtues that this college is dedicated to. They suggest values that our nation’s politics should uphold. They provide substance to the American Dream. We ask you to advance their spirit in this rare moment of opportunity to bring some light back to the darkness in our public realm. So, seize the day and make us proud. Congratulations.