Bard College President Leon Botstein (Photo by Steve Pyke)
Bard College President Leon Botstein (Photo by Steve Pyke)

President Leon Botstein's Charge

President Botstein addresses the class of 2014 at commencement exercises on May 24, 2014.

This coming August marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The “great war”, or “the war to end all wars” (as it came to be known) brought the long 19th century to its tragic close and ushered in a sensibility of a new era, the need for a break with history, an urgent faith in utopian possibilities and dreams of world peace. The senseless carnage that took the lives of more than 9 million soldiers fueled a desperate desire to remake the world.

Yet the brutality of the war and the resentments it unleashed, mostly in the form of nationalism, signaled a different break with the past, one that inspired nostalgia and merited regret. For most of the 19th century the idea of progress held sway with more than passing plausibility. Enthusiasm for the startling changes brought about by science and technology, from the railroad to the automobile, mirrors our own conceits about the power of technology: computation, the Internet and biotechnology. The 19th century also saw slavery and serfdom come to an end. Philosophic skepticism and the flirtation with nihilism aside, there was widespread confidence in the Western world that the spread of literacy, education and the raising of material standards of life would all lead to a sane and better world, one governed by reason.

The political shape such a world governed by reason would take was the devolution of political power to the people. The rule of the few—monarchs and aristocrats— would be replaced by the rule of all: the transformation of subjects into citizens through the spread of liberty and democracy. Progress would lead to a world in which people governed themselves not by force but by the open contest of ideas in a public realm in which rational argument and the rules of evidence, freed from sectarian superstition would guide individuals to a voluntary embrace of the rule of law.

World War I was so shocking because it stripped off the mask of reason and civility from the face of the industrial powers of the West that had once symbolized progress. Looking back, the century that has passed since 1914 has hardly left its own encouraging legacy. Consider what followed World War I—the success of fascism, of Stalin; remember Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Brief intervals of euphoric optimism—during the early 1960s and most recently in the 1990s immediately following the fall of the Soviet Empire—have been followed by a return to darkness and cruelty, leaving us with a legitimate sense of despair.

Indeed it will come as no surprise that the members of the Class of 2014 are too sophisticated to absorb the noble rhetoric of hope and possibility that routinely graces and defines these august ceremonies. What, after all, is going on out there, beyond the protected space of this beautiful campus? The destruction of the environment, a staggering inequality of wealth in which in one generation more than a few individuals have accumulated more capital than Harvard, Yale and Stanford, the revival of xenophobia and a nasty nationalism, gun violence, school shootings, a democracy in which a massive single corporation is disingenuously construed as just another alone lone individual, enthusiasm for punitive incarceration and the death penalty despite their evident cruelty. Our world is one in which facts do not matter and absolute convictions dominate, where there is insufficient support for what only the public sector can provide—in education and health. The paralysis in politics is dwarfed by our penchant for hiding behind the principled justification of our beliefs through a religious appeal to divine truth. This all brings any hope of debate and dialogue and the process of compromise to an end. The idea of human progress, of the power of reason, of the possibilities of politics and a public sphere, a century after the 19th century came to an end of, seemed little more than blind hope.

To the members of the Class of 2014: this candid and intentionally dispiriting account of the world you are about to enter should not, however, erase the possibility of an exception and the idea of new beginnings. Perhaps the source of hope is not global but exists in the modest frame of what each of us can do in the short but powerful time of our own lives. Pessimism and cynicism seem perfectly justified. They’re sophisticated, they’re rational, but they are in the end, merely the face of cowardice. Optimism may appear the religion of fools but it defines human wisdom.  

One reason for optimism and hope is actually this very place that you are leaving today, your alma mater. We the faculty and staff, who wish each and every one of you well, lead our lives in an effort to preserve and nurture the best in human nature. We cherish the life of the mind, the pursuit of inquiry, the making of art, the scholarly investigation of the arcane, the irrelevant, and the arbitrary—look at the list of senior projects. We insure for this community freedom of thought and speech and place the instruments of violence at our door. But we do not turn our backs on the public sphere. We strive to extend to others the virtues of this institution, a community informed by an enthusiasm for liberty, a belief in freedom and responsibility shaped by education and the love of excellence—into inner cities, into prisons, to the West Bank, to Putin’s Russia and to Central Asia. And we celebrate the world of the imagination, in the arts and humanities, those seemingly useless endeavors in open defiance of conventional wisdom, where value is defined exclusively by property, by greed and by comfort.

So, you are graduating and entering the wider world having encountered a way of life and values that flourish here, albeit as an oasis, against the common grain. We hope that each of you carries the spirit and purpose of Bard with you into your lives and seeks to inscribe its values—the love of learning, the sanctity of the individual, the subordination of violence to discourse and debate, the preservation and extension of tradition and memory, informed by empathy for those who seem different from ourselves—into your daily lives. Each of you will find some way to plant a seed of civility, beauty and justice. And when you do, remember Bard and help insure that it can do for future generations what it has done for you.

On behalf of all those work at this college—all over the world—we congratulate each of you today on your accomplishments and on your aspirations.