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To the parents, grandparents, families and friends of the graduates: your love and support, your hard work and sacrifice, have helped make this day a reality. Let us acknowledge you for supporting and inspiring today’s graduates.
To the graduates: this is your day, your achievement, your success. Congratulations, Bard College class of 2014! It is a distinct privilege to join you today as a fellow graduate with my honorary degree – though, luckily for me, no one asked me to turn in a "senior project" before I could get this degree.
To Chairman Charles Stevenson; to my friend, trustee, Sally Hambrecht, and the entire Board of Trustees; to the students, faculty and staff of Bard College: thank you for the honorary Doctorate of Laws. I am especially honored to be receiving it along with such distinguished honorees: Anne Bogart, Jacob Neusner, Jacqueline Novogratz, Henry Rosovsky, Darren Walker. Thank you for the invitation to participate in this special day.
Standing on this campus, surrounded by the beauty of the Hudson Valley and your performing arts center, seeing you – the students, the creative forces behind this college – I am reminded of the words of the great poet Shelley: "The greatest instrument of moral good is imagination."
When Shelley said this, he could have been speaking of the students and graduates of Bard College – where imagination is cultivated and encouraged. Bard has provided you with "a place to think." Bard has offered you a place to learn, to explore, to imagine. Imagination inspires creativity. Imagination enables empathy: to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to understand, to solve problems. Indeed, imagination is the heart of Bard College.
Your initiatives are well-known when it comes to education. You have used your imagination to address pressing challenges – with a network of "Early Colleges" to ensure that underserved high school students can seek and find a path to success. You have applied your imagination around the world – building partnerships and investing resources on campuses from Berlin to St. Petersburg to the Middle East.
You have directed your imagination toward improving public policy and people’s lives – most notably, with the Bard Prison Initiative, once a "senior project"; now a model for educating incarcerated youth statewide. Recently, I had the pleasure to meet Erica Mateo, an alum of the Bard Prison Initiative. She has taken her Bard education – her second chance – to give back to her community in Brooklyn. You are all representatives of that great tradition: where you use imagination to ensure that Bard will always stand as a small school with a big impact.
At this time in our nation’s history, your imagination gives me hope – because today, our country has important choices to make. In his study of civilizations, the great British historian, Arnold Toynbee, found that, over time, societies faced some of the same challenges we are facing today. He wrote that, at the beginning of a hopeful country, the political leadership formed a "creative minority" that inspired and led the flowering of a civilization.
He also wrote that, in some nations, leaders became a "dominant minority" of "exploiters," focused on their own wealth and power. Toynbee suggests that these competing mindsets and motivations create "schisms in the body social" and "schisms in the soul" of the body politic. Toynbee clearly recognized that the fate of each civilization is determined by its response to the challenges it faced. And now, as in centuries past, overcoming the challenges society faces depends on imagination.
Imagination is required to address growing income disparity, to close the opportunity gap, to build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. As Aristotle once wrote, "It is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class…in which the middle class is large and stronger than all of the other classes." In the United States, the middle class is the backbone of our democracy. So let’s build ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard, take responsibility, and play by the rules – to achieve the American Dream and strengthen the middle class. Thank you for imagining a fairer economic future – and for acting in your own backyard, to secure equal pay and benefits for Bard staff members and grounds workers.
To do even more, we must unleash the power of women in our economy – because, as President Obama has reminded us, when women succeed, America succeeds. Another boost to our economy and our country is the invigoration and imagination of newcomers to America. So let’s embrace that tradition, that essential character of our country, by passing comprehensive immigration reform. To make real progress, we must reduce the role of money and increase the level of civility in our politics. Then we will elect more young people, more women, more minorities, more LGBT Americans – and all Americans will be better for it.
This is especially necessary as we confront the climate crisis. We are faced with cynics who deny science and reject the evidence of climate change. But the facts are clear and indisputable. Again, thank you for the leadership of Bard students for your initiatives to protect our planet. You have imagined and implemented solutions to preserve our planet – with an office dedicated to sustainability and energy efficiency, with solar power, with compost efforts initiated by students, for students. We must keep America number one in new green technologies and research; in embracing science to reverse climate change once and for all.
Imagination is not only central to finding solutions, as we all know, it is central to creativity and the arts. President Kennedy once told us that "the life of the arts…is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose." Bard is well-recognized as a leader in the arts – Thank you for ensuring that the arts remain at the center of our nation’s purpose.
Imagination and innovation and creativity: these are the qualities you brought to Bard as freshmen, that grew stronger with every year here. As you leave today as Bard graduates, be confident in the knowledge that Bard has empowered you to use your imagination for the sake of progress and justice – as an instrument for moral good. You may not know what opportunities await you.
But when those opportunities present themselves, be ready. When I left college, I was idealistic; I could never have imagined that one day, I would go from the kitchen to the Congress, from homemaker to House Speaker. But I was ready. My wish for you today is that you know your power to imagine, to inspire, to shape the future with your ideals and your optimism. And my wish is that you enjoy every minute of it.
As we mark Memorial Day weekend, let us remember our men and women in uniform, and let us build a future worthy of their sacrifice. I am honored to be a part of the Bard College class of 2014 and to receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws today. I am proud to join you in saying: "We’re all Bardians."
Congratulations to you, to your families, to Bard College. Enjoy this day. May God bless you all. May God always bless the United States of America.