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The Right Reverend Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of New York, and Bard College President Leon Botstein Address Graduates at Bard College’s 151st Commencement on Saturday, May 21, 2011 


Darren O'Sullivan

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.— On Saturday, May 21, 2011, Bard College held its 151st commencement. At the commencement ceremony, The Right Reverend Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York delivered the commencement address, and Bard President Leon Botstein conferred 415 undergraduate degrees on the Class of 2011 and 153 graduate degrees. Honorary degrees were awarded to geneticist David Botstein, law professor Christopher Edley Jr., Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, songwriters Richard M. Sherman ’49 and Robert B. Sherman ’49, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

The following is the text of Sisk’s commencement address:

Mr. President, fellow trustees, members of the faculty and administration, parents, friends, and family, to the graduating students, to those that are receiving honorary degrees, as my previous speakers have said, congratulations.

You have each, in your own way and in your several different capacities, reached another important milestone in life’s journeys. This is no less than for Bard College itself, which, as we know so well, is celebrating it’s 150th year. For the president, the trustees, administration, and faculty, today marks another turning of the page, one of those brief, but sweet moments in education when it is possible to savor the joys of a job well done, another year complete, a new class of graduates ready to step out and meet the larger challenges of life that lay before you. For friends and family, this is a day to rejoice, to celebrate with those who are about to cross one of life’s most important thresholds.

For parents, the joy of this moment can only be rivaled by their joy at first seeing you and holding you in their arms as a newborn infant. These two joys will perhaps be nearly rivaled by their joy as they make the last college tuition payment. Having made a few such payments myself, I understand.

And, finally, to you, the graduating seniors who have met and engaged the exciting and challenging opportunities that your years at Bard have afforded you, congratulations, well done.

As the bishop of New York, I take the greatest of pleasures at being given this opportunity to speak today. In a sense, I feel toward Bard College itself rather as I imagine your parents feel about you. I, or rather more precisely as the president has told us, my predecessor in office, Bishop Horatio Potter, worked fervently for the establishment of this institution and dreamed great things for it, and great things have been achieved. The original goal of Bard, as will recall, then called St. Stephen’s College, was to provide excellence in education for the leaders of church. Those first students were, in large measure, being prepared to attend the General Theological Seminary in New York City, which, by serendipitous coincidence, I attended myself and now serve as its chairman of the board of trustees.

In the mid 19th century, the expectation was that clergy would not only be pastors to their congregations, but they would be civic leaders as well. And they were. In addition to tending to their flocks, they founded hospitals, orphanages, homes for the homeless, education for the indigent, and food for the hungry. More importantly still, they encouraged the members of their congregations to take up their challenges of serving the poor and promoting the common good. In short, the graduates of St. Stephen’s College were being prepared to be prominent among those who provided leadership for all manner of civic good works. Those founders were dedicated to the vision of a learned clergy working to civilize and improve a very harsh society.

I am proud to say that all of this was and is entirely consistent with the core values and long traditions of the Episcopal Church. Now, 150 years on, times have changed and they have changed, in some ways, very important ways. Through the fruitful work of generations past, civic leadership has now been opened much more broadly than it once was. No longer is the community dependent upon a small cadre of people to be their leaders. A broad base of educated citizens is our hope as a community. In response to these shifting circumstances, St. Stephen’s College has become Bard College, and though its graduates rarely go on to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, nevertheless the core values of the founders of St. Stephen’s College a century and a half ago do live on. We continue to devote ourselves to the education of the leaders of society, leaders who are committed to furthering and strengthening the life of the human community. This is what a college education ought to be about.

It is inspiring for me to be associated with a college that continues to embrace that college view. Frankly, too often can it be said that a college education in some places is really little more than a very expensive vocational school. However, education, in the spirit of Bard College, offers a different and more classical perspective. In this view, education is intended to equip one to live life in all its depth and complexity, recognizing always that we live in the midst of and, as a part of, a larger community. To be certain, there are things that need to be learned, skills that need to be acquired in college. But, foremost among those is the capacity to think. That is the goal and the spirit of the education that is offered here.

You who are graduating here today have been prepared to live reflectively and to take your place as leaders within the larger community. You have acquired some skills. Your native abilities have been challenged and, to some extent, honed. But, above all, it has been Bard’s goal to teach you, to encourage you to think, to express ideas clearly, and to question wisely. It is, however, important to note that this questioning is not that of a cynic, as though the answers that you are seeking are desiccated abstractions that do not touch your soul. On the contrary, it is our hope that you have been taught to question as a critic, who, in the midst of life, is in the relentless pursuit of truth. The object of your education has been to prepare you for life, for the world, the way it is in all its wondrous, mysterious grandeur, as well as in its sometimes awful tragedy. The object of the exercise is to engage life fully, to engage it in all its ragged reality. Life cannot be lived in general, it can only be lived in particular. It cannot be lived for self alone. For it is only in others that we discover our true selves. I would go on to say that each and every one of you is called to do precisely this. Each of you has the vocation to face the world as it is and then to commit yourself, with all the considerable gifts and advantages that are yours, to work to make it the place that it ought to be, a place where justice is available to all, where the weak need not be lost in their weakness, nor the poor defeated in their poverty, a place where the homeless and the helpless are sheltered and the injured receive care, a place where peace is the familiar spirit and war the stranger.

As daunting as the challenge of finding the common good might be, and I know that it is daunting, it is the only challenge that is truly worth spending the work of your precious life to achieve. In order to engage in that lifelong work, I hope for you one essential thing: that you not be afraid. Do not be afraid of anything. By this, I’m not suggesting that you ought to take foolish risks just for the thrill of it. Your life is worth more than that. What I am talking about is the fear that paralyzes, the fear that stifles, the fear that silences your yearnings, the fear that lets you be satisfied with the safe rather than the best, the fear that dictates that we conform to the comfortable rather than the discomfort of striving for the larger good, the fear that so easily separates people into warring groups. I urge you not to be afraid of the truth no matter how challenging it might be. Do not be afraid of difference no matter how profound. Do not be afraid of failure no matter how crushing. Do not be afraid of success no matter how disorienting it might be. Remember always that you are part of the created order, a member of the larger community that both needs and deserves your participation and your leadership. And as you leave this beloved familiar place, a place you have come to know and to cherish, remember that life, precious life, is fleeting. Don’t miss it.

A video of Sisk’s address can be viewed here.

Text of Bard President Leon Botstein’s Charge to the Graduates:

When John Bard founded this college in 1860, the United States was on the brink of a bloody and brutal civil war. No matter how sophisticated the revised narrative of the history of this nation has become, the simple fact remains that among citizens, particularly those like John Bard with deep religious convictions, the divide between North and South centered on a matter of principle, the basic incompatibility between slavery and the claims of the Declaration of Independence, with its eloquent and inspiring defense of political equality and liberty. John Bard believed that extending the reach of education could strike a blow for truth and justice.

One-hundred-fifty years later, despite the restoration of the Union, massive immigration, unequaled material prosperity, the development of the means of travel and communication that have helped break down regional barriers, unprecedented access to schooling and nearly a century in which the United States has been a major force in international affairs, we find our nation—our democracy and our political life—in a dismal, discouraging, and dangerous state. In the darkness that surrounds us, there seem to be no principles at stake at all. Instead of the specter of violent conflict that surrounded the birth of this college, we are witness to the leveling of public discourse that even threatens the meaning of intimacy and privacy. Our public life is marked by a terrifying amalgam of half-truths, clichés, and slogans that actually mask, if not cynicism, then passivity about politics and the prospect of progress in our collective destinies. Our freedoms will not be taken from us by tyranny. We are letting them atrophy through disuse and negligence. We permit our freedoms, our political rights, to be stripped of any potent content.

One would think that in a true democracy, government is every citizen’s best ally. Public intervention—the role of government—in our lives ought to be a virtue, since it is ourselves, the citizenry, that theoretically in a free society shapes and defines government. But the leading trend in politics today celebrates less government and the notion that government threatens individuality and excellence. And we are unwilling to contest this idea as we shy away from dissent and debate and retreat into labels and epithets. Consider what has happened to that historic idea that taxation with representation is a hallmark of freedom. Taxes should be a privilege, an honorable right we exercise and not a burden. Yet those among us who can afford to pay more in taxes seem to have the worst case of an all-too-common hypocrisy. The wealthiest will, for example, move out of New York for just enough time to avoid taxes—upending their life just to play less—and yet they expect clean streets, police protection, fire brigades, and perhaps even good schools. We tolerate and applaud corporations who elude taxation and sympathize with their need to compete, exempting them from a proper contribution to society as a whole.

In today’s politics we seem unable to persuade others about what government should do, can do, and must do, and concentrate only on the evils of government, about waste, inefficiency, bureaucracy, and unwarranted intrusion. And yet we wonder why our schools fail to compete, and let our businesses struggle with the rising cost of health care and retirement. We sit by, seemingly helpless, as the inequality of wealth—the gap between the very rich and the poor—widens.

Faced with the massive scale of society we, without much critical examination, have reduced freedom to mean merely private initiative. We have left the motivations of private enterprise undisturbed. We are content with little more than the assertion of the right to property, the right to own. Individual ambition, the desire for wealth, and the marketplace all conspire—we assume—to bring about the best of all possible worlds for all and not merely the privileged. We act as if all that matters in the pursuit of happiness—a moral term in the 18th century—is our isolated individuality, as if cultivating a sense of civic duty and obligation to others and forming a social order mirrored in the rule of law in government, and in agreement, collaboration, and collective action, were all at odds with authentic personal freedom.

The opposite is true. We will flourish as free individuals only to the extent that the shared space we inhabit—in terms of the health of the world we live in and the health of the human community—renders liberty possible. We need government—fair government and good government—not just less government. We who are more fortunate need to care for those who are, and will remain, less fortunate—the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the very young, and the very old—and well beyond the scope of the charity of a few.

If this nation is to avert a decline, and if we are to create the conditions for our best selves to thrive not only materially but also in terms of originality, imagination, and wisdom, then a renewal of our sense of civic duty must come about—a vigorous commitment to the public good and to a public realm free of the rigidities and uniformities imposed on us by the media and fashion.

The indispensable step to that renewal of our shared destiny as citizens is education. We need a major national investment in public education, not the privatization of our schools. We need stronger public and private colleges and universities, not higher levels of tuition and fees. This, for example, can be accomplished only by collective will and by a public policy we create and control as citizens.

So to the Bard class of 2011: I ask you to take away from your alma mater its deep and abiding faith in the link between education and democracy, a commitment to the political life of a free society, and to a lasting sense of civic duty and responsibility. Learning and knowledge define the principles for which we must fight. The slavery that threatens us lies in our embrace of thoughtlessness and false simplicity and a smug satisfaction and in our collective resistance to complexity and ambiguity. Help rebuild our faith in what we can discover, learn, imagine, create, and do together, both in and apart from government, and in the ways we might take responsibility for our well being and the well being of our neighbors. The active use of our freedoms requires that we use the traditions of learning to define our laws and practices, and guide our public realm so that the lives of citizens all over the world mirror values that reach beyond comfort, convenience, idle fictions, and conformism. This vision led John Bard to create the college. This vision defines the essence of Bard today. May each of you keep it alive in the fabric of your separate lives.

Congratulations to you all. 

A video of Botstein’s charge can be viewed here.

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This event was last updated on 05-24-2011