President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 28, 2022.
No class of graduates in recent memory have left their campuses to take their places in the world at a moment in history more terrifying than that which faces this class of 2022.
Consider the violence that surrounds us in the form of the killings in Texas and Buffalo, and the war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine. Violence threatens the lives and tranquility of every individual.
We must add to gun violence and war the violence of words and the unprecedented outpouring of hate, prejudice, and ignorance that now defines the public realm created by the virtual spaces to which we have become addicted.
Our natural response to this is fear, paralysis, and the retreat from the public realm. As we wind our way through the streets, and stand in lines at airports, travel in the confined spaces of public transport, and return to our places of work, we move about with masks, identity cards, and tracking devices, fearful of the dangers others pose to us, whether as resistors to the best advice of medicine and science or as aggressive proponents of identity politics that traffic in mythical constructs of homogeneity and superiority and unique historical solidarity. We react to fear by being reluctant to exercise the freedom of movement we once cherished, and as to our right to the freedom of speech—we fall silent and repeat the formulas and clichés that dominate the particular segment of the public space we choose to inhabit, so we can escape scrutiny, criticism, or punishment.
At this moment it is therefore not clear that the political framework we cherish—one that secures freedom, personal autonomy, debate, dissent, the right to privacy and the keeping of personal secrets—that all comes from our freedom to think and to speak without fear—will survive. We have lost all of our taste for criticism and replaced it with thoughtless conformism, and pleasure in retribution punishment and ostracism for those who dissent or are different. We have appropriated a Puritan taste for condemnation and moral hectoring without retaining any confidence in redemption, change, and forgiveness.
The condition you face, and we all face, now becomes the fertile ground for illiberalism, tyranny, and autocracy and the death of deliberative politics. This predicament is not helped by the intolerable inequality of wealth we have come to accept.
At the core of the danger facing democracy today is our collective abandonment of any agreement as to what we understand as truth and certainty. Without a common ground for knowing, shared methods of inquiry, and the provision of accepted conclusions, even if they are later to be revised, there can be no political freedom, no room to agree, or agree to disagree; no politics of conversation and compromise with which to combat the raw use of violence to subjugate and eliminate those we do not like and with whom we do not agree. We become content to cling to prejudices and superstitions.
Your alma mater, Bard, and all fine institutions of higher education—colleges and universities—have, since the 17th century, been dedicated to advancing the truth and cultivating ever higher degrees of certainty, using human reason and the rules of evidence and shared criteria of judgement to establish, disprove, innovate, reject, and persuade. Yet for all the expansion of access to higher education, we inhabit a world where all that has been undermined by an all too fashionable a skepticism. The distinction between a lie and the truth has been obliterated. Radical skepticism has eviscerated the capacity to change ones’ minds when faced with evidence and to give up the most beautiful myth to the proven reality of an ugly fact.
We need to return, with your help, to combat such radical skepticism and reconstruct a common ground for knowledge, the sort of universal unified ground that makes vaccination right and not one opinion among equal opinions, and that debunks claims of racial and national distinction and superiority as false and establishes a shared basis for the recognition of how and why our planet is in danger. Only through the use of our reason and our faith in establishing the verifiable extent and limits of our knowledge can a pluralistic democracy thrive and the traditions of democracy defeat autocracy and tyranny.
This demands a faith in the ability of all humans to learn and to understand.
In the Baccalaureate service you all attended on Thursday, we sang a verse about “truth entering the ear of reason” in the hymn taken from Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation. We referenced collectively using our universal capacity, not only for language, but for music, our shared belief in the metaphor of being made in the image of God, a God who speaks, who creates with words, and who exercises judgement and wisdom that can be rationally understood. In our world of advanced science and technology, what faces us in the future are triumphs of artificial intelligence. Only by fostering a shared level of excellence in education can we manage them and reclaim our sacred humanity, our individual autonomy, freedom from fear, mutual suspicion and vulnerability to unseen conspiracies that elude proof and then proceed to defeat the brute use of force, exercised either through the dictates of arbitrary laws or the barrel of a gun. Your alma mater is dedicated to the expansion of knowledge and search for truth and we invite you as alumni to join us in embracing that mission as you join the fight for freedom, justice, and democracy.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 29, 2021.
In no commencement prior to this one, Commencement 2021, has the question “What is to be done in the world?”—particularly by you, an elite that has earned college and university degrees, therefore “What needs doing in the world?”—been so transparently clear and also linked to another frequently asked question: “What is the purpose of places like Bard, institutions of higher learning?”
To put it somewhat differently, no graduating class in recent memory has ever faced such an obvious mandate. That mandate is to tackle the intractable problems we face, here and abroad, ones of hate between humans, an unwillingness to listen and compromise, the prevalence of violence, the rise of tyranny, the collapse of faith in individual freedom and the traditions of liberal democracy, the embrace of mistrust and conspiracy theories, and therefore the shattering of the appeal to our common shared place in a universal existential predicament.
That mandate forces us to place a spotlight on the value of Bard and higher education. The answer to what Bard’s role should be in preparing students to confront the challenges that we can all see in plain view, is that Bard believes that there is a link between the life of the mind and the task of creating harmony, happiness, justice and peace in the world: all the opposites of evil and violence. That link is the ideal of truth based in reason.
As you leave this place, and as we together emerge from the pandemic, you, the graduating class, will be at the forefront of the restoration of what we like to think of as a “return to normalcy.” In that process I think we must be honest about the core values of the place you received your undergraduate education. The Class of 2021 needs to be especially clear about why their alma mater exists and what it stands for. What are the guiding axioms for ourselves and our college—convictions we will not abandon despite changes in fashion because we regard them as true, good, and universal?
The first and most basic axiom and principle on which this college, and indeed all colleges and universities of any degree of excellence are bound to honor, is the simple truth that brought you here. It is inscribed in the diploma you are about to receive. It is the source of the slogan you all know we have tagged Bard with (and been consequently the butt of parody and jokes): “a place to think.” That basic premise was eloquently and succinctly expressed by the philosopher Spinoza in 1677 at the end of his Ethics: “In life, therefore, it is especially useful to perfect, as far as we can, our intellect or reason. In this one thing consists the human being’s highest happiness or blessedness. . . . No life, then, is rational without understanding, and things are good only insofar as they aid a human being to enjoy the life of the mind, which is defined by understanding. On the other hand, those that prevent humans from being able to perfect their reason and enjoy the rational life, those only we say are evil.” (588)
It needs to be explained that Spinoza credited all humans with intuition, reason and imagination. He construed the life of the mind to include everything any member of the Class of 2021 could possibly wish to pursue, whether it be mathematics, or film, or music or psychology, poetry or physics. He also believed in the unity of all being, and its coincidence with nature, a variegated universe containing infinite attributes encompassing all of thought, substance and beliefs and all art and ideas. This infinite unity, which was Spinoza’s God, and the God of Einstein, this pantheist vision, he believed can gradually be apprehended through reason by all of us. We each can make gradual progress, using the life of the mind, to understanding, to self- understanding and therefore to recognize the truth of empathy, harmony, and love for and among all humankind.
It is Spinoza’s inspired vision of an infinity of being, encompassing all of nature and thought, shared universally, and capable of apprehension, expression and understanding by all our fellow human beings that holds the key to human happiness, both individual and collective. Helping students achieve that happiness defines Bard’s mission and indeed the mission of every serious college and university. This represents the axiomatic ideology, the core belief we are asking you to carry into the world.
How does that basic axiom translate into the task of restoring and perhaps improving the “normal” conduct of life, after the pandemic recedes into memory?
- First. our political future, and the future of freedom, democracy, and justice depends on conducting our political and personal life in real time and real places—in public squares, on the street, in theatres, in homes, in stadiums—face to face, without masks and social distancing—not on screens, in texts, using apps, or postings on social networks. The danger that democracy could fail and vanish and be replaced by nativist hegemonies, based on myths and not history, and autocracy and tyranny restored not only to power but to popularity, is present and real. The American election of 2020 was a reprieve, not a victory. We cannot secure a pluralistic free democracy if we hide behind our screens, forge virtual relationships, and communicate electronically.
- Second, we must fight to make rational argument, the rules of evidence and the universality of rationally determined truth prevail. We must therefore, be willing to change our minds, and acknowledge error as well as to cultivate patience and empathy in our efforts to banish ignorance and tell the truth. We must talk to more people than those we already know and agree with. We must expose and defeat those who, in Spinoza’s words “prevent humans” from enjoying a rational life. And we are surrounded by such evil: QAnon, Fox News, the Republicans behind McConnell and McCarthy, the dark web. They do not merely dissent (which is their right) and think differently; they are liars who traffic in falsehoods who understand how to manipulate our emotions, undermine our intuitive trust and rational instinct that we are all created equal, live in the same universe, and face the same set of truths.
- We must step away from taking pleasure in assuming the worst of our neighbors. We must stop confusing every accusation with the truth. We must hold fast to the presumption of innocence and the right to due process and the rule of law that privileges deliberation on the evidence. We cannot replace our courts of justice and our Bill of Rights with the greedy capitalist and manipulative courthouses of public judgment of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
- We must place human love in the foreground, and not rage and hate. Love—in the view of the tradition of thought that descends from Spinoza—is not some mushy Hollywood, sentimental Romantic, or Christian idea. Rather, love is the sign of reason and understanding, and the expression of the truly human. Therefore, we need to cultivate empathy, sympathy, forgiveness, and not take pleasure in punishment, public humiliation, retribution, and revenge. Justice should not be measured by the satisfaction we derive at contemplating what we believe is the legitimate pain and suffering of wrongdoers. The presence of evil in the world demands more than punishment. It calls for education, the task of promoting rational human understanding that prevents the evil perpetrated by humans from happening again.
- We must subordinate our pride in whatever category of identity we chose to label ourselves as part of, whether it be of national origin, mythic shared descent, authentic heritage, religion, ethnicity, or that terrifying nonscientific concept: race. We must deny these labels their power to determine who each of us can be or wishes to be; we must subordinate those closed, exclusive, competing identities to the one true and overriding universal status we all share: the human. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that it kills indiscriminatingly, rich and poor, whites and blacks, Brazilians, American Southerners, and citizens of India, heterosexuals, homosexuals, transgender, indeterminates, as well as the celibate—monks and nuns. The same can be said of climate change. We all will suffer from extreme temperatures, greater vulnerability to disease, lack of clean water, air pollution, and radical weather. We are all part of the unity of being and nature, in all its infinitude.
To meet these five challenges, each of you must leave this college having shed a peculiarly American habit: puritanism. Embrace fallibility. Apply skepticism to yourselves. Shed the belief not only that you are right, and those who think differently must absolutely be wrong, but they should be silenced and punished for being wrong. In the place of puritan orthodoxies we ask you to pursue the life of the mind, the pursuit of knowledge through reason. Embrace the principles that protect our freedom of speech and inquiry, our right and capacity to dissent in public and in private, to agree to disagree, to change our minds because we have been persuaded by argument and not by the fear of punishment, retribution, ostracism, and ridicule, a fear that renders us silent and makes cowards of us all.
We ask you to accept Spinoza’s God, and Einstein’s God—the worldview on which all colleges and universities are based, particularly Bard. In your conduct of life, we ask that each and every one of you combat evil with reason, by pursuing your own path to happiness through learning, and perfecting your rational understanding of our complex, subtle, and rivetingly alluring world of space, time and being. This will not make you popular and might condemn you to be in a minority. But as Spinoza observed in the last line of the Ethics: “But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”
You are excellent. You are rare. Don’t relinquish that opportunity and that pattern of life.
Congratulations to the incredible Class of 2021!
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates in a virtual ceremony on August 22, 2020.
In all the years I have had the privilege and honor of serving Bard College as its president, I have never been prouder of a graduating class than I am of this class of 2020.
You are leaving the hallowed halls of a place of teaching and scholarship dedicated to the ideals of learning, debate, inquiry, curiosity, and skepticism at an unprecedented moment in history. There has never been a time quite so dark and so terrifying. The horror and carnage of both World War II and the Vietnam War remain far away and distant from most Americans. In the era of the Great Depression, this country was still a manufacturing nation and a densely agricultural one. No matter how long a recovery might take, there was a shared familiarity with what the future might look like. And in 1932, we elected, in a landslide, a new government, intent on breaking with the past and on realizing the power of government to help those most in need and to renew the spirit of the nation.
You are graduating Bard at a time when devastation is here at home, giving you and your family and friends every reason to be anxious and disconsolate. The reasons for fear are all too obvious.
First, the pandemic is still with us. Suffering and fear are all around us. Those poorest and least able to defend themselves have borne a disproportionate burden of the national pain. The threat of the disease has been exacerbated by the incompetence and cruelty of our leaders in our national government and our collective failure to design and implement a viable, consistent national strategy. The absence of a rational and fair health care system for all has become all too evident, as has the irresponsible neglect of our scientific community and its expertise and ingenuity that could have been marshalled in time to contain the damage.
Second, you face an economic crisis perhaps greater than that of the Great Depression. The rates of unemployment are skyrocketing. Jobs are disappearing, as are workplaces, companies, and traditional patterns of economic life. The much vaunted third industrial revolution, driven by technology, has gutted the need to employ our fellow citizens in large numbers, particularly those without a proper education or skills.
Third, amidst this perfect worldwide storm of economic collapse and dangers to our health, we are now confronted, and properly so as a consequence of violence against people of color and Black Lives Matter, with the necessity of coming to terms, finally, with the central question of race and discrimination that, as a consequence of slavery and unrelenting discrimination, has wounded this republic since its founding. We must, as a society, provide real and civic reparations to our fellow citizens of color in providing, now, genuine access to equality in housing, health, education, and a viable economic safety net.
Fourth, we must not ignore the poor, and the intolerable inequality of wealth in this country and throughout the rest of the world. No ethical defense of the right to property can be mounted on behalf of a society that permits 1 percent of the population to own 38.5 percent of the wealth, and where single individuals can amass a net worth larger than the GDP of sovereign nations. As you gaze beyond the confines of Bard, even close to us here in Dutchess County, much less far beyond in the heartland of the nation, you can discover how profoundly we have permitted governments, Democrat and Republican alike, to neglect, over decades, most of our fellow citizens, white and Black, and favor in the technological revolution, as the saying goes, Wall Street over Main Street.
Fifth, we all face, without question, the enormity of climate change and the consequences of environmental neglect. The fires in California, the floods in Iowa, the melting of the ice in the North, and the rising seas are just the most obvious facts that we all, rich and poor, of many different ethnicities and beliefs, must confront. Vast stretches of the globe will be inhospitable to human existence, and we must deal justly with the massive migration from South to North.
What does this all add up to for each and every one of you? The five circumstances in the world today just enumerated have eroded public confidence in democracy. They have fueled a sense of powerlessness and whetted a popular appetite for autocracy and tyranny. The danger is not only here in the United States. The 20 percent of the Class of 2020 who come from abroad understand this political trend all too well—in China, Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, and Poland, for example.
So, to you, the Class of 2020, I say: do not despair. But do not hide behind blind hope. You, alongside all of us, face an unprecedented opportunity to make history. Elaborate dialectics are not required to see how we can make, with your help, quickly, a far better and more just world.
There are six reasons, members of the Class of 2020, to face the future after college with uncommon optimism, enthusiasm, and courage:
- First, never before has the need for government and good government been so clear. The nonsense put forth four decades ago that government was the problem has now been exposed as malicious. We need better government, for sure, but not less. Society cannot rely on the presumed superiority of private enterprise.
- Second, we have a chance to create good government. We can rescue the rule of law. We can put a stop to corruption. We can defeat the manipulation of public opinion by deceit and outright lies. We can restrain the abuse of force, as in Portland, and we can bring the compelling ideals of equality and justice, enshrined in the founding documents of this nation, to life. Each of you must vote, and devote the weeks ahead to ensuring that the election in November is not stolen, not disfigured by the suppression of voting or the abuse of the postal system, or stripped of legitimacy by false accusations of fraud.
- You have now, by virtue of having graduated from college, joined a minority, an elite. Whether you are first-generation college graduates or not, you will be able to compete. You have the skills of inquiry, curiosity, criticism, and improvisation—hallmarks of liberal learning—honed from the first days of L&T to the submission of your Senior Projects, that the economy and politics of this century demands.
- You therefore can lead in realizing justice and equity, empathy, and the recognition of the sanctity of every human being (strengthened, as it should be, by the love of the imagination and the arts) and join in restoring an embrace of immigrants and a tradition of decency and kindness to strangers that are the highlight of a pluralistic democracy.
- Fifth, you understand the power of education. You must join the fight to wipe out student debt and change the way we finance higher education. We must renew Abraham Lincoln’s most unsung gift to this nation, the Morrill Act that created our land-grant public universities, and must refinance all our public universities. And like Bard itself, you must be vigilant in seeing to it that, after the nightmare of our current government is over, we give our fellow citizens the public elementary and secondary education a true democracy deserves. Only with a system of education that is both equitable and excellent can the promise of freedom and the rights of democracy and an open society be realized for all. And if anything has been learned during this pandemic, and you’ve learned it, it is that there is no technological utopia or fix in education. True learning and intellectual and artistic progress have been made and will continue to be made in a community of scholars, scientists, students, and artists, in person and in groups, without masks, without isolation and social distance. Without a balance between the individual and the social and the ability to see the smiles of others, freedom and justice will not flourish.
- And, sixth and last but not least, as you go forth, remember how rare, valuable, fragile, and resilient Bard, your alma mater, is. Protect and defend it, and so too other indispensable intermediate and nongovernmental institutions—libraries, museums, theaters, concert halls, and civic groups. They too are crucial to the better world we now have the opportunity to create, swiftly and decisively, in defense of truth and justice.
With respect, gratitude, and admiration, I congratulate each and every one of you in this unique graduating Bard Class of 2020.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 25, 2019.
In 1938, Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist and staunch antifascist, won the Nobel Prize, the most coveted award in science. Fermi earned it for experiments he had done in 1934 bombarding uranium with neutrons. Fermi believed that he had created new elements that were heavier than uranium. But at the very end of the same year Fermi won the Nobel Prize, Lise Meitner (one of the often overlooked women geniuses in the history of science), Otto Frisch, and Otto Hahn proved that what had really happened was that the nucleus of uranium had been split in two through fission, creating nuclear fragments and releasing energy.
The Nobel Prize notwithstanding, Fermi got it wrong. When he read the paper in Nature that showed that he had misinterpreted the evidence, he was equally thrilled and a bit embarrassed. But he did not push back. He didn’t resist the evidence and did not defend his mistake. He embraced fission and became crucial to the effort to harness it during World War II. Fermi’s behavior was not unique. The 1959 Nobel Prize winner in biology, Arthur Kornberg, purified an enzyme that could duplicate DNA and thought it was responsible for the replication of DNA. But he was not quite right, and accepted the evidence that subsequently proved him wrong.
These two examples from the history of science form the basis of my charge to you, the graduating seniors and graduates of the Class of 2019.
The message I wish to communicate is to honor truth, but with modesty and humility. Retain a faith in the rigorous pursuit of knowledge, but cherish your capacity to keep an open mind. Acknowledge ambiguity and error without abandoning the idea that there are criteria that require us to distinguish between facts and lies.
There are truths that are universal and can be verified, just as there are claims about the world that can be determined to be false. And there are even more questions that are subject to conflicting and overlapping answers. But in the pursuit of knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world, a vital distinction between fact and fiction must be upheld.
We have become all too comfortable with the idea that who we think we are, how we define ourselves, and the groups with which associate determine our opinions and justify their validity. We are disdainful of others who disagree with us since we believe that there is no way to give one subjective view priority over another. Although experimental science offers a model for arriving at a shared and universal agreement about what is true and what is false, our world has been manipulated by “fake news.” The notion that all habits of mind are somehow prejudiced in a manner that none of us can escape or overcome ends up breeding intolerance. We seem justified in being accusatory, labeling our opponents and hurling insults as opposed to building a case and considering carefully opposing views. We submit to the allure of conspiracy theories.
Therefore, even in cases where there is no basis for doubt, evidence and argument fail to convince. Consider the controversy over vaccination. Even though the so-called science that argued for a link between autism and vaccination has been shown, repeatedly, to be fraudulent, large groups of otherwise literate, decent, and educated people cling to a lie, putting themselves, their children, and their neighbors at risk. They claim that hidden nefarious factors that lie outside the reach of evidence and critical scrutiny are responsible for a campaign to discredit their beliefs, thereby justifying their allegiance to fiction over fact.
The good news, small is at may be, is that we remain, sporadically, willing to agree on some things, despite differences in our cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. No one disputes that the Donation of Constantine was a forged Roman decree that was used later in history to justify the power of the popes, or that the artworks shown to have been painted by expert forgers—a long list that includes Michelangelo and Hans van Meegeren—are fakes. Often we rely on scientific evidence for that judgment. We accept that a counterfeit dollar bill can be identified beyond all doubt. And with the help of the Innocence Project, we have come to accept the forensic use of DNA to prove which individuals have been falsely accused and wrongly incarcerated.
At the same time, we still have failed to convince large segments of the population that the Holocaust was a fact and that the number of victims has not been exaggerated. Holocaust denial is still with us. The core text of modern anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a fabrication, the work of a rabid Russian ideologue from 1905. Yet it is considered fact by millions of people all over the world. No evidence or argument seems to be able to convince people that a hidden conspiracy of Jews does not actually rule the world. The wonders of technology have helped fiction look ever more like fact.
There are many things that we do not know for sure, and some questions we may never answer completely. There are many matters that still await the disciplined effort to understand and verify or disprove explanations. And there are varying degrees of certainty. But most of what we see in that legendary film from 1939 about the “Old South,” Gone with the Wind, is myth and distortion—embarrassing efforts to glorify the Confederacy and minimize the horror of slavery. Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, helps expose the deceitful myths in Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the even more famous film. Historical myths based not on fact but legend and protected by careful omission demand exposure through research and evidence. Consider the fact that, long hidden from view, the landed gentry in the North, on this river, such as the owners of Montgomery Place, now part of Bard’s campus, were slave owners.
There are, of course, beliefs, values, and principles concerning religion and art that often rely on taste and faith alone. About such issues we may, in the end, just have to agree to disagree. But the times we live in demand that we fight for the shared and universal standards of evidence and for language that help us separate fact from fiction. We cannot allow those who fear the pursuit of the truth to deprive us of our freedom of speech and inquiry and suppress the advancement of knowledge. Our political life cannot be based on fantasies and deceptions, particularly ones that assert that America, or England, were once “great” and now require a restoration. To what bygone greatness do these people refer? America before the end of legal segregation? England committed to a colonial empire?
As we fight an avalanche of willful ignorance and deceit in the public realm, we must be restrained by humility. We must be aware of our own fallibility. The skills of critical thinking, reasoned argument, careful listening, close interpretation, and receptivity to new evidence and ideas are at the heart of the education you have received at Bard; they are the core of the achievement represented by the diploma you are about to receive. But these very skills will, from time and time again, prove you wrong, forcing you to shed a cherished beautiful belief for an ugly fact.
Freedom, individuality, and democracy can only be created and sustained by a politics that nurtures and protects the search for truth and encourages all of us to accept disturbing truths and reject reassuring falsehoods and lies. The task facing us is framed by the fact that we, not only here in the United States but all over the world, are surrounded by mendacious politicians and avaricious and unscrupulous giant technology companies, and manipulated by a mass of electronic communication that encourages us to hide behind mere prejudice, to cling to unexamined absolutes, to resist argument and research, to deny evidence, and, above all, to refuse to consider anything that runs contrary to our instincts and unexamined beliefs. We are content not to converse with others and are happy to engage only those who agree only with like-minded people whose worldview matches our worldview. We feign certainty by asserting moral superiority, and we conform to ready-made rhetoric and fixed ideologies.
As you go forth from this campus, I urge the members of the Class of 2019 to take away from Bard the courage to think independently, to contest claims in search of the truth, to speak without jargon, and to resist imposed orthodoxies, and to do so with the willingness not only to doubt but with a willingness to be convinced. I urge you all to engage, with respect and patience, those who disagree and those who cling to beliefs that are actually false.
So, remember Fermi. Take pride not only in your achievements but also in your capacity to accept that you have been wrong. On matters of faith and values, help others to live side by side in peace with those who share different values. I hope the Class of 2019 will take its place in our political life on the side of the fight against falsehood and the use of lies to justify greed, prejudice, fear, and intolerance. Go out into the world in the spirit of Enrico Fermi and the ideals he shared about research, scholarship, and learning that have always guided your alma mater, Bard College. Congratulations.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 26, 2018.
My final duty to the Class of 2018 is to deliver a charge to them, the last piece of unsolicited advice they will receive as students at Bard.
Everyone here has certainly heard of the Seven Deadly Sins—a staple of Catholicism—enumerated first by the 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great and discussed in greater depth by St. Thomas Aquinas. These seven deadly sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony—which includes drunkenness just in case you were in any doubt—wrath, and sloth.
The idea of there being seven deadly sins was an intentional response to a core of the Catholic catechism—the notion of seven virtues. The seven deadly sins were actually devised to match a hybrid Christian intellectual legacy from Classical antiquity—the four cardinal or human virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—and then three added theological virtues that were adapted from the 13th verse of the 13th chapter of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, that speaks of faith, hope, and charity (sometimes translated as love).
The number seven here is, as obvious to you, not arbitrary. Seven days measured the biblical account of creation—and we create life as humans, and then the division of ordinary time into the seven days of the week. As a guide to your daily life, seven virtues were to guide your life, and seven sins were the things things to avoid. It seemed a plausible way to organize our daily life. We are supposed to think about one virtue and one sin every day, in every week of our lives.
Now, we’re all pretty familiar with the seven deadly sins; hardly anyone here can claim to have escaped partaking in them. But the virtues they were set up to parallel seem daunting, perhaps a bit grandiose and even quaint.
So I have decided to propose to the Class of 2018 a new set of seven virtues for our contemporary world, the world you are about to enter.
But the virtues I propose to you are not normative admonitions, objectives to strive for. They are the very opposite—characteristics that are merely masquerading as virtues. Therefore, they are to be avoided. So, I’m going to call them Seven Deadly Virtues (of our time). They are to be feared and considered with skepticism, despite their surface of plausibility as virtues.
So, I am asking each and every one of you, each day of the week, for the remainder of your lives, to forget about the Seven Deadly Sins and pay attention to avoiding the Seven Deadly Virtues. Forget the Seven Deadly Sins; you can’t avoid committing them. But, concentrate on not falling prey to the seven deadly virtues.
The first deadly virtue is Silence:
It is said that silence is golden, but today, in the United States, silence is to be avoided. Speak up for what you believe and do so with civility. Do not ever be cowed by the fear of offending someone by the substance of your arguments and beliefs. Do not remain silent in the face of injustice and be counted on as speaking out. But if you do so, remember that the price for speaking out is the obligation listen.
The second deadly virtue is Change:
This is perhaps the most pernicious cliché of our times, the idea that change is a virtue. Forget it. Spend your time working to preserve things that mere fashion, ignorance, lack of loyalty, disregard, and neglect have placed into peril. Institutions like Bard are designed to protect treasured aspects of life threatened by the drum beat of change: the study of classical languages; the love of reading, particularly long novels; the pursuit of philosophy; and the making of art that can’t be bought or sold for profit. So, change is not good just because it’s different.
The third deadly virtue to avoid is Transparency:
Transparency has become a central part of the catechism of liberals. But, the truth is quite the opposite. A society that can’t do things in secret and keep secrets is not a free society. We as individuals must protect our right to do things out of the public view and to maintain the sanctity of our privacy. None of us has a right to know everything about any one of us; that describes the world of tyranny and totalitarianism. Technology today threatens privacy and therefore threatens freedom. So fight against transparency, even in government. Franklin Roosevelt would never have been able to bring the U.S. into World War II if he had not been able to keep some matters in the dark.
The fourth deadly virtue is Order:
Your parents have told you from the first moment you can remember to be organized, to use your time effectively, to be neat and to maintain order. Order has become a clarion call for those who would subordinate liberty to security. Order, neatness, efficiency are not virtues. Beethoven’s workspace was an ungodly mess, and so was George Eliot’s, and so too the study of W. E. B Du Bois. Messiness, inefficiency, and disorder are the proper context of artistic and scientific breakthroughs. So, don’t subordinate a dream to order or the relentless tyranny of the clock—measured time. Take risks against efficiency and order.
The fifth deadly virtue is Patience:
We’re forever being admonished to be patient. But in truth the number of things that merit patience are very few. There’s a short, slippery slope separating patience from passivity. Insist that progress in matters of justice be dealt with now. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” Those are the words of Martin Luther King. Patience is plausible only when dealing with members of your family. Their habits will never change.
The sixth deadly virtue is Wealth:
Don’t envy the rich. Don’t live your life for money. If you end up with surplus wealth, give it away, either as a citizen in taxes or as a philanthropist to charities of your choice. Wealth is paralyzing and corrupting. It distorts the relationships between and among people. Contemporary culture can be said to be in the thrall of wealth. We confuse wealth and excellence. The sufferings of the poor and the discontent among our fellow citizens are a function of the unacceptable economic inequality in this country. By denying wealth its prestige as a virtue, we can begin to reverse our cultural habit of selfishness.
And, the last and seventh deadly virtue is Happiness:
We are constantly told to be happy. It makes other people feel good. No doubt the feeling of well-being that we associate with happiness is something to cherish. But be careful not to construe happiness in its superficial modern definition. Genuine happiness succeeds always some measure of struggle and discomfort and perhaps even pain—even a sense of loss. Don’t avoid challenges because you might not entirely succeed. You might fail and then, because you fear that you will, end up feeling unhappy. The state of happiness emerges only out of the gritty reality of life. If happiness is not to be considered a deadlyvirtue but perhaps a genuine virtue, it needs to be understood by the terms in which it is used in our Declaration of Independence. Happiness is a human condition that derives from the way our politics and society are organized. My happiness is reciprocal with yours. It derives from ensuring not only my neighbor’s well-being but that of total strangers. We will experience happiness only if we extend, systematically, as citizens, kindness to strangers.
Congratulations and good luck to you all.
President Leon 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.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 28, 2016.
The tradition in college and universities is that the president is supposed to give a charge to the graduating class, and, indeed, here it is.
In 1813, Adelbert von Chamisso, an aristocrat and a soldier who left a mark as a pioneering naturalist (his expertise extended from the trees of Mexico and Brazilian flora to poisonous vegetation in Northern Europe), an explorer who had circumnavigated the globe and wrote on the languages of Hawaii), and a poet (his poems inspired Robert Schumann’s finest song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben). He wrote one of the finest modern adult fairy tales. Chamisso’s epistolary gem, Peter Schlemihl’s Amazing Story, uses the Yiddish epithet of schlemihl to name his protagonist. Now, a schlemihl, which is often confused with a schlimazel, who is a simply a foolish person who routinely has bad luck. A schlemihl is harmless, a well-intentioned person who thoughtlessly makes the wrong decisions.
Now Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl is no ordinary schlemihl, but rather a mirror of most of us at the onset of our adult life. If the figure of Faust, made world famous by Marlowe and Goethe, suggests the predicament of the accomplished older, brilliant, ambitious, exceptional human individual, Chamisso’s Peter speaks to the temptations faced by a young person ready to set out on her or his own life; hence Peter’s relevance to those graduating from college today.
In search of work and a career, Peter, armed with a letter of introduction (an early form of networking) travels far to pay a visit (a sort of job interview) to a wealthy and powerful individual. He is ushered in into a very rich man’s elegant estate. A raucous party is underway. The host quickly pockets the letter of introduction without comment, leaving Peter to himself. So, Peter sees a strange-looking man following his host, playing the role of a servant. This odd servant character carries a bag from which he pulls, miraculously, all sorts of objects, including a giant party tent and a telescope.
Since the host takes no notice of Peter, Peter decides to take his leave. On his way out, he is accosted by this servant who pulls the tent and telescope out, who asks Peter whether he can buy Peter’s shadow. Now, having startled Peter (who is unaware that one’s shadow can be purchased), the strange fellow invites Peter to reach into the miraculous bag. The bag produces a limitless stream of gold coins. Overjoyed at his good fortune, Peter sells his shadow, which the servant promptly rolls up and takes away, in exchange for the magic bag.
What follows is, predictably enough, a sad tale. Everyone shuns Peter the moment it becomes clear that he casts no shadow. So he is imprisoned in his home and isolated. He surrounds himself with luxury, but to no avail. He tries to conceal his “shadowless” state. But owing to the wealth he continues to produce from the bag, Peter attracts sycophants and flatterers, admirers, plotters, and envious enemies. But he cannot find love or intimacy. He becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down the man who bought his shadow in order to buy it back. Sure enough, the sly fellow shows up and offers to sell Peter his shadow back, but only if Peter gives him his soul in return.
Now Peter faces the Faust predicament. He sees how the strange man carries with him the ghost-like soul of the very rich man to whom Peter’s letter of introduction at the start of the story was addressed. So, Peter resolves not to sell his soul, even though by doing so, he could marry his loved one, retain his wealth and live happily ever after. Instead, he walks off and throws away the magic money bag. He now faces the rest of his life without either a shadow or money.
Rescued by his intuition that giving up his soul would be a calamity (and the recognition that the buyer was most likely the devil himself), Peter realizes that he still has a chance to rejoin the human community, and he resolves to compensate for his earlier bad judgment and the harm he has caused others. He places hope in the use of his mind. He devotes his life to the study of nature; he explores the world and its wonders and describes for all humanity what he has seen. He celebrates the gift of observation, reason, and writing, and he embraces the wonderment of what can be seen in nature, and the power of language to communicate nature’s beauty. In short, he resorts to discovery and learning to reconstruct a new shadow and reclaim his humanity.
Chamisso’s tale is a cautionary one. It suggests that as we set out in the world as young adults we will be tempted to sell our shadow for material gain, particularly for astonishing riches procured without much effort and with sleights of hand, as often seems to be the case if one considers the corruption and scheming we witness and endure in our economy. Money and wealth hold an irresistible allure in our culture and wipe out all other goals and virtues. Wealth has become the exclusive yardstick of excellence. The shameless assertion of the superiority of money and its ruthless pursuit justify a world of extreme inequality that flourishes without much resistance, suggesting that Chamisso’s warning merits our attention in our times.
For Chamisso, a shadow is every individual’s visible sign of a shared humanity. A shadow is a curious thing. It is, especially in Plato, a mere reflection of the real. But it is nonetheless a physical fact. It announces and projects our presence in the world. When we cast a shadow, we can protect, for example, a child from the glare of the sun. There was even that legendary radio show, some of you may remember, called “The Shadow,” in which The Shadow demonstrated that “crime does not pay.”
A shadow can represent the living memory of the dead, the presence we lend to succeeding generations after we are gone. We are accustomed to talk about figures from the past in terms of the shadows they still cast, as for example George Eliot does on the English novel, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln do on the American presidency. I trust the next President of the United States will express the ambition to stand in Lincoln and Roosevelt’s shadow.
A shadow signals our presence while we are alive. Our shadow equally can exert a negative influence, and be an oppressive force in the present and future. Our actions, the worst of them, cast a shadow on our own lives and those of others, much as the tyrants of the past have done.
But in the end, the shadow each of us projects marks our being in the world. It is a symbol of our actions and our life’s work. Revealed by light and the sun—the symbols of the divine, the good, the true, and the beautiful that surround us—the shadow we create is who we have been, not to ourselves but to others. Ultimately, our soul and character casts a shadow, not our physical self.
So, Chamisso’s tale reminds us that when we are young we do not give our shadow much thought. Without malice, we easily sacrifice it—the mirror of the spiritual essence of our being—for money and power. Knowing that to be the case, Chamisso found a way to reframe the challenge. How can any of us rebound from the mistake Peter made? How might we, having forfeited our shadows, recover and approach life, work, and love? The problem is not whether we innocently sell our shadow—but not our soul—for material gain and advancement alone and isolate ourselves from others. Rather, the task you face, in the life ahead of you, is how to fashion a new shadow to take the place of the one you might have sold thoughtlessly.
In that task, only our imagination, our creative capacity, our reason, and our courage will help. The values of your education here at Bard—the pursuit of knowledge, the love of language, the embrace of the aesthetic, the thrill of discovery and invention, and the concern for justice, and for the well-being of humanity and the natural world—hold the key.
My charge to you, therefore, is this: whatever paths in life you take, make sure to shape and cast a shadow. Do so through what you achieve with your education and talent. If you should end up selling your shadow, as Peter did, remember that you never lose the ability to create a new one through idealistic and inspired ambition and action. And never forget that wealth—how rich you are when you die—will by itself cast no shadow. A shadow is not cast by greed and it is not formed by numbers on a balance sheet. It is cast visibly within the human community by the ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual character of how we act and what we make of ourselves for the edification and betterment of others.
So cultivate and expand your shadow. Don’t sell it. But if you happen to sell it, know that your humanity resides in the fact that, come what may, you have the necessary tools to rebuild it. Should you wish to cultivate your better self, remember Peter’s admonition: “to live among others, learn above all to honor first the shadow, and only then the gold.”
Congratulations to you all.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 23, 2015.
The pomp and circumstance of commencement, and the diplomas you have earned and are about to receive, celebrate the significance and power of education and learning. But one overarching and unanswered question haunts us every year just at this moment. If education and the traditions of learning we celebrate today are so crucial to us as individuals and as citizens, why have we failed, quite persistently, to find the means to inspire ourselves and others to treat our fellow human beings—no matter who they are, whether they be neighbors, strangers we find next to us on a subway, a line in a store or at an airport, or anonymous populations at a great distance—with genuine respect and empathy. The paradoxical challenge this ceremony presents all of us here today is whether we actually can learn to choose, freely, to act with the proper regard for the sanctity and dignity of each and every human life.Put another way, the question is whether there is any hope for human progress, not just in technology and science, but in the way we live and conduct ourselves as private individuals and citizens in society. Or are we condemned forever to remain disturbed and distracted by perceived differences between ourselves and others and by the apparent absence of resemblance to ourselves among so many around us? When we look for ourselves in the faces of others and see only differences then we render the exhortation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” entirely moot. In its place we allow suspicion, mistrust, and fear to guide us. Can that which your Bard diploma signifies—an encounter with science, history, art, literature and philosophy, the grand traditions of learning—prepare any of us to resist resentment and envy, and more importantly, replace violence with reason, particularly when the pervasive violence in our world masquerades as greed and desire?
Can a psychologically adequate sense of regard for human equality, with a tolerance for differences and therefore a genuine pluralism, be cultivated by education and made to take root in society? Despite their consistent embrace of the language of love tolerance and forgiveness, the world’s religions have, if anything, helped justify intolerance and violence rather than deter it. Is there any realistic prospect that we will ever learn to live with each other in peace and tranquility?
This daunting web of questions has its painful modern history. The senseless carnage of World War I led Sigmund Freud to the conclusion that there was something in human nature beyond Eros, beyond love—a universal death instinct, Thanatos. By 1930, his pessimism led him to predict more war and violence and lament the impotence of culture and civilization as deterrents to human self-destruction.
For a brief moment, after World War II, it seemed that confronting the horrors of the death camps and the brutality of fascism would inspire us to change. A similar glimmer of optimism occurred right after the fall of Communism. Yet despite all the museums and memorials to the victims of war, tyranny, and genocide, it seems that little progress has been made. And the tragedy and memory of 9/11 only ushered in a new continuing wave of violence and hate. Even if we were to follow the call by Bryan Stevenson (a commencement speaker here a decade ago) to erect long overdue markers and memorials to the African Americans brutally lynched in our own nation’s past, would that recognition inspire us to become less racist and more civilized?
The wonders of technology to which we all have become increasingly addicted have not made the prospect of moral and ethical progress more plausible. As we retreat from direct human communication—speaking and meeting in real time and space---and text one another, communicate through screens that project images of ourselves and celebrate online relationships and even online education as immediate, cheaper, and more efficient, we find ourselves moving about in public spaces and never looking anyone in the eye, caught up in a complex but isolating network of social communication that only generates the illusion of contact while depriving us of all genuine privacy and intimacy.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, “No language is conceivable which does not represent this world.” In that simple observation rests the realism of all hope—the possibility that things might actually change. If we can talk about a more humane and just world, then perhaps we might learn to act to make it so. The fight for ethical progress in our private lives and our politics is not lost. Your education here equipped you to connect speech with thought. Despite Freud’s pessimism and the depressing landscape of intolerance and violence in which we live today, we must continue to cultivate the unique human quality represented by language—the capacity to speak and to learn and to create meaning, to use our imaginations, and to pursue knowledge and beauty. It is precisely institutions like Bard that are dedicated to the pursuit of inquiry, to teaching and learning through personal relationships and not machines, to the making of art, and to connecting theory with practice on behalf of justice and civility that hope rests. Forget the pundits who are eager to predict that our best colleges and universities are doomed by technology to become obsolete; the traditions of learning you have encountered here have created, absorbed, and survived every technological innovation for the past thousand years. But the hope that education inspires depends in turn on each of us to find ways through language to connect learning to action with the sort of courage that a true education inspires.
As each of you crosses this stage to receive your diploma, remember that every one of you has something to contribute to the cause of humanism. Therefore I charge you to cherish your experience here. Remember it and keep it close to your heart. Never abandon the process of learning, the ambition to use language to imagine, improve, and improvise. By sustaining the conversation about a better world and acting on it you will honor the values, traditions, and commitments of your Alma mater. As you take your place in the larger world, share your talent and join us in protecting education and the traditions of learning dedicated to beauty, justice, and the public good embodied in this college. Help sustain the hope that in the education you experienced here—an education devoted to the intersection of language, thought, and action—rests the only prospect for improving the human condition. The diploma you will receive today is a token of a realistic idealism of all the good we humans are capable of. Cherish it.
Congratulations to you all.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates 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.
President Leon Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 25, 2013.
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.