President Botstein’s Charge to the Class of 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!
Post Date: 05-29-2021