President Botstein’s Charge to the Class of 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.
Congratulations to the incredible Class of 2022!
Post Date: 05-28-2022