President Botstein’s Charge to the Class of 2023
A few weeks ago, I was at the Friday night Sabbath gathering I host each semester at my home for the JSO, Bard’s Jewish Student Organization. I am fond of the JSO, not because I am myself Jewish, but because so many of its members, and even several of its presidents, have not been Jewish, but have chosen, when they arrived at Bard, to join because of the community the JSO creates. This is a small indication about why we love this college.
During the after-dinner question and answer conversation, hosted by our fine Jewish chaplain, a Bard alumnus from the Class of 1997, Joshua Boettiger, a senior asked what advice I was going to give to the Class of 2023 at commencement. I was astonished that anyone would ask. After all, advice giving commencement speeches recede into obscurity with uncommon but well-earned consistency.
Advice is a tricky thing. Advice is quite easy to give and also very hard to hear, much less to take. At its best, advice is a cautionary tale. It reminds us of what we ought to do and suggests what the world could be like if only we would alter our patterns of behavior.
But offering unsolicited piece of advice to the Class of 2023 is my obligation in this ceremony. And the advice, or rather admonition I wish to share with this distinguished and accomplished class is quite simple: resist orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy describes a set of beliefs about the world and the conduct of personal and political life in a manner closely associated with religious doctrine and belief. Orthodoxy suggests timeless and absolute truths, immune from criticism and justified by a higher authority. With orthodoxy comes the clear possibility of heresy. Orthodoxies most often rely on authority prior to experience and reason, and they rely on divine authority, and they claim a monopoly on truth. Heresy therefore is not just mere dissent. One does not argue with heretics, and perhaps agree to disagree. We expel them, ostracize them, torture them (as Thomas Moore did) and cancel them. Orthodoxy resists complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity and projects an absolute divide between good and evil. One is either right, or wrong. Orthodoxies are inevitably reductive, and insist and thrive on conformism.
Orthodoxy, marked by a specifically American tradition of puritanism, is experiencing a renewal in our troubled times. Today’s orthodoxy is invoked to justify banning books from schools and libraries, violating academic freedom by forbidding subject matter from being taught at public universities, restricting the control by women of their lives and bodies, blocking our right to choose how we live our private lives and express intimacy with others, and rendering the natural world—our environment—which we all hold in common—vulnerable to unfettered degradation. Orthodoxy justifies condemning freedom, tolerance, difference and openness as guiding principles in our politics.
By framing the world along the lines of a simple struggle between good and evil, orthodoxy justifies intolerance, hate, and violence. The relentless onslaught of fatal shootings in our shopping malls, our schools, and places of worship is more that the expression of individual rage and anger in our society. Our shocking culture of gun violence and our collective insensitivity to the death of our neighbors are infected by the self-righteousness and self-confidence of our reigning pseudo religious political orthodoxies, by the very same ideological madness and moralizing arrogance that justifies the death penalty as lawful, as if exacting the penalty of death was a positive virtue. Orthodoxies encourage a culture of revenge and retribution, not one of forgiveness, renewal, redemption and understanding.
I therefore urge the Class of 2023 to pursue as an alternative to orthodoxy, reasoned empathy. Use the skills of inquiry and the pursuit of learning that you have cultivated in your years in college to comprehend, with some sympathy, those with whom you disagree, even with your fiercest enemies. Only by imagining the possible reasons others think differently, absorbing new ideas and information and revising your thoughts and attempting to understand those who oppose your views will the means come into view to persuade, to compromise or defeat—with civility and without violence—that which you think is wrong.
Freedom in a democracy means protecting the right to dissent, to debate, to restrain others from imposing orthodoxies on your fellow citizens, and both to win and lose fairly within the forum of democratic politics and the rule of law. A true democracy considers freedom as an axiom, not an orthodoxy. Freedom permits us to pursue the truth, even when a majority refuses to acknowledge it. Without clinging to orthodoxies, we may succeed in preserving freedom of thought and movement, and discover and guard the often unpleasant and uncomfortable truth, as well as protect the minorities among us against the majority. We together must spread a culture of learning as widely as possible despite the rage that comes with ignorance, no matter how widespread rage and ignorance may be.
In the absence of orthodoxy, and with reasoned empathy, (even for things we really do not like) we can acknowledge our shared human condition, and embrace the one other habit of life I commend to you: the experience of wonderment. Orthodoxies, (tinged as they are with the overt ascetic piety of a puritan cast that is rarely upheld), revile dancing, singing, and laughing. Singing, dancing, and laughing may have come easily to you during your undergraduate years, but as the older adults gathered here today will readily testify, they get harder to do as life goes on. But never stop dancing, singing, and laughing, and expressing astonishment, joy, and affection. That should remain a major part of your lives. And with them will come that treasured gift—the capacity to be kind to strangers.
Our collective intellectual and artistic heritage, which this college is determined to protect and share, will be your most reliable ally as you resist orthodoxy, act with reasoned empathy, dance, sing, and laugh, and celebrate wonderment as we, together, embrace the achievements of science, and the riches of literature and all of the arts, for the benefit of all humanity.
Congratulations to you all!
Post Date: 05-27-2023