On behalf of our proud trustee, our esteem faculty, our distinguished alumni, our devoted families and our unparalleled friends gathered here and across the globe virtually, I welcome you to this very special moment in time. Today, we continue a 265- year-old tradition that binds us with a sense of pride and hope and of deep and never-ending curiosity.
We initiate those who are committed to a world of openness and debate, who have learned the power of discovering the unknown and who have accepted the great responsibility that comes with acquiring knowledge into a community steadfastly poised to shape our world for the better. At the end of our time together today, joining a legacy of those who have come before them, we will have a new class of alumni representing 16 distinct schools along with affiliated institutions of Teacher’s College and Bernard college.
The potential for trouble is palpable. And as we explore the profound meaning of this moment, there is one special part of our community deserves unique recognition. Graduates, as much as we, your faculty, feel deep, deep affection for you, nothing can compare to the pure, unqualified adoration of your parents and families, though you will never be able to express fully the infinite gratitude I know you feel, please take this opportunity to thank them.
For my remarks today, I have three parts. I want to talk about the idea of the academy, about the enemies of the search for truth and about what we are to do.
The idea of the academy
In awarding you the degrees in your respective field, we recognize your academic accomplishment and now acknowledge your expertise in some area of study. But you are now also an expert in higher education in America, simply by virtue of your presence and deep engagement with this little world over the past several years.
This means two things. First, whether you are happy or sad about leaving us behind, whether you will return for another round of being a student, or you are intent on rejoining us, at some point, in a professorial capacity and becoming a permanent member of this community, I can assure you that this is true, what you have just experienced with stay with you for the rest your lives and in all likelihood it will take on greater and greater meaning with the passage of time.
The second point is that I want to ask you this morning to take stock of what is now your deep and experiential knowledge about the nature and roles of universities like Columbia and with that knowledge to reflect on the state of modern society and the threats that we’re now facing to the deepest values that undergird these institutions, to reflect on what is at stake in our own country and for the people over the world. We need to raise our voices at the time, such as this.
The idea of the academy as something separate and discrete removed from daily life is as old as human civilization. The desire to step back from the fray, to grasp what is happening at this moment in history, to find a meaning to it all and to find out what is good life is forever with us. Who hasn’t at one point or another wanted to emulate Michel de Montaigne.
If only we could take up residence in a tower on a beautiful state and write essays connecting the wisdom of the ancients with contemporary human existence and in that self-reflective pose discover our true purpose and meaning. This is a secret dream we all harbor.
As always Shakespeare was familiar with this dream, and we used it to give us many notable characters whose pursuit of this ideal often ended in trouble.
There’s Prospero in the Tempest, while the Duke of Milan he wishes quote to only be transported and wrapped in the secret study and he feels his library large enough. This, however, creates the opportunity for this evil brother to stage a coup, landing him on a remote island were to be sure his dark arts mastered in secret study come in handy, as may yours.
Or there’s Ferdinand, king of Love’s Labors Lost, who enlisted three subordinates to join him as quote brave conquerors who will forswear the baser impulses of love, food and sleep in order to study and learn only to be confounded in his dedication when he finds himself falling in love.
I suspect that many of you during your time here have lived closer to the experience of Ferdinand than to the experience of Prospero.
The advent of modern American university which largely happened in the last century has been the institutionalization of that human dream and this little physical space in which we gather together this morning is in many respects the near perfect fulfillment of that human vision. I know no other that can match it.
The columns, pillars, pediments, demes, classical inscriptions ascending steps, granite and limestone and marble and brick facades, which surround us convey the message that this is its own universe, a place governed by strictly observed code of academic inquiry, an insistence on open dialogue, informed by all-pervading skepticism and respect for the legacy of human achievement, created about a century ago, the Morningside campus represents the idea of an ordered, classical and even inward-looking world. To walk on to this campus is to feel one’s I.Q go up by 10 points.
Part of the genius of this system of universities involves adding you into the mix. It is the combination of brilliant scholars who dedicate their lives to exploring what we know, might know and must know about all the things in the universe, who work daily at the edge of accumulated human knowledge, sheltered by the principle of academic freedom, guided by the norms of scholarly temperament, working within the decentralized governance structure of the University. Together with the most brilliant and curious youth brought in from all over the world, to whom we teach everything we know so that they can go on with their lives and know even more.
It is all this that creates the utterly unique context of the modern research university and that unites the exhilarating intertwined ambitions of scholarship and teaching. The structure and functioning of these institutions are unique, no other organization has ever been designed in these ways, nor would it seem to anyone sensible to do。
From the outside, all look ungovernable. From the inside, and I can singularly attest to this, it is ungovernable, and it works and fabulously so.
Over the course of the 20th, and now the 21st centuries, virtually every new discovery of significance emanated from our academic research institutions which now number in the hundreds.
My friend, Our distinguished alumnus Warren Buffet likes to say that the American system operates with a secret sauce that has brought this nation to the pinnacle of human success in maximizing the welfare of its people, but that secret sauce begins with the knowledge created right here.
Over time, our great research universities drive human progress. They lay the foundation of life as it can be, more than capitalism, more than government policy. In life, personal and social ideals are everything or almost everything, and universities are all about ideas, so it works.
That is, it works provided certain conditions outside the academy are maintained. Universities are not invulnerable to the actions beyond their borders and they depend for their vitality on the societal respect for and commitment to what we do.
The enemies of the search for truth
Now, the enemies of the search for truth. What is important to realize is that the ideals that define the academy and guide the activity pursued herein, just like the primary freedoms we live in, do not come easily. They are in fact often counterintuitive. The embrace of freedom necessarily means you must accept a certain degree of unconformable disorder and even seeing chaos and sometimes unnerves the best of us.
There are many wise people who have commented on this fact of life. My favorite is a great justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who is setting forth the first articulation of the modern first amendment jurisprudence noted that the choice the openness required for the search for truth runs against human instinct. He bluntly explained how the impulse to persecute those we disagree with is actually quote “perfectly logical, given the natural wish to believe what we want to believe.”
But Holmes understood as we should by now as well that a tolerant society is necessary for the purposes of seeking the truth, that this is produced through an act of collective commitment to live according to its values and that this requires constant vigilance and persistent reassertion of those values, yet we often lapse.
Unsurprisingly then, history provides countless illustrations of these ideas colliding with people in government who felt threatened by the current of their time and chose to be hostile to the imagination and enamored of their own power and belief.
At the end of the first world war, western civilization had lost its way and the political and economic divisions were unraveling the status quo. Fears of Russia and the spread of communism and socialism along with growing unrest among labor give rise to fear and panic among those who wished to preserve the world as it was.
All these forces of instability, in turn, escalated into repression, censorship and the scapegoating of marginal populations, of radicals, dissenters, nonconformance, foreigner and immigrants. The leader of the American socialist party Eugene Debs was imprisoned for delivering a speech.
Today, a century later, a new threat to our core values has emerged, around the world and in this country. The rise of authoritarianism often in the guys of democratically elected despots has become the defining feature of modern life. The tactics, unfortunately, are age-old and time tests.
There must be an in-group, conceived around religious ethnic, racial or nationalistic lines and an outgroup. Typically, foreigners, immigrants, elites, or an opposing party.
Passions are stoked, and the assault on truth begins. The necessary predicate for discrediting your opposition and for creating supporters. It usually starts with attacks on the press and journalists. And then it moves to universities and students and professors.
Since truth is the real enemy, and whoever pursuit it must be declared the enemy. Evidence of nation after nation making this distressing turn is now all around us. We must be careful not to underestimate the negative consequences to our own values caused by this pervasive form of censorship and suppression.
Given the ever-increasing integration of peoples of the world. Through the powerful forces of economic activity, communication, and movements across borders, we depend on professors, students, and ideas flowing freely through our community of institutions. We may therefore sometimes look at these acts of intolerance abroad as matters of here foreign consequence, but they almost also have much more direct and immediate consequences for our own values.
The most recent case that vividly makes this point is the hideous torture and murder of Khashoggi. A Saudi national and unsparing critic of that regime. A violation of international law and human rights, yes, it certainly appears so. But it was potentially a violation of American law, and the interests protected by those laws for Khashoggi was a communist with the Washington post and a legal resident of the United States. With two children of his four who are U.S. citizens. As such he was protected by the first amendment for the things he said and for which he was killed. This is a crime under American laws against torture and violation of civil rights, for which there is extraterritorial jurisdiction to pursue prosecution. Though it is deplorable that no action has been taken in this country to bring this killer to justice and to vindicate U.S. interests. A precedent that should concern us all.
Of course, there is no shortage of attacks on truth and on truth seekers right here at home. The undermining of honest discourse has occurred so far not through official acts of censorship, but more indirectly, if not very subtlety, the means of suppression.
The free press is labeled the enemy of the people, the irrefutable science underlining our understanding of climate change is portrayed as a fabrication propagated for political agenda, and universities are increasingly cast as incubator of intolerance, and enemies of free expression, a sensationalist charge disproved by consistent presence on university campuses including Columbia of controversial speakers from both the left and the right. Some might argue that these verbal attacks on the press and universities as well on all. The other daily falsehoods that accompany them are harmless, only a superficial attack without lasting consequences. For us, however, in the university, where truth is everything, we cannot accept that characterization. It cuts to our core.
What we are to do
So what are to do? Fortunately, there is an experience to guide us in our response and nowhere is that experience more resonant than at Columbia. Precisely 100 years ago in 1919 during the chaotic and repressive post-world war I era. I referenced earlier, a moment of a civil peril laid bare a fight between imagination and ignorance. The fight was fierce and provoked two distinct responses, each of them worthy of special note, celebration, and emulation today.
First, the United States Supreme Court took three cases, including that involving presidential hopeful Eugene Debbs and began interpreting the words Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. It took the court and the nation another 50 years to get it right, with the special help of the civil rights and the women’s movement, but finally, we did… finally, we did and when it all came together, the United States had created the greatest shield for freedom of the thought and of expression of any nation history.
The search for truth became its core animating idea and the American Universities flourished over time to institutionalize and idealize that way of life. Also, in 1919, at the more local level, on this campus, the new year-long required course for Columbia freshman has launched call contemporary civilization.
Though today, we know C.C. is the Genesis of the famed curriculum, then it was nothing more than a bold experiment in higher education. The objective reflected in the course name was to apply learning and reason derived from classic texts to the problems facing society in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war. The idea was to double down on the academic mission and it has made a difference as generation after generation has attested to its value in creating an open mind and intellect.
Both of these century-old intellectual innovations arose from the same sensibility. Both assumed that the best side of human nature includes the desire to learn and to live by the truth and to acquire and to create knowledge. And while our natural negative instincts activated by our fears, greed and lust for power sometimes divert us from that quest. A life worth living will only follow from a determined effort to engage with ideas at the most profound levels, even those ideas we dislike and firmly believe to be in error.
This time, your time presents the conundrum this is above all a moment when we must reassert our commitment to open inquiry, to reason and to the sanctity of knowledge and understanding. As was the case a century ago, these pursuits are increasingly out of step with the currents of the broader world, making it all the more essential that we express our devotion to that endeavor.
We must not, apologize for this but relish and champion it and find our own new contributions to this end. Yet at the same time, our world demands that we be more permeable as a university, more blended with life beyond the academy. The most striking physical manifestation of Columbia’s modern engagement with the larger world will our new Manhattanville campus, which is intentionally designed to be open and welcoming to the world.
Indeed, all of us feel the moral imperative to be working on solutions to global problems that frequently appeal to be beyond the grasp of sovereign governments and our own mostly diminished international organization.
Moreover to spend any time at Columbia is to be confronted with your sense of duty and purpose, along with your well-earned belief in your ability to make a difference.
This push and pull of truth-speaking and meaningful action is a tension endemic to higher education today and to the lives, you will live. The twin goals of serving society and the world while protecting our distinctive intellectual outlook are something we have always felt, but its centrality to our enterprise has only intensified over time. Happily, as we confront this dual agenda, there is a disheartening and indisputable reality. No group of graduates could be better equipped to navigate this precarious path than you.
After all, you chose to attend Columbia at the beginning of a journey that one finds conclusion today and you elected to become part of a university that for 265 years has been distinctively defined by its commitment to addressing the insistent problems in the present.
One of the legacies of receiving a world-class education is the sobering awareness of the inadequacy of our knowledge. Some years ago, one of the people I admire and respect most architect is Renzo Piano just turned 70 and I asked him what felt like. He said that, as much as he had thought about and prepared for that moment, it still came as a shock. Now I can attest to that feeling of shock but more than anything he said it made him feel that our proper lifespan should be 210 years, 70 to learn, 70 to do, and 70 to teach the next generation.
This lovely description captures an elementary fact of life: a good life has the feeling that we’re learning more and more as we go. And that we could do even better if we just learned a bit more. I hope that you are fortunate enough to carry that spirit of life with you and we must hope together that it continues to define this nation and the world. In the centuries ahead, on behalf of Columbia University, I extend to all our graduates the centennial class of 2019 warmest congratulations.Thank you!