2006 Commencement Address

May 17, 2006

On behalf of Columbia ’s trustees and faculty, it gives me great pleasure to say congratulations to the Class of 2006. You began your journeys on Broadway at either 116th Street or 168th Street —and today you end it in the same physical places. And yet you’ve traveled great personal and educational distances to arrive at this day. There were the first, disorienting moments on campus; saying goodbye to family; putting together your dorm room or apartment; and looking into the faces of your fellow students as you wondered: “Who will be my close friends?” and (let’s speak the truth) “Who’s the smartest among us?”

You asked yourselves these questions, and you began the lengthy process of building your knowledge, sustained over long, long nights and late, late mornings, with procrastination so painful that work became a palliative. And then, finally, you raced to the end, looked beyond the horizon of the last exam, and glimpsed a life far less structured and, indeed, less protected.

But that horizon will wait until tomorrow. Today, Class of 2006, is your day!

Since Commencement is a day of reflection, I thought it would be interesting to turn back the clock to 1984, the year many of the undergraduates were born, to see how much has changed since then. A lot, I figured. But then I realized that in 1984, we had Donald Rumsfeld taking official trips to Iraq . . . Al Gore was said to be considering a run for the White House . . . And Tom Cruise was getting a lot of attention for dancing on furniture. Risky business, indeed.

For you, Class of 2006, today marks the end of a long personal journey. But it also marks the end of a family journey. This glorious academic space is usually the focal point of the educational values we stand for. Today, it’s a focal point for the love and pride of your families. Indeed, for the parents, mentors, and friends who join us today, this is their graduation too. They’ve worked hard to send you here, worried every step of the way about your progress at Columbia, and called you constantly as if to prove it. Some of them have even learned to text message...unfortunately for you.

Parents, by nature, share a common bond: we want to do everything possible to ensure our children’s education. It’s always been this way. The great French essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote five centuries ago about how, from birth, his parents had him cradled in the arms of a tutor who spoke nothing to him but Latin, so he could better learn the Classics, and had him awakened every morning to the dulcet tones of a musician so that his “tender brain” might be eased gently from sleep.

Talk about hyper-parenting.

Still, your families and friends have certainly done everything within reason—indeed, everything within their reach—to see you here this morning. This is, therefore, a momentous day for them as it is for you—so stand up and give them a round of applause.

Four years ago, many of you—along with your parents—made the difficult decision to attend Columbia . It was difficult not just because picking a college is a big decision, but for a far more momentous reason: you were among the first group of college students to arrive in New York after September 11. Your choice, in the aftermath of the attacks, must have seemed risky. But in choosing this city, at a time of such upheaval, you sent a very clear message. You said, in effect, “I want my education to be in and of the world.”

Long before anyone had heard the term “globalization”—and long before this city was at the center of it—Montaigne wrote about the importance of such an education. He was skeptical that books alone could provide sufficient training for a life in this world. People who stuck to the printed word, he observed, developed an “uncontrolled avidity for learning”—so much so that it “brutalized” them and stimulated a “brooding disposition.” ...apparently he spent some time at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

We recommend, therefore, that for the next three months, you stop “applying yourself immoderately to the study of … books,” which, as Montaigne observed, is a major cause of dyspepsia.

So we urge you to ease off the books, at least for a while, and follow another piece of Montaigne’s advice: to “mix with the world.” But just saying that reveals a profound change between his world and ours. In his day, “mixing with the world” meant traveling to foreign countries, to discover, as he put it, “the characteristics and customs of the different nations, and to rub and polish your wits on those of others.” You were an observer, an outsider, a fact-finder. Mixing with the world meant adding to your store of knowledge, collecting some interesting ideas and artifacts, and maybe getting into some interesting discussions along the way.

Today, things are far different. We mix with the world every day, almost without trying. Communications connect us to people oceans away in an instant. The ease of travel has caused distances to collapse. And more than ever, shared interests can unite us, across vast chasms of culture, wealth, and politics. All these changes and more make our relationship with people around the globe more immediate, more intertwined, and potentially more meaningful.

It’s partly a phenomenon of an extraordinary increase in the volume of knowledge we have today, even at our fingertips. But the truly meaningful difference between our time and Montaigne’s is not just the amount of knowledge that’s easily available to us now, it’s the breadth of knowledge that’s relevant—actually, essential—to us. The imperative of our age is that we can no longer think of ourselves, or our ideas, or bodies of knowledge, as existing in isolation from one another.

In other words, we can no longer mix with the world simply because we are curious about it, or because it provides the foil against which to better understand ourselves. Today we learn about other cultures, other nations, and other views because we must do so, because our lives depend on one another.

We’re all in the same boat, not in separate boats occasionally passing one another. We understand that disease or pollution in one place can spread everyplace; that poverty and hunger on one continent are our responsibility, just as they are when the desperate live nearby; and that a new discovery in one lab can spark innovation around the world.

What this means for you, Class of 2006—among other things—is that your education does not end today. That, of course, is the biggest cliché in the history of commencement speeches. As a former law professor, I can confirm this: there’s some kind of law that requires every speaker to say this. It may even be in the Constitution.

But what’s called for today is a particular form of learning and understanding, one that begins with the most elementary kind of self-education, the exploring of this vastly wider world of relevant knowledge. We need to step back and to think of ourselves as entering a new age of human exploration, as the modern counterpart of the age of world exploration in the time of Montaigne.

Despite the wealth of information now at our command, this is something most of us are ill-prepared for today.

For centuries now, we’ve created new knowledge through a process of specialization—a process to which universities are central. Indeed, virtually all of you will be specialists of some kind. And that’s a good thing. The world needs more experts, and smarter experts.

But for some time now, we’ve recognized the limitations of a system which assumes that “groundbreaking” ideas occur mainly in the tiniest tributaries of knowledge. We’ve realized that even to understand our areas of specialty we must understand other fields, as well. We know that the problems of life don’t always fit neatly within our categories of knowledge. If we want to serve good and humane ends, we need to work across areas of expertise.

But, beyond these recommendations for navigating between our expertise, there’s a further great need today. For us to perform as citizens, as parents, as friends, or just to be fulfilled human beings, we must widen the scope of what I call our General Knowledge. We must find ways of expanding our knowledge and of making it whole again, not just subdivided by our chosen disciplines.

That’s harder than you might think. To be perpetual students, we have to clear some psychological hurdles—and this is especially true as we grow older. Expertise gives us a sense of self-importance. Familiar areas become comfortable. And we can lock ourselves into intellectual cages of our own making that inhibit us from exploring fields outside our own.

This impulse serves us poorly in our new age. So, since we no longer have the power to live as individuals, or as a nation, in isolation, we need to think of ourselves, once again, as early explorers, setting out to rediscover the world for our time. And this requires an extraordinary openness of mind, a willingness to embrace unfamiliar knowledge, and, indeed, a humility.

The stakes are high. Think for a moment about the war in Iraq. As the conflict continues between Shi’ites and Sunnis, there’s a profound sense of a missed opportunity. Before the war began, there was little meaningful public conversation in this country about how religious schisms, or the complex politics of the region, or the history of the Middle East and its relations with the West, might create the situation we now face.

Yes, experts spoke out on such matters. But were we as a society educated enough to have a truly democratic conversation about the potential risks and benefits of toppling Saddam’s brutal dictatorship as a response to international terror?

Surely, that conversation would not have inoculated us against every possible problem. But it certainly would have given us a better understanding of the likeliest outcomes and what to do about them.

So, the stakes are high. But so is the potential to do good. The fact is we are on the verge of creating the largest marketplace of ideas the world has ever seen. An idea in one person’s mind can, with amazing speed, be put to the service of all humankind. The solitary genius exists, to be sure, but for the most part good ideas come out of conversation and discussion, which can now occur on a global scale.

Some look at this emerging reality and see danger. When China comes up with a new way of doing business, or India makes a great leap in computer engineering, this tends to be seen as a gain for them and a loss for us—a zero-sum competition.

We can’t deny that increased competition is a hallmark of our age and that our responsibility is to ensure our own citizens have the skills and opportunity to adapt and thrive. But I think we should be excited, not intimidated, by the participation of billions more people in this marketplace of ideas. It’s the most hopeful thing for humankind I can think of at a moment when it is all too easy to see clouds on the horizon (but thankfully today, not over 116th Street).

And no one is better prepared to walk onto this stage than you. By your nature, and by your educational preparation from faculty who are among the best in their fields and unusually dedicated to teaching, you’re ready to join this extraordinary and unprecedented new marketplace of ideas.

So while specialization in knowledge is part of the genius of the modern world, I ask you to think about all the basic things you don’t yet know. Because that’s what it will take to participate fully in this age of globalization: the willingness to be an explorer and the ability to approach knowledge without the inhibitions of expertise. But you should aspire for one more thing: to try as hard as you can to be one of those rare people who is able to transcend expertise and to see across boundaries, in full dimension, the great forces at work in their age.

To accomplish this, you must first be willing to put yourself in perspective. We know so much more about the human brain than people did in the time of Montaigne. We know that our minds are composed of some 100 billion neurons, and we can feel them fire up as we learn languages…or shut down as we listen to Commencement speeches.

But one thing we have long known and yet need to re-learn is that to see the whole we must diminish our sense of ourselves in the world. For people like you, who will reach the pinnacle of your chosen professions, imagining your achievements as small pieces of something much larger will not be easy.

But a little humility is in order. Montaigne understood this. He wrote: “Whoever reads in [Mother Nature’s] face, her universal and constant variety; whoever sees himself in it, and not only himself but a whole kingdom, like a dot made by a very fine pencil; he alone estimates things according to their true proportions.”

As you graduate, your challenge is to see yourself not as the center of things, but in relation to “everything.” That is what it means to see the “whole kingdom.” And that’s the only way you might answer the great questions of our age.

And, so, I urge you to appreciate how the world is changing and vastly expanding the amount of things you must now try to know. I urge you to engage in that quest with the fervor of an explorer, to avoid being trapped within your field of specialization or intimidated by others unduly protective of their own, to devote some part of your lives to making knowledge whole again, to try to transcend the details of your knowledge and to grasp the great forces at work in our time, and to do that with the courage and imagination to see yourself as small in relation to the larger whole “like a dot made with a very fine pencil”.

The world, however, can wait one more day. Today is your day at the center of things. Today you are the center of our attention; you are the center of our pride and celebration. And that is how it ought to be.

Congratulations, Class of 2006, on all of your accomplishments, and best of luck to you all.