2019 Commencement Address

May 22, 2019

On behalf of our proud Trustees, our esteemed 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, of 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 sixteen distinct schools, along with our affiliate institutions of Teachers College and Barnard College.  The potential for tomorrow is palpable. 

And, as we explore the profound meaning of this moment, there is one special part of our community that 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, never be able to express fully the infinite gratitude I know you feel, please take this opportunity to thank them. 

In 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, as something separate and discrete, removed from ordinary 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 figure out what is a good life, is forever with us."

The idea of the Academy

In awarding you the degrees in your respective fields, we recognize your academic accomplishments and now acknowledge your expertise in some area of study.  But you are now also an expert of 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 yet 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 will stay with you for the rest of 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 role of universities—like Columbia—and with that knowledge then to reflect on the state of modern societies and the threats that we are 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 of the world.  We need to raise our voices at a time such as this.

The idea of the academy, as something separate and discrete, removed from ordinary 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 figure out what is a good life, is forever with us.   

Who hasn’t, at one point or another, wanted to emulate Michel de Montaigne?  If only we could retire from public life, take up residence in a tower on a beautiful estate, 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 that we all harbor. 

As always, Shakespeare was familiar with this dream, and he 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 only to be “transported, and rapt in secret studies,” and he feels that his “library was dukedom large enough.”  This, however, creates the opportunity for his evil brother to stage a coup, landing Prospero on a remote island where, to be sure, his dark arts mastered in “secret studies” come in handy, as may yours.

Or there’s Ferdinand, King of Navarre, in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” who enthusiastically enlists his three subordinates to join him as “brave conquerors” who will foreswear 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 Prospero.   

The advent of the modern American university, which largely happened over the course of 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 of no other that can match it.

The columns, pillars, pediments, domes, 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 a strictly observed code of academic inquiry, an insistence on open dialogue informed by an all-pervading skepticism, and respect for the legacy of human achievement.  Created about a century ago, the Morningside Heights campus represents the ideal of an ordered, classical, and even inward-looking world.  To walk onto this campus is to feel one’s IQ 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 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 a 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 so.     

From the outside, it all looks ungovernable.  

From the inside, and I can singularly attest to this, it IS ungovernable. 

And, yet, it works, and fabulously so.

Over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries virtually every new discovery of significance emanated from academic research institutions, which now number in the hundreds. 

My friend and our distinguished alumnus Warren Buffett 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.  And 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 or government policy.  In life, personal and social, ideas 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 a societal respect for and commitment to what we do.

"Some might argue that all these verbal attacks on the press and universities, as well as all the other daily falsehoods that accompany them, are harmless—only a superficial attack without lasting consequence.  For us, however, in a university, where truth is everything, we cannot accept that characterization."

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 by which we live in a democratic society, do not come easily.  They are, in fact, often counter-intuitive.  The embrace of freedom necessarily means you must accept a certain degree of uncomfortable disorder and even seeming chaos, and this sometimes unnerves the best of us.

There are many wise people who have commented on this fact of life.  My favorite is the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who in setting forth the first articulation of the modern First Amendment jurisprudence, noted that the choice of 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, “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 re-assertion of those values.  Yet, we often lapse.

Unsurprisingly, then, history provides countless illustrations of these ideals colliding with people and governments who felt threatened by the currents of thought of their time and who chose to be hostile to imagination and enamored of their own power and beliefs.

At the end of the First World War, Western civilization had lost its way and 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, gave 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, nonconformists, foreigners, and immigrants.  The leader of the American Socialist Party and candidate for President, Eugene V. Debs, was imprisoned for delivering a speech in which he praised draft resisters. 

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 guise of democratically elected despots—has become the defining feature of modern life.  The tactics, unfortunately, are age-old and time-tested.  There must be an in-group, conceived around religious, ethnic, racial, or nationalistic lines.  And an out-group, 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 pursues 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 foreign censorship and suppression.  Given the ever-increasing integration of peoples of the world through the powerful forces of economic activity, communications, 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 mere foreign consequence, but they almost always have much more direct immediate consequences for our own values.

The most recent case that vividly makes this point is the hideous torture and murder of Jamal 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 columnist for 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 violations of civil rights, for which there is extraterritorial jurisdiction to pursue prosecutions.  So, it is deplorable that no action has been taken, in this country, to bring his killers to justice and to vindicate U.S. interests—a precedent that should concern us all.

Of course, there are no shortage of attacks on the 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 through more indirect—if not very subtle—means of suppression: The free press is labeled the “enemy of the people.”  The irrefutable science underlying our understanding of climate change is portrayed as a fabrication propagated for a political agenda.  And universities are increasingly cast as incubators of intolerance and enemies of free expression—a sensationalist charge disproved by the consistent presence on university campuses, including Columbia, of controversial speakers from both the Left and the Right.  

Some might argue that all these verbal attacks on the press and universities, as well as all the other daily falsehoods that accompany them, are harmless—only a superficial attack without lasting consequence.  For us, however, in a university, where truth is everything, we cannot accept that characterization.  It cuts to our core. 

"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."

What are we to do?

So, what are we to do?

Fortunately, there is 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 civic 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 V. Debs—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 special help of the Civil Rights and the Women’s Movements, but when we finally did, and when it all came together, the United States had created the greatest shield for freedom of thought and of expression of any nation in history.  The search for truth became its core, animating idea, and American universities flourished over time to institutionalize and idealize that way of life. 

Also in 1919, at the more local level, on this campus, a new, year-long required course for Columbia freshmen was launched called Contemporary Civilization.  Though, today, we know CC as the genesis of the famed Core 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 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 a 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, as a university, be more permeable to—more blended with—life beyond the academy.  The most striking physical manifestation of Columbia’s modern engagement with the larger world will be 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 appear to be beyond the grasp of sovereign governments and our mostly diminished international organizations. 

Moreover, to spend any time here at Columbia is to be confronted with your sense of duty and purpose—along with your well-earned belief in your own ability to make a difference.

This push and pull—of “truth seeking” and “meaningful action”—is a tension endemic to higher education today and to the lives you will live.  The twin goals of “serv[ing] society and the world,” while protecting our “distinctive intellectual outlook,” is something we always have felt, but its  centrality to our enterprise has only intensified over time.

Happily, as we confront this dual agenda, there is this heartening and indisputable reality:  No group of graduates could be better equipped to navigate this precarious path than you.

After all, when you chose to attend Columbia at the beginning of a journey that finds one of its conclusions today, you elected to become part of a University that for 265 years has been distinctively defined by its commitment to addressing the “insistent problems of the present.”

One of the legacies of receiving a world class education is the sobering awareness of the inadequacy of our own knowledge.  Some years ago, one of the people I admire and respect most, our Manhattanville architect, Renzo Piano, had just turned 70, and I asked him what it felt like.  He said that, as much as he had thought about and prepared for that moment, it still came to him 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 life-span 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 always has the feeling that we are 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 century ahead. 

On behalf of Columbia University, I extend to all our graduates, the Centennial Class of 2019, our warmest congratulations. 

Thank you.