2021 Commencement Address
"Never has society more desperately needed to reap the benefits of science, newly discovered knowledge, and the pursuit of truth. How otherwise can we possibly pretend to be sufficiently equipped to comprehend and to come to terms with the world to which we now bear witness?"
April 30, 2021
We come together today, virtually, of course, to recognize your extraordinary achievement—graduation from a college or school of Columbia University and membership in the Class of 2021—an achievement made all the more worthy of admiration and celebration by these extraordinary times. Commencement is always an amalgam of the familiar and the singular. There is ceremony and ritual repeated year after year, connecting us to generations of Columbians stretching long into the past. But it also brings us to a higher elevation than ordinary life and allows us to see better into the future. Poised at this moment, however, this rite of passage contains the thousands of unique and personal stories of determination and exploration, of growth and self-discovery, of knowledge and expertise—your stories, in other words.
On behalf of the entire University, I offer our warmest congratulations. If we were assembling in-person, this would be the moment when I would offer the graduates the opportunity to thank their parents, families, spouses, and loved ones, since no one arrives at this moment without their backing. Assembling virtually, we have the possible advantage of being able to do this not by distant applause but by actual hugs. I, therefore, give you this moment to be together.
Let me begin by saying something about the times we are in.
Who among us does not feel unmoored? The flow of events, their scale and strangeness and sheer volume, posing one or another personal and societal challenge of obvious urgency, is overwhelming, and that is an understatement. It has been a searing experience for us all to be alive at this time, an incomprehensible mix of momentous change, wearing monotony, unfamiliar hardships, and, at times, inescapable sadness. Just focusing the mind becomes a challenge.
And yet nothing can be more important right now than developing the power of intellect, which is the reason we came together here, at Columbia, as members of this unique community, for this period of time. Never has society more desperately needed to reap the benefits of science, newly discovered knowledge, and the pursuit of truth. How otherwise can we possibly pretend to be sufficiently equipped to comprehend and to come to terms with the world to which we now bear witness? Just think about it:
A pandemic that has spared no one.
A crisis of democracy that is testing the viability of civic society.
A racial reckoning that we must confront with the full force of our collective consciousness.
The impact of potentially catastrophic changes in our climate, already felt incessantly.
And perhaps most sobering of all, the collapse of norms in intellectual and public life— the very mechanisms that we as a society rely upon to solve problems and drive progress.
In all my life, I have never seen anything like our current difficulties. I graduated from college in 1968, and Jean and I came to Columbia in that year. We all know the turbulence of that period—the political movements, the disruptions, the instabilities, and the dangers to the country. Everyone understood we were in the midst of a once-in-a-century upheaval—the type of turmoil that is often essential for real change to happen.
But this is of a different order. So much of what we take for granted as basic conditions of life have been upturned. My own field of free speech is a prime example. A central premise of free speech, ever since the Enlightenment, has been that wide-open, public debate may produce bad and harmful speech, including falsehoods, lies, deceits, and bigotry, but that the best and most effective remedy for this is to trust in good speech to answer and triumph. But now technology, especially in the form of social media, has called into question that optimism. Concerns over the exponential increase in bad speech and in the ways people communicate cast a shadow of doubt over a premise that has guided us for over two hundred years.
So, this has been our, your, new reality. Any one of these crises would have been plenty to deal with. All of them intersecting and occurring at once has displaced the world as we know it.
And, so, I begin by acknowledging what you have lived through as a student at Columbia.
Now, while it is important to understand and recognize how difficult this period of time has been for you, it is also the right moment to express our gratitude for universities, to Columbia, in particular, and to the remarkable people who comprise our community and who make such important contributions to helping the world overcome just the sort of challenges we face today.
I like to say, and do so frequently, that no rational process would lead to the design of a modern university. If that wasn’t clear enough 14 months ago, today it borders on a cliché. As organizations, universities are as complex a structure as it gets.
And, yet, they have survived and thrived over the decades and centuries.
As if by some magical force, universities nurture and take advantage of the human desire to know, to understand, and to share and make good that knowledge. Every day our lives are sustained and undergirded by discoveries from the academy. Consider the past year. Vaccines followed experiments unlocking the basic elements of life. Guides for surviving a pandemic followed a century of study and preparations by public health experts. Treatments for viruses and other diseases were invented in academic medical centers and shared with the world. All the while, we have watched with enormous admiration and respect as, month after exhausting month, Columbia’s nurses, doctors, healthcare, and social workers persevere, selflessly devoting themselves to caring for the sick and those in need. They have waged a titanic effort to save lives and to support the most vulnerable among us, and they have earned our everlasting gratitude.
There are still other areas of challenge where universities demonstrate their uncommon worth. For example: The realities of climate change have been documented by earth scientists (beginning, I have to say, at Columbia University and our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), and responses have been imagined by social scientists and scholarly engineers. The conditions of democracy, including the principles of equality and freedom of speech and press, have been elucidated by legal scholars, political scientists, and journalism professors. And, most importantly, the faculty in the humanities and the arts have helped us know who we are, how to live, and what to live for, especially when times are hard.
Universities have stood as beacons of respect for truth, of reason and civility in the pursuit of truth, and of the idea that a good life can only rest on a foundation of these principles.
Let us, therefore, take this moment to celebrate Columbia and all of our colleagues in universities all across the world.
Now, I want to say a few words about you—about being a student and graduating at this particular moment. There is no getting around the fact that this has been an astoundingly difficult period in which to be a student, and you have suffered. Yet, it is also true that you have endured and responded to these challenges. Much of life is anticipating and preparing for adversity. Often we have only a vague sense of what it might be like. To have struggled through, and ultimately overcome adversity on this scale is, in a way, an educational miracle. Extremes in life are no longer abstractions to you. You have met them, learned about life, and succeeded where you could.
As students, you know that we learn both by study and by experience. In both, we learn best in cases of extremes. What we study is most often fashioned in the context of extremes. Shakespeare’s plays (one example of many I could give) are not about usual times; they are about crises. And so it is across the intellectual spectrum, whether in the study of disease or of legal cases. In extremes, human nature and life are fully revealed, everything is more vivid and clear. Little is left to the imagination because what we need to know is right there before us to grasp, to absorb, and to comprehend.
In law, there is a famous saying that “hard cases make bad law.” With law, as with life, we seek stability, and, when things are hard, they are complex and difficult to resolve in our minds. Hence, law from hard cases is inherently unstable. But life is different. We need and want to understand everything in its full complexity. That is the central and defining ambition of a university: to be able to hold everything, even ideas that are contradictory, in your mind simultaneously. When you are learning in times of extremes, that is what you get. So, hard cases may make bad law, but hard times make sharp minds.
All your life you will draw upon and learn from the experiences you have just had. The period of time around 1968 was revolutionary in many respects, like today. I cannot tell you how many times I have said, “I graduated from college and came to Columbia in 1968,” and that statement reflects my sense of having been part of meaningful and historic experiences. I am sure you will do the same, saying, “I graduated from Columbia in 2021,” and, you, and everyone else, will know what that means. It is profound.
It will, to be sure, take time for the meaning and significance of this experience to reveal itself. Give it time, be patient, and let the power of reflection and enlightenment take hold.
We as an institution must do the same. Just as the Columbia Class of 2021 will become a singular identity for all of you, you as a class will leave your unique mark on us, as well. With the power of reflection and enlightenment, Columbia and all of us attached to it will adapt, evolve, and grow. And your place in our history will forever be sacrosanct.
Thank you and congratulations to you the Class of 2021.