2022 Convocation Address
August 28, 2022
It is a very great pleasure and honor, on behalf of Columbia University, joining our outstanding deans Josef Sorett, Amy Hungerford, and Shih-Fu Chang, to welcome you as among our newest students and members of our academic community. We know this is a profound step in your lives, one naturally filled with extraordinary excitement, anticipation, and even some anxiety and apprehension. We also wish to extend an equally warm welcome to your parents, families, and friends, whom we know share in all of these feelings, and more, some perhaps you will never know. We are grateful to them for entrusting us with your development as a person and as a scholar, and we will do all we can to fulfill those hopes and expectations.
This is a day of enormous consequence for you and, as Amy said, of some consequence for me. This will be my last Convocation address to entering students. At the end of this year, I will return to the faculty and continue teaching and writing full time. Other than my family, nothing has given me more pleasure and satisfaction in life than serving for two decades as president of this magnificent institution. During that time the University has changed significantly, as universities are inclined to do, and, in one respect, relevant to today, I would like to note it has changed a lot. When I began, this ceremony of greeting new students was held only in Levien Gym with a few desultory speeches and no family and friends welcome. That seemed out-of-character for a great institution, and we immediately initiated this more appropriate and expansive gathering to better mark the moment, and it is now a hallowed and treasured tradition. I, therefore, take very special pleasure in seeing all of you here this evening.
Yes, Columbia has changed, but it is also important to say that its central mission of being utterly and completely dedicated to the life of the mind, at the very highest levels, to the discovery and advancement of knowledge, and to the transmission of that intellectual process to each succeeding generation (and now to you)—that central mission is the same, and every single day we are eager to get to work—and, now, you will, too.
I have noted that this is my last Convocation not to draw attention to myself but because I want to say to you this evening something that is distilled from my long experience. I have lived my entire adult life within universities, beginning as an assistant professor of law at the age of 27, and the life of the mind has been my life’s work. In that time, I have learned an enormous amount, of course, and I would like to share a few of the things I think might be helpful for you to consider as you start your journey.
I have seven severely condensed thoughts to convey, but before doing that I want to emphasize just how unique a great university like Columbia is in human affairs. We are all about knowledge—how to grasp it, work with it in our minds, add new dimensions others have thus far missed or overlooked, and communicate all of that to the world. (I believe universities are and should be more engaged with the outside world in making things happen for the better, what I refer to as the Fourth Purpose of universities, but that’s for another day.) What we do is hardly a small mission. Nearly everything we take for granted as making up the elements of modern life, including warnings and understandings about climate change, has roots in our academic research (I mention climate change not only because it is of central importance to humanity but also because it was first noted here at Columbia and serves as a prime illustration of my point about the role of universities, and the special role of Columbia). In this community so dedicated to knowledge, we are constantly judging—indeed, grading—ourselves. Peer review is a serious enterprise on which the integrity of the whole thing depends. Therefore, you must be prepared to enter the life of the mind with eyes open and a readiness to be evaluated every day.
With that, here are my recommendations for your journey.
First, you can make yourself smarter if you work at it. This may be my most important message of all. In all likelihood, each of you will experience, more intensely than you ever have before, NOT understanding something that others seem to get effortlessly. You may lose track of the discussion, listen to a lecture without following the argument, read a book and feel lost; look at a painting and see nothing special only to find later how others see layers and layers of meaning. And you may get grades below your expectations for yourself. The critical point is that you never feel any of this is due to an unchangeable part of your intellect. If I have learned one thing in life, it is that over time (perhaps over a lifetime) you can change your capacities of your mind for the better. You just have to believe that and to work at it. Sometimes it’s due to terminology or concepts you are unfamiliar with (not many people naturally speak in terms of “opportunity costs,” or “Due Process”); sometimes it’s because our minds somehow throw us off (like when our natural sense of direction is confounded); sometimes it’s because we lack the knowledge base needed to enter the conversation (great literature is often opaque to the uninitiated); and sometimes it’s because we just don’t follow the way in which the discussion is happening (e.g., using words rather than images). Whatever the reason, trust me, you can get better—indeed, much better—at thinking, but you must not accept where you are as a given and you must study yourself and practice doing better. You can catch up, you can build and improve your intellectual capacities; you can make yourself smarter. (Many years ago, I asked a Nobel Prize physicist whether I could ever really understand quantum mechanics. He thought for a bit and then said, no, he didn’t think it was possible. It’s possible he made some assessment of my intellect and concluded that I, specifically, could not understand it. But I prefer to interpret his comment as being that I needed to have a much deeper background in knowledge before I had a chance of really understanding. That’s, of course, true of a lot of knowledge, and it doesn’t stop me from trying to do better with the knowledge I have, even though I know I’ll never have as a profound an understanding as others. I recommend you follow the same course.)
Second, you must constantly be alert to your bad intellectual impulses. This idea is related to the first. Thinking well is not easy; indeed, it’s not entirely natural. You have to work at that, and against your instincts. This is a basic premise in my field of freedom of speech—namely, that censorship is more normal or natural than open-mindedness or tolerance. Forming beliefs and rejecting differing beliefs is what our minds do if not checked. Unfortunately, we are living in a period when this is even more prevalent than usual. In the university, we are all about seeing complexity, exploring different ways of seeing things, holding multiple perspectives and possibilities in one’s mind simultaneously so we can examine them carefully, being skeptical, and acknowledging we may be in error. So, if your natural impulse is to simplify everything and to resist complexity, then you will continually struggle. Beware of your bad impulses. Third, I really encourage you to think big, even unrealistically big. Set big goals for yourself. Let yourself have high aspirations, both for knowledge and for doing things. Let yourself have your own big dreams. (This is one natural impulse I would not discourage.) It adds meaning to our lives, a sense of purpose, and for the most part is relatively harmless (depending, of course, on the substance of the dreams!). Most importantly, as Samuel Johnson said, big dreams are often a necessary element to achieving anything in life, for, “There would . . . be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them.”
Fourth, you need to develop the capacity to be enthralled—enchanted—by greatness. This is a complicated one, but the essence of the thought is that we need to develop a genuine respect for great works and accomplishments across the span of humanity (including an appreciation of expertise, something painfully lacking in today’s political culture). How to do that is not as straightforward as one might think, but I have always found it beautifully captured in this quote from Virginia Woolf in her diaries. She writes of her astonishment at Shakespeare’s genius when she turns to him, while writing herself: “I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing. When my mind is agape and red-hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.” This is, indeed, amazing to read a great writer appreciating an even greater writer. But the principal point is that we all need to find ways to have greatness become evident. Greatness does not yield itself easily.
Fifth, I urge you to make close friends along this journey of life beginning now. Here I do not mean the personal friendships that are often and quite rightly thought of as being forged in your college years. I mean the great minds and works you will encounter in your studies. Select a few, those who appeal to something inside you, and live with them; make them part of your daily life; read a page, or a paragraph (or look at an image or hear the sounds or see the actions), and let your mind probe deeper and deeper into their meanings and hear your own thoughts in response. Great human achievements warrant a lifetime of attention. I urge you to begin to gather your closest friends among them. Remember again, it’s a lifetime journey you are embarking on today, and you can decide whom your companions will be. I have mine; I hope you will have yours.
Sixth, please do not think that smartness is everything in life. This needs to be said because the intellect is such an overwhelming interest and focus of the university that it becomes necessary sometimes to acknowledge openly that we over-emphasize one important dimension of life. Nowhere else in the world will you find anything close to us in ascribing the highest value to the intellect and its powers. We’re good with that and we hope you are, too. But not for a second should you, or do we, think that encompasses all that is important for a good life. Being a good person, as simple and as complicated as that little statement is, is certainly equally high on our list of human qualities. We try to be that here, as well, but we also know, and you need to bear in mind always, that we are not doing everything here. I would only add that being a good person starts with how we treat each other in our little community, and, as Edmund Burke observed, it radiates out from there to humanity broadly.
Seventh, and last, I urge you to enjoy this period of life you are entering because, in all likelihood, it will never be like this again. This unconditional embrace of the life of the mind we nurture here is unique. Nowhere else in the world will you encounter this way of being, certainly to this degree. It is in details that larger world views are often revealed. And for us that detail is the footnote. Everything that is possible to know and understand is our ambition, reason is our method and our guide, and adding just a bit more is our goal. Every step is documented and attributed, and the footnote serves as the foundation. So, whenever you see a footnote, think of the academic culture behind it. And, so, to recognize the uniqueness of our mission is also to realize that once you leave it, as most of you will at some point, life outside will, naturally, have different priorities, and those priorities will make this life difficult, if not impossible, to recapture. So, I urge you not to take it for granted and to enjoy it thoroughly while you’re here.
So, these are my few recommendations to bring along with you on your journey. Of course, you will encounter many people offering many recommendations for you to follow, especially now at the beginning. I say, take them all to heart! It’s a natural impulse (again, a harmless one) for people to offer suggestions to those who are just starting out on some venture, and I’m sure you are being patient and tolerant of that inclination. Perhaps, while I have presented my own recommendations, you have been thinking: After all that time, is this all he has to offer? I wholeheartedly agree with that puzzlement. I can only say in my defense that I am still working on being smarter, I have not arrived at full command of my bad impulses, I am working with a set of completely unrealistic goals, I am painfully aware of how short I come up against the great minds we study here, including all of my closest friends. But remember, intelligence isn’t everything, and, most of all, I want to say how much I and we look forward to being with you in the next four years in what promises to be an intellectual adventure of a lifetime.
Congratulations on joining us at Columbia University in the City of New York.