Leon Botstein Commencement Address 2017
Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, May 19, 2017
First, let me thank President Bowen and the trustees and the faculty and the community for this singular honor, and I am extremely touched. I want to congratulate the Class of 2017 and the families and the relatives and random adults that have wandered into this tent to watch you graduate. As you probably can recognize, these ceremonies and their speeches are extremely important but not in their detail. One sort of remembers being here, but nothing much else about it. And so, I have very low expectations of making a difference, but I will I spend the allotted time trying—and so bear with me.
Among the most significant clichés about this time when you're graduating from college is stuff about the future and a crossroads and the world that’s open to you. I want to say to the Class of 2017 that in my memory, there is no more daunting and exciting time to have graduated from college. In 2017, you're stepping out of college into a world that is unprecedented. It is unprecedented by the absurdity of the threat to our republic and to its democracy. Most of your predecessors graduated from college, graduated into a stream of continuity. You graduate into a discontinuous universe, in which the rules and expectations that we associate with freedom and democracy no longer obtain. Now this can be frightening, but I want to suggest to you that it is exciting and that you are uniquely prepared to address it.
We actually face, not only in this country but around the world, a sudden distaste for freedom. We have all the rhetoric of being an individual, being free. We talk about social justice, but actually, we live in a world in which, given the radical inequality of wealth and absolute asymmetry in the distribution of power, the control of the world by the very few—and this is not a conspiracy—and a popular, popular embrace by even people in this tent, for autocracy, for being told what to think, not only here, but in Russia, in Turkey, in Hungary, in Poland—that the places that for which we had high aspirations, about a world that tolerated diversity, freedom, the rights of the individual, social justice, the famous four freedoms that Franklin Roosevelt put forward at the end of the Second World War, believed that that would be the future of our nation and our world. Those people are in retreat, attacked as being insensitive elites. There's a lot of anger out there—frustration, unhappiness, legitimate anger, legitimate frustration, and the question is, “What are we going to do about it?”
You should be very proud of having graduated from this institution. Because it stands for the humanities, the liberal arts, which has become very unpopular, so I want to assure you of one thing—everything you've read about how impractical the liberal arts are is actually an untruth. Liberal arts graduates have in their lifetime the lowest rate of under- and unemployment. You will get a job because actually—you can actually bamboozle somebody into thinking that you can do something you can’t. We underestimate the skills of gab and improvisation, which you are expert at. If the faculty think they actually know what you know and did, they are mistaken. So, you actually completely prepared for a discontinuous, unpredictable world. The most important question for you is not going to be a question of work, family, life—it is going to be a public question—what kind of community, what kind of political world are you going to be part of? And what is going to be your role in making that happen?
And I want to say that the purpose of the liberal arts is for you to carry out of this tent a connection between the intellectual tradition that the faculty, the buildings, represent and the conduct of daily life. It isn't about big ideas, it isn’t about theories, it isn’t about academic careers, it isn’t about these gowns, which are actually slightly embarrassing. It is actually about whether or not having read Plato or rereading Plato or Aristotle or Toni Morrison, or knowing that actually the world isn’t flat and being able to explain it to someone, without having to say, “Just trust me.” To know that actually your body is not made out of fire and water, but understanding what DNA is. Those capacities of inquiry, of analysis, of interpretation—they’re important only if they influence how you act in daily life when nobody is looking, not on your job, but throughout the 24-hour cycle of your life. It is the connection between life and learning which we here in these institutions, your teachers and this institution, have tried to forge. Many have been cynical about this: “Really the value is the degree, is the piece of paper.” It’s not. The piece of paper, trust me, is worthless. What is not worthless is the skills that you’ve learned, some of what you don't even realize you possess. So, I want to give you ten pieces of advice, which are like the run-on sentences one of the award recipients offered.
The first piece of advice is live locally. Now, we have a 24-hour news cycle, and we hear about all kinds of things all over the world, and we hear about Donald Trump, and we hear about this absurd theater of kleptocracy and deceit which governs this country now from the White House, and we’re paralyzed—what does it have to do with our lives, how are we going to get up in the morning, and, in fact, I think all of the stuff that’s happened since he was inaugurated is designed to exhaust the opposition early in the game. And mind you, my concern about President Trump is not a political one—the failure that he represents is well-beyond political parties. It is an insult to the Republican tradition, it’s an insult to the Democratic tradition, it’s an insult to the fundamental conduct of rational politics. So, my first piece of advice is live locally. Value what is in your local community, whatever that community is. Support what goes on locally. If you can avoid buying a pair of shoes that was manufactured on Mars by robots, do it. If you can eat food that wasn’t grown on Venus and shipped over three years and preserved, eat that food. Support the institutions—the arts institutions, the artists, the writers, the colleagues, your neighbors. Think about value that you can touch and feel locally.
The second thing is live your life without one identity. You may be, “I’m Jewish white male…” I will leave my sexual preferences off the table for a moment, but that's not how I define find myself in any stable way. First, there’s not one way to be white, there’s not one way to be male, there’s not one way to be Jewish—the most complicated part is the Jewish part, I assure you. So, what do those words mean? They’re empty. You are all multiple conglomerations, and don't allow yourself to be defined by an outside group. Retain the ethical consequence of a biological fact, that your genome and its sequence is unique. Just as your fingerprints are supposedly unique, which is why you can be caught for a crime you actually committed, and can be rescued from a crime you’re accused of that you did not. Remember that scientific truth, which is not in dispute, is not a matter of opinion. Each of you is replaceable in the sense of some kind of function in industry, but you're irreplaceable in the ethical universe of being a human being. So, don't label yourself.
Third, shut your (intentional pause) smartphones off. Turn your computer off. Be out of any social network, discover talking to yourself in time that is elongated and not interrupted by absolutely useless, minute changes in your mood or your relationship with someone. I have never understood what people are texting, the banality, the emptiness of it, is staggering. And the obsession with the technology robs you of what you learned here, which is to invent yourself in an interesting way, and not in a predictable way. The problem is not big government, it is the algorithms of Google, it’s the algorithms of Amazon, it’s the control by this thing that looks so personal, that is about you, but it isn’t about you. And you’ve been communicating with loved ones. It is amazing that a sophomore from Harvard has been able to redefine friendship. In truth, nobody is anybody’s friend on Facebook—that is not friendship. But if you shut your (intentional pause) phones off you might actually discover what becoming a friend is really like. By shutting the machine off, you also burst the bubble of the mirror image of yourself. You only end up talking people who agree with you, people you know, you only get on websites you already agree with, and you shut yourself off from a very important issue, which is how to confront people who think differently, and aren’t like you, and don’t agree, and don't use the same language, or use the same language differently.
My fourth piece of advice is embrace the strange. Embrace the wrong. Listen to somebody who is actually reprehensible. Instead of shouting down a racist, a misogynist, a sexist, it’s interesting to find out why they actually think, if they do actually think that they’re right. I’ve always learned from anti-Semites. Anti-Semites are fascinating conversation partners. I actually know who my enemy is, and actually, I signal by listening and by confronting that which I don’t think I agree with. I signal some sense of respect for people who don’t think the way I do. And it’s only by signaling that respect and empathy that we can win over the people who do not want a liberal, free, democratic society to survive—the only hope we have of winning them over.
The fifth piece of advice: The degree you are about to receive is not a ticket to cynicism and pessimism. Remember that the shortest distance between yourself and impressing somebody that you're smart is to be a pessimist and a cynic, because we are all going to die. Mortality is unavoidable, and, therefore, everything ultimately deteriorates, so you can always sit on the beach when the sun is shining and say it's going to rain—eventually, it will rain. But that doesn’t make you a prophet, smart, or actually knowledgeable. The hardest thing to do is to be a thoughtful optimist, and you need to be thoughtful optimists.
I would say always resist substituting violence for speech. Language is the only instrument we have to create a human community of security, justice, and freedom. And in order to do that we have to resist substituting violence for speech. And that means allowing us to live in an environment where people speak freely.
The seventh is—I don’t actually live by this myself so I'm being a hypocrite, but you'll excuse me—don't moralize. Don’t provide people with unsolicited advice. I was asked to, so at least I have an excuse.
But remember, with some humor, your own fallibility, which brings me to the eighth advice, which is never lose your sense of humor. And this is not easy, because humor and political correctness do not go together. You will never laugh at something that is not real. You can only laugh when you yourself are ridiculed, so having a sense of humor means to be able to laugh at yourself. Laughing at somebody else is easy, but laughing at yourself is hard.
The next piece of advice is keep reading and writing. Keep a diary, keep reading, especially in long-form, and not on a screen. Trust me, the book is an extremely efficient, well-tested, long-lasting repository of knowledge. It’s a bad dictionary, it’s a bad reference book, and it’s a bad—we don’t need maps anymore, I cede to GPS, but old maps are interesting, and books, whether they are arguments or poetry, or novels or fiction, or theater, books are a wonderful format, useful format, easily skimmable format, they have advantages, make them part of your lives.
I have two more to go… Don't be seduced into the allure of measuring happiness by your bank account. I always mistrusted the stories of the poor little rich person—you know, poor boy or girl in a big mansion, and I said, that can't be true—I want to live in the mansion, give me the keys. I always was angry at my parents that they weren't rich. It would be great, why not inherit a lot of money. And then I made the mistake of not marrying for money, which, when I finally thought it was a good idea, it was too late. But now that I've spent a lot of time raising money from the rich, trust me, they’re no happier than you and probably less—that actually, in the Greek sense, happiness, in the sense that Thomas Jefferson used it in the Declaration of Independence, as a moral right and a reciprocal right, happiness is the province of people with modest means, living without great need, without great surplus, having more money than you need to live a life of quality and defining that life of quality in reasonable terms, is very important. Goucher has a program, and that's the program that teaches you what that means. That program is its prison initiative. For those of you who've ever talked to a prisoner who is studying the liberal arts that you’re studying—they know one thing, that their freedom and their sense of self-worth is absolutely not dependent on anything material—it’s dependent on their spiritual interior—and they are deeply grateful for the traditions of learning that we bring into the prison, and that you bring into the prison, because it gives them a sense of ownership of themselves, of power of recognition of their own intellectual ability, that no guard and no law and no punishment can take from them. So, I advise you—learn from them the values of how to conduct your life and measure your own sense of happiness.
And finally, I ask you to be vigilant in resisting injustice. Do not allow it to go by, no matter how small. Commencement speakers always have an anecdote and I am going to tell you a personal one. If someone asked me who the most influential person in my life was, it was, unfortunately, not a college teacher, not a music teacher, but my aunt. My aunt was a righteous Gentile, an 18-year-old Catholic woman, who in the middle of the war in Warsaw, after having graduated high school, witnessed the Gestapo arriving and taking a family from across the street, a Polish family that had hid a Jewish family. Both of these families had children. The Gestapo brought them out into the street and they shot the children in front of the parents, and then shot the parents. My aunt, who had never met a Jew before, was 18 years old, and a devout Catholic. And something in her provided a recognition that there was something profoundly wrong about this. And that she needed to do something about it. And despite her mother and her sisters, she made contact with the pro-Jewish Polish underground and ended up rescuing hundreds of children from the ghetto.
She is the only authentic heroine I ever knew. And having spent a lot of time with her, and living with her, and my uncle and my grandparents who couldn't get to the United States, who were immigrants, and had to go to Mexico after the war, was a blessing in disguise. I once asked her, what advice do you have to give to me? I must have been a teenager. Her behavior was so awe-inspiring, so beyond what I could imagine. She's said a very simple thing, and I pass it on to you: Whenever you have the chance to do the right thing, no matter what the rules are, no matter what the risk is, do it. This government threatens to deport men and women who have lived in this country, because they are undocumented. They threaten to close the borders of the United States to people designated as undesirable. The only way to prevent the deportation and the mistreatment of our neighbors, who are actually entitled to the rights in the Bill of Rights, which describe the rights as appertaining to persons, not to citizens, is for the citizenry itself to act with conscience—not to sign petitions, but to protect the neighbors, and to be willing to stand, as civil disobedients, against the law-enforcement authorities enforcing an unjust law. If we do not do this, we will have an orderly society, a peaceful society, that is unjust. One can resist in a lawful manner by being willing to take the risk, and the punishment that the law provides. My aunt was willing to risk her life, but what she did was illegal. She was willing to take that risk. My advice to all of you is to be in the forefront of a nation that reclaims its rights, its privileges, its freedoms, and its civility, and its respect for the truth. Congratulations to you all.