Good morning and congratulations to Columbia College’s Class of 2011. It is a pleasure to join your families and friends, as well as faculty members, administrators and staff, in celebrating your achievements and in acknowledging all that you have done to make Columbia a better place.
You are nearing the end of an extraordinary rite of passage: a transition from college student to college graduate that will bring you exciting opportunities and weighty obligations. Amidst all the ceremony and celebration, you are probably trying to understand what all of this means. You are sorting through your possessions, your social connections and your memories, trying to decide what to save and what to give up. What books and papers will you want to have in ten, twenty, or even thirty, years from now? With which faculty members do you hope to stay in touch? Which friends do you want to be sure not to lose? Which pictures should you take down from your Facebook page?
This is truly a once in a lifetime inventory, and I don’t have answers to all of your questions. But there are two things of which I am certain. First, in your time at Columbia you have participated in traditions, and explored new regions of knowledge and experience, that have connected you to ideals and values that are larger than yourself. And second, one of the best things you can take with you as you leave Columbia College is a promise to maintain these connections long after you graduate.
One step toward fulfilling that promise is to preserve your sense of Columbia as a physical artifact. The architectural historian Spiro Kostof observed that “[p]ublic architecture at its best aspires to be… a setting for ritual that makes of each user, for a brief moment, a larger person than he or she is in daily life.” Who among us could stand on the steps of Low Library, take in the extraordinary vista across Low Plaza, and not appreciate that space as public architecture at its best? It is one of the most glorious public spaces in the world. In a single glance it connects us to storied poets, historians, and philosophers whose names are carved on the front of Butler Library, and whose works—among others—we exhort you to study. But the glory of this place is not confined to accomplishments of the past. Kostof urges that “architecture is a social act,” and that it is an art that sets “the stage for human activities.” And on any ordinary afternoon during the academic year, Low Plaza is a perfect realization of architecture as social act. At one moment it is a marketplace of political ideas; at another it is an amphitheater for spontaneous outbreaks of drama or song; and sometimes, as we watch people sunning themselves on the steps of Low Library, it is just a great big urban beach.
But the public spaces of this campus are most likely to connect us to something of transcendent value when they are the locus of spirited, but reasonable public debate. In your time as undergraduates here, you have had front row seats to a remarkable number of such debates—and not just at grand events on Low Plaza and in Lerner, but in classrooms and laboratories, and in lecture halls and residence halls across campus. And now, more than 40 years since the student protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s, your part in these recent debates has helped Columbia begin to shed its image as the place where serious controversy must inevitably erupt in violent protest.
So what, then, is the best way to safeguard this aspect of Columbia’s 21st century legacy? I urge that whatever else you do with your lives—whether you wind up in law, teaching, medicine, the arts or finance—you must do whatever you can to protect social and political spaces in which robust but reasoned debate is possible. You have had more opportunities than most to figure out how to disagree without coming to blows with your opponent; and with opportunities, come obligations.
As you try to fulfill your obligations, remember that debate cannot be reasonable unless it is rooted in the exchange of ideas. Some people will try to substitute vitriol and invective for argument and analysis; they will try to shout down their opponents in public forums; and they will attempt to silence disagreement with threats of violence and fear. But as an heir to Columbia’s newly minted legacy, you know better. You know that you should not sit idly by while anyone tries to destroy the institutions in which you plan to make your future.
To protect those institutions, you must be ready to give to every idea the time, the space, and the attention, it is due. Now I am not opposed to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and I acknowledge that the kind of communication that they make possible can be a catalyst for constructive political action. Before the recent popular uprising in Egypt, some critics of social media suggested that “the revolution would not be tweeted.” The events of January 2011 proved those critics to be wrong.
Yet some politically urgent ideas cannot be expressed in 140 characters, and most political argument is not constructively advanced by anonymous posts on a blog. We must be willing to own ideas if we are to defend them, and we will usually require more than 140 characters to convincingly complete that defense.
We rightly marvel at the 272 words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Taken together they constitute one of the great political speeches of all time. But Lincoln was a master craftsman who needed just 10 extraordinary sentences to take profound ideas from two great documents--the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution—and authoritatively unite them into a single coherent political ideal. A year’s worth of comment on Twitter could never be half as masterful as one sentence of the Gettysburg address.
Yet even the most masterful political argument means very little if it does not take into account the views of those who disagree with it. We can create possibilities for robust disagreement only if we are willing to air our convictions in a context of genuine diversity of opinions and ideas. Every member of the Columbia College Class of 2011 has had the chance to appreciate and engage in the spirited exchange of varying convictions. Indeed, you have had the opportunity to test out your ideas and arguments in one of the most diverse settings in human history. Your classmates come from 50 states, more than 70 countries, a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, and represent ethnic and religious diversity not matched by very many places on the planet.
Of course you also know how challenging this diversity can be. People may say or do things that offend you, and their conduct and their commitments may call your most comfortable and long-standing certainties into question.
But you are Columbians. You are not afraid of challenge and you are not afraid to respond to challenge in a context in which not everyone thinks exactly the way you do. Winston Churchill once wrote that “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; but courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” So when you leave Columbia to start your lives as college graduates, be sure to have the courage of your convictions. But be courageous enough to also sit down and listen to people who don’t think like you. When you do this, you will demonstrate the power of your Columbia College experience, and you will affirm the value of an education that consistently connected you to something larger than yourself.
Good luck and best wishes to you all.