What Will We Do in the Face of What We Remember?

Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Dean Josef Sorett delivers remarks at Columbia College Class Day 2024

Dean Josef Sorett delivers remarks at Columbia College Class Day 2024.

Eileen Barosso

Josef Sorett, dean of Columbia College and vice president for undergraduate education, delivered the following remarks at the Class Day exercises celebrating the Columbia College Class of 2024. A complete recording can be found here.

This is my second Class Day as dean, so I’m not sure if this qualifies as a tradition yet, but I would like to open these remarks with a poem — one that I have returned to of late, and which forms the thesis, as such, of what I’d like to share with you today.

Langston Hughes, the sometime Columbia student and son of Missouri, by way of Harlem, once wrote the following:

So we stand here
On the edge of hell
in Harlem
And look out on the world
And wonder
What we're gonna do
In the face of what We remember.

Despite our displacement from Morningside Heights today, Hughes’ words offer us a most timely invitation. At this commemoration of beginnings and endings, I’d like to begin by asking each of you, our graduates, to ponder a question: What are you going to do with the joy and the pain; the light and the dark; the good, the bad and, yes, even the ugly.

What will you do in the face of all that you remember from this time, from this place?

If the Core Curriculum has shown you nothing else, surely it has illuminated two important precepts. First, that the human condition — for as long as it has been recorded — is defined by the twin poles of our lived experience: the light and the dark, and all that lies in between. And, second, that “the very possibility of human discourse rests upon the willingness of people to consider that they may be mistaken.”

Those last words came from professor Richard Hofstadter’s commencement address to a Columbia community still reeling from 1968’s season of protest and campus upheaval — a different time but a similar place. Hofstadter was one of the preeminent historians of his era and the clarity of his thought carries across the intervening years.

He described the fundamental construct of the University as an institution defined by a capacity for disinterested thought and a willingness to recognize that we might be wrong; and, thus, open to reconsidering long-held assumptions.

Hofstadter went on to acknowledge that this was “a very demanding idea, an idea of tremendous sophistication, and it is hardly surprising that we have some trouble in getting it fully accepted by society or in living up to it ourselves. But just because it is demanding we should never grow tired of explaining or trying to realize it. Nor should we too quickly become impatient with those who do not immediately grasp it.”

Between suffering and flourishing, between the party and the protest — in that liminal murkiness that Poppy spoke about, that in-between-ness — that is where we find the questions that drive us. And, it is through that willingness to question our own assumptions, to subject ourselves to the sharpest of critiques, that we can begin to look for the answers.

I do not and will never presume to speak on behalf of any individual or group within this community. But, as one steward and close observer of it, I do believe that I — that we — have a responsibility to hold onto a view of the whole and to keep an accounting of it. An accounting that does not shy away from or discount anyone’s distress for fear that it will diminish another’s comfort.

This year our community has witnessed things, collectively and as individuals, that have left lasting and painful imprints on many of us here today. What will each of us do in the face of all that we remember of this most recent academic year?

In the face of an ongoing war in Gaza in which widespread destruction and the numbers of those dead — of Palestinian men, women and children — continues to grow each day . . .

In the face of the October 7 attack at the Supernova music festival and the scale of indiscriminate killing and abduction of Israeli and Jewish men, women and children — many of whom continue to be held hostage today . . .

Between then and now — across seven months that has, for many of us, felt like much more — and in the face of all that has come in between, and of those troubles that have largely remained unnamed, but have taken no less of a toll on members of our community:

A deadly conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan;

An entrenched war that has followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine;

And, in the face of all that is taking place in Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Haiti and the Congo.

A litany like this is, by definition, incomplete. Conflicts and crises the world over, and many others much closer to home, have too often — we can admit, you can admit, I can admit — gotten the better of us, if we have even named them at all.

They have driven some of us to feelings of powerlessness, shame, despondence, anger and, yes, even hate.

They have pressed on our campus in ways that reveal both the importance and the real challenges attendant to our commitment to being an academic community that comprises students, faculty and staff who come to Columbia, literally, from all around the globe.

In the face of all of this, and with respect for the truth of each other’s experience, it is almost implausible to offer anything other than the recognition that even the most eloquent of words fail us. And that requires us to face the fact that even our best words and efforts have not, on every occasion, proven up to the task.

As such, perhaps the best — if still insufficient — thing we can do is pause, here and now, together and, for a moment, just breathe.

— Moments of quiet reflection follow. —

All of these things — what has been said, and what has been left unsaid — will form a key part of what you remember from this place and from this time.

Even still, if we are to make anything good come of this moment, we must remember — that is, we ought to acknowledge, embrace and celebrate — the light, the joy and the hope that have also brought us to this special day.

On Wednesday night last week, for the first time in a long time, I watched this community come together in celebration.

Seeing you, and your Columbia Engineering peers, fill the cavernous nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and create a cacophony of noise, as your voices fused together into a sound that felt like joy; witnessing you, Class of 2024, enjoy a convivial mix of good food, good music, good company and an abundance of selfies — was deeply affecting. As is this sight before me right now.

Thousands of people from different walks of life, different countries, with different beliefs, different backgrounds — indeed, different worlds that together constitute our academic community — all gathered to mark a momentous occasion and partake in a well-deserved celebration of the hard-earned achievements of the Columbia College Class of 2024. You have so much to be proud of. I am proud of you, and I am most certainly proud to be your dean.

Now, major milestone events are important, but there is equal virtue in smaller moments of College life — chance encounters that spark friendships, ignite intellectual inquiry and spur new interests.

If there is joy to be found that can balance all of our pain — and I believe that there is — it is born, in equal measure, of grand celebrations and lifelong friendships begun in the John Jay elevator line, sunbathing on Low Beach or playing spike ball, soccer and ultimate frisbee on the lawns.

And so, the jubilation of this day, the fellowship among your peers, the knowledge you have gained, the skills you have developed and the thousands of moments large and small that have brought light into your eyes these past four years — they will form the other part of what you remember of this place and this time in your life.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the outset.

In the enduring wisdom of his Metaphysics and Morals, which you all no doubt remember from your CC sections, Immanuel Kant posits the following: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world — or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.”

You are entering a time of choices and actions that will define your new lives beyond the Morningside campus. It is expected that you will strive for success and achievement, and that you will rely on the deep stores of your intelligence to guide you — you are Lions, after all. Yet, it was Fyodor Dostoevsky — whom Nicolas brought to our attention — that supreme observer of the human condition and its complexity, who said “it takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”

I would suggest that the Kant-ian consideration of “good will” is precisely what is needed to close the loop between intelligence and intelligent action; that is, the ability to move from a brilliant theory to an effective practice.

Over the last four years, this class has seen too many moments where intelligence or good will in isolation were not enough. These moments have come with stark realizations — the tougher lessons of higher education — that governments, industries, organizations and institutions that seemed like forces of nature in childhood, are in fact fallible, messy and run by imperfect people.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know a number of you, and to learn with you in the classroom over the past few years. I know we’re not supposed to pick favorites, but I need to give a quick shout out to section 18 of Contemporary Civilization from the 2021–22 academic year. They survived a full year with me, and they were no doubt among the best groups I’d ever had in the classroom.

Whether in CC, or Intro to African American Studies, Gospel Music or my Religion and Hip Hop class this semester, I’ve learned so much with and from you all in the classroom. What I’ve learned across these classes, and what our students know well, is that the categories and questions you bring with you matter as much as the content that you are studying. In fact, the categories we employ often allow us to see certain things even as they make other things invisible. This is as much the case for classes in the Core as it is for your majors and concentrations.

Even still, there has been something different about the Columbia College Class of 2024. You have surprised me on countless occasions by making startling observations and connections across disciplines, decades and philosophical and artistic traditions. You have pushed me to think differently about things I have discussed, written and thought about for years — forcing me to rethink how I teach and what I teach.

It has been thrilling to take part in these classroom experiences with you. The unique experiences that have defined your class will mark you in ways you will not come to understand for years. But, I suspect you have already begun to grasp that these experiences, and the deeper truths about the world that they reveal, have nurtured great strength in you.

While you venture off into the world, we — those of us who have been your teachers and mentors — remain behind. Something is lost and something's gained in each new academic cycle. But your perspective is different than most classes — unprecedented, as Priya might say.

You have seen this institution pushed to its absolute limits — by a pandemic, by labor disputes and by global conflicts. During your final semester in the College, you even felt the tremors of an actual earthquake hit our campus. Through it all, you have found ways to thrive despite these stresses, to transform negative experiences into positive energy and to express your joy, wonder and intellectual promise.

What I do want to ask of each of you today, is to make time in the years ahead — taking both the joy and the pain — and lend all of your experience and all of your perspective in service to your alma mater. As we celebrate your Class Day all the way uptown at the Baker Athletic Complex, your feelings about the institution itself — at this moment — may be complicated. Even still, know that there will continue to be exceptional students sitting where you sit now. Students who will need your support and guidance in the years to come, as there is no evidence to suggest that the kind of challenges you have faced together will wane.

And so, as I come to a close, we return to this question: “What are we going to do in the face of what we remember?”

Only you can answer with your own truth. Only you know the things that you carry forward from this time and this place.

It is my sincere hope that among the things you carry as you leave Columbia College are a belief in yourself and in others, that you remain open to new ideas and a capacity to change. You no doubt leave with the ability to interrogate the world around you — to see it as it is. And, I hope, you also leave with a commitment to do good in whatever way is true to who you are.

Like generations before you, you step out into the world at a moment when there is a fierce and urgent need for your good will and for the intelligence to act on it in ways that move us to a better place.

Through the pain and the joy, we are still here; and there is, indeed, an entire world waiting to see what you’re going to do with all that you remember from this time and this place.

And so, Class of 2024, I will leave you with my most sincere salutations, with hope and with my deepest respect.

Congratulations, and good luck on the journey ahead.

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