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May 21, 2015
 
Tagged: Commencement

Commencement Speech by Vartan Gregorian

Speeches and Correspondence


 

Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

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Vartan Gregorian Ph.D.

Vartan Gregorian Ph.D.

Good morning! President Scott, members of the Board of Trustees, deans, distinguished faculty, faithful staff, happy graduates, proud parents, relatives and friends, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to join you here today.

Commencements are special, symbolic, solemn and joyous occasions marking the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. As I look out at you today, I’m delighted that there are so many people here to celebrate this wonderful day with you. In 1958, when I graduated from Stanford, I had no family in this country and, indeed, had no one to attend my graduation ceremony, so I did not march. Therefore, it is with certain envy, as well as great joy, admiration, and enthusiasm that I am participating in your commencement.

Today, I am here as an academic, to witness this solemn day of your commencement, your new beginning that marks the sacrifice of your parents and friends, dedication of your professors and, most importantly, your own sustained hard work, faith, determination, and accomplishments.

I am truly honored to be in your company, including the company of my two fellow honorary degree recipients, Cora Weiss and Mark Harris. I feel as though we are riding on your coattails! But joking aside, I am very proud to be part of your class, the Class of 2015!

I am here today not only to receive an honorary degree, but to pay tribute to American higher education and to Adelphi University. I am also here to pay special homage to President Robert Scott, who has done so much for so long to open the doors of opportunity to so many, and to raise the standards and status of Adelphi. We owe him a great debt of gratitude. I am also here to celebrate your class’s many accomplishments, including, I’m sure, your growth as educated, cultured citizens.

You have developed the ability to try to comprehend the incomprehensible; to make sense out of confusion; to wrestle some logic out of the illogical; and even find a glimmer of beauty in ugliness. You have spent the last four or five, some even six years at Adelphi in order to learn how to analyze, synthesize and systematize information and knowledge; to separate the chaff from the wheat; subjectivity from objectivity; cynicism from skepticism; fact from opinion; public interest from private interests; and “spin” from corruption. But I hope you have also learned to be flexible in your thinking, adaptable in your analysis of issues, and appreciative of the complexities that comprise every aspect of daily life—both on the human and global scale. I’m sure you don’t yet realize just what an extraordinary skill you have developed, how well it will serve you in the future, and how desperately the world needs people who are not paralyzed by complexity but welcome the opportunity it brings to think new thoughts, develop new ideas, and find new ways to solve problems. I am sure you are, and always will be, mindful of the great American humorist H. L. Mencken’s warning that: “there is always an easy solution to every human problem: neat, plausible…and wrong!”

Adelphi marks the beginning of yet another wonderful, arduous journey. It has provided you with the means to be on your way. It has given you not only an education and all the skills and confidences you need to do well in the world, but it has also given you choices and the ability to choose. Sometimes you may find you have so many choices that all the possibilities available to you will be overwhelming. This morning, I’d like to share with you a few lessons I have learned that may—I stress may—assist you in making your choices.

The first lesson, actually, is a well-known one. I believe, if I’m not mistaken, it was Sir William Osler, professor of medicine at Oxford University in the early years of the 20th century, who said that young men—and women—should be careful in the selection of their ambitions because they’re likely to realize them. Since you have the education, the knowledge and the training to realize your ambitions, be as sure as you can that your ambition also reflects what you really love to do and are good at.

Speaking of your ambition, sometimes you may be masters of it, but watch out. Sometimes you may be its slave, so watch out for that, too. Other times you may be a victim of hubris. No matter what, try to bear in mind the next lesson: don’t confuse a job with a career. In the past I used to say to students that in your life, you will have many jobs but only one career. Now, however, if we keep on the way we are going in terms of how long we can expect to live, many of you will be octogenarians, some of you may even be centenarians, so you may have not only many jobs, but also many careers as well. I have worked in a number of fields myself—academia, libraries and now philanthropy—and I can share with you the fact that people often ask me, “Which job did you like best?” But they’re asking me the wrong question. I’ve never considered any of the positions I’ve held as jobs. In fact, I even think of them as more than careers. To me, they have been missions in which teaching and learning are primary ingredients, with me as the primary student.

This attitude was born in part from my time as an undergraduate, when no one connected their education to the singular goal of making money. We were proud to be teachers, poets, musicians, scientists, linguists, philosophers, actors, architects, ministers, social workers, and soldiers. We were choosing careers, not jobs. Money did not determine the worth of an individual, but rather excellence and accomplishment in one’s chosen field and, most of all, character were what defined us. This is not a dominant theme of our culture now, but I am convinced that, sooner or later, it will be once again.
So even though this is probably the last thing you want to hear today, I want to remind you that whether you like it or not, in order to survive and thrive, you will have to be lifelong students and lifetime learners. And yes, there are and always will be difficult times when you will think you have come to a dead end in your life or in your career, even an apparent point of no return. But let me tell you as one who has experienced those events once or twice, when that happens, think of what the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in Love in the Time of Cholera, that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them to give birth to themselves over and over again. Time, experience, knowledge, education, love, one’s values, all these can and do affect us and change us, and enable us to reinvent ourselves. I have invented myself many times and I’m sure you will do the same thing.

For me, Marquez’s words have a particular resonance because they reinforce values that were taught to me by my maternal grandmother. When my sister and I were orphaned at an early age, she raised us in Tabriz, Iran. My grandmother was an illiterate peasant, a poor one at that. I don’t believe that she knew where Greece was, nor Rome, nor New York, nor even Long Island.

She certainly did not know about Plutarch, but even so she taught me the same lesson as Plutarch highlighted in his celebrated Lives almost 2,000 years ago, when he said, essentially, that character makes the man and woman. My grandmother was my first teacher. She instructed me in the moral lessons of life and the “right way,” through her sheer character, stoic tenacity, formidable dignity, individuality and utter integrity. She was for me the best example of what good character means. In spite of many adversities and tragedies, wartime ravages, poverty, deprivation and the deaths of her seven children, she never became cynical, never abandoned her values and never compromised her dignity. Indeed, it was from my grandmother that I learned that one’s dignity is not negotiable. One’s reputation should not be for sale and certainly should not be mortgaged as a down payment on one’s ambitions. It was my grandmother’s living example that shaped the very foundation of my character. Between what I have learned from Plutarch and my grandmother—a combination of forces I would dare anybody to challenge!—I feel confident in telling you that in the coming years you will meet people who are more powerful than you, richer than you, smarter than you, even handsomer or more beautiful than you, but what will be your distinguishing mark will always be your character, hence your reputation. And what will define your character? Your conduct, your ability to live by principles you believe in, even if that means fighting tenaciously for what is right over what you know to be wrong, what is just over what is unjust.

Nobody goes through life without encountering obstacles, disappointments, and problems. Nobody can keep from making mistakes or taking a wrong turn. Nobody can escape illness or avoid the specter of failure. Let me point out that coping with success is easy. How you deal with adversity, with failure, and with setbacks will reveal your true character. How nimble you are about getting back on your feet after some major or small disaster or defeat will help you to determine just how far those feet of yours will take you in the world.

But that’s where your upbringing, the texture of your education and your values will help you to develop a distinctive attitude toward life, an attitude that persistently seeks meaning and perspective, an attitude that exudes adaptability and resilience in a relentlessly changing and perplexing world, an attitude of moral courage and steadfastness in the face of overwhelming human need and suffering. How to develop and maintain such attitudes in an age where a new notion of “individualism” has become a cult and celebrities, icons—where people are famous for being famous—is not an easy task.

Centuries ago, in his moving oration on Human Dignity, Pico Della Mirandola has God addressing Adam in the following words:

“I have set you in the midst of the world, so that you may more easily behold and see all that is therein. I created you a being, neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal, only that you mightiest be free to shape and to overcome thyself. You may sink into a beast and be born anew to the divine likeness. To you alone is given a growth and a development depending on thine free own free will. You bear in you the germs of a universal life.”

Members of the class of 2015, I want you to remember that you are not socio-biological units, you are not consumer units, you are not entertainment units. You are rational, spiritual, unique beings. After all, never before and never again will this world, this universe, see someone unique like you, with your DNA. With this uniqueness comes the joy of being, the joy of becoming, the agony and ecstasy of human endeavor. It is up to you to decide what will be your role in this world, in this universe, in the book of humanity’s endeavors, whether you will be a dot, a word, a line, a paragraph, a page, or even remain a blank page. But that would be a pity—and to be honest, I don’t think it’s even a possibility. You are not individuals who will live your lives without making a mark. Let me tell you why I think that is—because I believe you are the generation we have been waiting for.

In a time of polarization and divisiveness, your generation celebrates diversity; embraces compassion over suspicion; sees human suffering and offers help instead of looking away. You are the ones who read banned books and then demand that libraries reinstate them in the name of freedom and knowledge; you stand up for what you believe, but believe that others have the right to do the same thing even when they disagree with you. We need you in this world; in fact, we need more of you. We need people who are ambitious for themselves, but equally ambitious about building bridges to a better, more equal and peaceful society in which every man, woman and child has value. Where everyone’s life matters. Where everyone deserves a chance to become their best selves.

Of course, there are many social, economic, and political hurdles facing everyone who strives to realize their dreams, no matter whether those dreams involve changing the world or simply finding a way to feed your family and keep them safe. For Americans, the great leveler in that respect has always been education because it is through education that citizens acquire the knowledge and skills they need to achieve the goals they set for themselves. But is that still true—is education, particularly higher education—still the one constant we can depend on to propel us down our chosen path through life? Some would say yes, arguing that America has democratized access to higher education at levels unimaginable in the past. But I think many others would point out that even in these dangerous, difficult times when education is considered a national security issue imperative to the health and welfare of our democracy as well as to the success of individuals, we have not yet found sufficient resources to guarantee higher education that every qualified citizen can afford. A national solution must be found and, I am sure, can be found to remedy this critical challenge. Perhaps the time has come to introduce new Liberty Bonds that will ensure access for all to higher education. Liberty Bonds and War Bonds were how our nation helped to fund two World Wars. Americans believed in the causes we were fighting for and so they bought bonds to support the troops. Well, now the troops who will fight for the progress of our nation, who will love it and protect it and even challenge it when necessary, are our students, so don’t they deserve our support as well? I, for one, absolutely believe that they do.

Indeed, we have always found solutions to our national challenges, thanks in large part to Americans’ self-reliant character. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who in the 1830s coined the word “individualism,” to describe that key quality of Americans. But he also went on to extol Americans’ generosity, their proclivity to create voluntary citizens associations and the fact that volunteers and altruists have played a critical role in preserving and strengthening what he called the modern world’s first nation that did not have a ruling class. In that way, he made clear that both the private and public realm, private good and public good, are interdependent. One without the other will diminish the bonds of community and creativity. Some 125 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it more succinctly: “We may have all come in different ships but we are in the same boat now.”

Today we must be reminded that what is unique about each of us should be celebrated and cherished, but we must not forget that we also belong to a larger community, society and, indeed, humanity. As Americans and as human beings we have an obligation to contribute to the well-being of our communities; hence, to the public good.

In conclusion, I would like to offer you just one last thought about our shared human condition. Today information floods over us, and a millisecond later in comes another flood of data and information, and then another and another. Images of pleasure and pain, fear and joy, love and hate assault us from all angles. The world around us is full of raucous chatter and noise. Amid all this cacophony, it’s hard to see ourselves as part of a larger whole, a continuing eternal harmony, that music of the spheres that the ancients thought we would hear only in our inner ear. Well, today I would like to remind you of your connection to history. Try to listen with your inner ears to those who went before you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on, who all wanted to be good ancestors to you.

As an historian, educator, fellow student, and now a member of your class, I feel bound to remind you that the time has come for you to return the favor. You have to learn to be good ancestors to the future—and I know you will be, because you already see the future in your minds and feel it in your hearts. And you want to make that future better for all and more inclusive of all who will follow after you. I have confidence you will do exactly that.

Today’s commencement marks the beginning of many other beginnings for you, many other commencements in your life. Many mornings, many beginnings are before you. The future is waiting for you with open arms. I wish you good luck, great success and great humanity. Thank you very much.

See other 2015 Commencement Speeches.
 
Tagged: Commencement