Vincent Ferraro, Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics
“Power and the Liberal Arts”
President Pasquerella, Members of the Board of Trustees, Distinguished Colleagues and all my colleagues in the Class of 2014, and all its families and friends. I am honored and humbled by your invitation to speak to you tonight. I am sure that many of you are wondering why you are here tonight, and what the purpose of a baccalaureate might be. I share those ambiguities. Unfortunately, I cannot help you. I don't remember my own baccalaureate. But, then,there are many things about my life in College that I don't remember. But I’m told I had a lot of fun.
My duty tonight is to help you reflect on your education at Mount Holyoke and how it relates to your future. I have chosen to speak on the topic of power and the Liberal Arts. In the minds of some, the topic is virtually oxymoronic. The Liberal Arts, with its fundamental assumption of rationality, seems to abhor the use of power. I hope to persuade you here tonight that the Liberal Arts are the only route to the meaningful exercise of power.
To do so, I must first ask for an indulgence. I want the seniors to think about themselves not as they are today, but rather to imagine themselves at my age, 64. At that time, all of the seniors will have moved into positions of authority and responsibility, and will likely find themselves, willingly or unwillingly, in situations in which they can exercise power over others. So project yourselves into the future.
For those of you who have taken a course with me, you already know that I think the future is going to be full of challenges, many of them overwhelming and immune to easy solutions. For those of you who have the good fortune of never taking a course with me, just take my word that I can be unremittingly depressing.
My field of study, international politics, is grim. It is, at its base level, the study of power and how it is used. Frequently, it is a study of how some exercise power over others, in some cases cruelly and with scant attention to fundamental precepts of moral behavior. We often have to talk about wars that result in millions of casualties, or genocides, or starvation, poverty, disease, and climate change. I ain’t no Pharrell Williams, and I don’t sing no Happy song.
Power over others is actually easy to attain—indeed, the process is cheap, easy, and vulgar. If you wish to hold power over others, you make them know fear.
This course of action works well in international politics, but it also works in the corporate world, in the social world, and in the world of personal relationships. Many have mastered the technique, and the most skilled had names that we all abhor: Hitler, Stalin, Mao. All these examples prove the truth of Lord Acton’s famous axiom, “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The belief that power is corrupting leads many to pursue careers that do not require the exercise of power. I respect that choice, but believe that it is mistaken. Lord Acton is correct, but powerlessness also corrupts and leaves us hostage to the whims of unenlightened people. There is much in the world that needs to be changed, and there are many powerful people who will resist those changes. We cannot leave the world to them by default.
How does one change the world and lead it to a better place without becoming corrupted by the seductions of power?
That’s a trick question. You already know the answer.
You study the Liberal Arts.
The Liberal Arts have a completely different conception of power. It is not power over someone else; it is power over one’s self. It is the ability to distinguish what we want from what we need. More importantly, it is the ability to see that much of what we need can only be obtained by living in a society that expects everyone to exercise restraint, responsibility, and to be aware of the inescapable interdependence of social life.
The term “Liberal Arts” has been used for centuries. It comes from the Latin word, liber, which means “to free”, and in the context of education, it means the study of things necessary for a person to exercise freedom effectively in a civic society. Civic society requires that people engage each other in public debate in an informed and disciplined manner. Thus, at the beginning, the Liberal Arts included the study of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic,geometry, music, and astronomy. But those disciplines were only a means to an end.
The purpose of the Liberal Arts today is the same, even though we may argue about what disciplines ought to be included. In the Liberal Arts we learn how to articulate our ideas in writing and speaking with precision and force.
We learn the necessary elements of a persuasive argument, and we know the value of evidence and how to find it. Most importantly, the Liberal Arts teach us how to learn, not merely what to learn. The Liberal Arts also teaches us not to believe something unless its truth can somehow be revealed by logic or evidence. Finally the Liberal Arts teach us not to judge people; a liberally educated person knows that the worth of every person is not up for debate. Respect can never be given, unless it is first granted.
The vastly underappreciated virtue of the Liberal Arts is its ability to help an individual understand herself more coherently and concretely. Through the competing perspectives of different ways to understand the universe, the Liberal Arts breaks down our preconceived notions of who we are and what we believe to be true. We begin to see ourselves more clearly as we succeed and fail in different disciplines. We learn about what makes us happy when our hearts beat a little faster when reading a novel by Dostoyevsky and what frustrates us when we try to solve a quadratic equation. We painfully learn that what we were once told was true turns out to be false. And slowly we are forced to reconstruct ourselves. It is a difficult, life-long process, but it is the only way to begin to exert the
measure of self-control and self-awareness that is an indispensable foundation to real happiness.
There has emerged in recent years a belief that the Liberal Arts are no longer relevant to the needs of a highly technological, highly complex world. That the study of the classics, literature, art, music, history, and politics is out of touch with how people live their daily lives. That society needs people trained as engineers, computer programmers, and biochemists because that is where the jobs are. The skills demanded by the Liberal Arts transcend the vagaries of the market. The market will always demand the newest thing, but technical brilliance matters little if ideas cannot be communicated effectively.
But it is true that we need people trained in the practical arts. And I have no doubt that there are many people who are simply overjoyed at the prospect of writing complex computer codes. I adore those people—they have made my life so much easier. The Liberal Arts help one discover whether one’s strength is in a technical field. But society needs more than just practically oriented people.
- We need people to care for individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
- We need people to use a paint brush or a song to show us visions of worlds that might and could be, and to see and hear things that otherwise would be undiscerned.
- We need poets to uncover the rhythms of the universe so that we can listen more carefully to the heartbeat of the planet, as well as to heartbeat of the person we wish were holding our hand.
- We need people who will sacrifice their time and their money to help people who are sleeping out in the streets because no one would ever wish to endure that degree of discomfort.
The real question we should ask is why there are no jobs for these people? Does society exist only to provide workers for those who can make a profit from their labor? Or does society exist so that people can lead rich, fulfilling lives?
Why am I asking such a stupid rhetorical question? (The second one of the speech)
Because that’s the question you have been asking yourself. You cannot understand why the things you love to do and considered crucially important are not financially viable. Let me assure you: your question is valid and it demands to be answered. There is nothing wrong with you. There is something terribly wrong with a world that regards a civil society a luxury and the mindless acquisition of things a necessity.
Your job is to change that state of affairs.
Your education in the Liberal Arts is far from over—it has just begun. But you have a good start, and you have begun to develop the measure of power over yourself so that the world cannot shape you into an object of its own desires. It will continue to try. The world will try to teach you many things.
- It will try to teach you anger.
- But you know that anger will harden your heart and wither your soul, so you will resist.
- It will try to teach you corruption.
- But you know that corruption will blind you and paralyze your hands, so you will resist.
- It will try to teach you hate.
- But you know that hate will shrivel your imagination and silence your voice, so you will resist.
In return, you will teach the world many things.
- You will teach it compassion for those who, by reason of mental or physical differences, find it difficult to navigate in a world built exclusively for those without those differences.
- You will teach it justice for those who, because of their skin color, ethnic background, religion, or sexual orientation, are excluded from the full benefits of a free society.
- You will teach it mercy for those who are forced to live in substandard housing, who cannot receive a decent education for their children, and cannot afford adequate healthcare.
The world will howl at your impertinence. It will try one last gambit to force you to submit to its terms: it will try to teach you despair and fear.
Its task will be easy.
- When you are my age, you may be living in a world of 9 billion people, the vast majority of whom will be poor and uneducated.
- You may be wrestling with the effects of climate change and with populations that will be on the move in a desperate search of safety and security. You may be living in societies that, unless current trends change dramatically, will closely resemble feudal societies with its vast inequalities of income and wealth.
- You may be living with Facebook friends and not with friends who have sincerely shared all your joys and sorrows, who love you with all their hearts despite your shortcomings.
- In short, you may be living in a world enmeshed in despair and fear.
But many years ago, you made a solemn promise to a perfect stranger. You made a promise to assimilate everything and everyone that was good and to reject everything that you considered bad. You made a promise to realize your highest potential, and to cultivate your strengths. For the last four years, that stranger has hovered around you. You have seen her out of the corner of your eye for a fleeting moment, and you have heard her whisper to you when no one was around. But you could never pin her down.
And there will come a time when you think that the world will succeed in its effort to wear you down, and to force you to accept its unforgiving terms. And you will feel like the night is too dark, the water is too deep, and shore is too far away, and that the voice of God has gone silent. And you will feel despair and fear creeping into your soul.
And that stranger will finally appear to you.
- She will have your eyes, but also the eyes of everyone you have loved and have loved you in return.
- She will have your smile, but also the smile of everyone who has brought joy to your heart, and every idea that made you happy to be alive.
- She will have your strengths, but amplified by the insights and wisdom of a lifetime of thinking, searching,and daring.
- She will be the person you wanted to be, even before you knew what you wanted to be. She will be you, enriched and empowered by the Liberal Arts.
And she will take your hand and say, “Come. The struggle continues. If you are to be me, you cannot, because you will not, submit to despair and fear. You will never get down on your knees. You will never submit to anyone. La lucha continua.”
And you will return to the business of becoming, and in the world you have defined, and not the world as it wishes to define you, you will continue to make that world a better place. And you will not be disheartened by the prospect of failure or emboldened by the promise of success. Because what matters is the struggle, not the outcome.
Even if hope seems to fade away, you will be true to yourself and the values of a civic society. Even if the world crumbles around you, you will not cry for the loss, for your tears will be like those upon a river.
But you will not be alone. People will accept your leadership, not because they fear you, but because they see that you have mastered self-control and discipline. Because they see that you do not seek power over them, but to use power to benefit them. And they will see that you are incorruptible because you do not see a well-functioning civic society as a means to an end, but as an end to itself. They will see the true power of the Liberal Arts.
And each of you, in your own ways, will be part of that struggle. You are united by the common bonds of sisterhood and by a shared understanding of what your purpose is life should be.
Because we should not try to journey alone. There’s too much laughter and love to miss out on by traveling alone. Indeed, we need our friends because in the words of that immortal 20th century philosopher, Jerry Garcia—the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead and the guy who tried very hard to look like me—it’s a “long, strange trip.” And, above all, remember that Mount Holyoke College, this singular and precious place, will always be here for you. It is a living organism—it therefore persists by changing some of its parts because the world is never still. But its commitment to its values is enduring and unchanging. And its commitment to help each of you attain your highest aspirations is unyielding.
I actually envy you all. You are facing a precarious moment in human history, and it is a challenge worthy of your intellects, your courage, and your fundamental decency. And with the power over yourselves, you will save the world.
I wish you all well. Godspeed.