2006 Commencement

Baccalaureate Address
By Vincent Ferraro, Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics
May 27, 2006

President Creighton, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished colleagues

And the class of 2006 and all its families and friends.

I am honored 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.

My strong suspicion is that this ceremony, coming as it does the night before commencement, is designed to give you an opportunity to reflect on your years at Mount Holyoke, and to assess how that experience affects your future. So let's talk about those two questions.

What have you learned in the last four, or three, or two years? Or five? Or six?

Many things: the origins of life, the meanings of Shakespeare's 18th Sonnet, or the implications of American hegemony. Many other things as well: that you don't like lima beans, that Amherst parties are not fun at all, and that spring in South Hadley is a fickle season.

But I'm also certain that you have learned much about which you are currently only dimly aware.

As a liberal arts college, Mount Holyoke aspires to a more subtle and enduring objective than the acquisition of knowledge, as important as that objective is. The more worthy objective, as described by Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest of the Enlightenment thinkers, is to plant a "seed of enlightenment." That seed was rationality, and he regarded it as humanity's distinctive attribute, the one that would allow human beings not only to understand completely the natural world but also each other.

We've lost that rich understanding of rationality in the present milieu. Rationality is now regarded as a simple calculation of means and ends, the most efficient way to accomplish tasks. It is now interpreted merely as the best way to achieve self-interest, a rather coarse and vulgar guide to costs and benefits, of ends and means, of buying and selling. But that understanding loses one of the most important dimensions of rationality to the Enlightenment thinkers: they believed that moral behavior is a rational act, and not merely behavior relegated to the metaphysical universe. It is not only the instinctive impulse of generosity and compassion. It is not purely an emotional state.

If we are rational, we know that we should always treat others as we wish them to treat us. Kant called this proposition the "categorical imperative." We know it as the Golden Rule. It is the seed that the College seeks to plant in every student, and it is striking in its simplicity--never treat anyone as a means to an end. Every person deserves total respect as a human being, without exception, without qualification, and with total sincerity.

If you wish respect, you must grant it to every person with whom you come in contact.

If you wish truth, you must honor the truth no matter where it leads you

If you wish love, you must first create love within yourself and then give it freely.

Quite properly, enlightenment demands a high degree of attention to one's self. Do not interpret this perspective as a selfish one, although it is a self-interested one. One needs to assess one's strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and uncertainties, and needs and desires before one can become the person they want to be, and need to be, in order to realize her full potential.

Because a world of partly realized individuals is a flawed one. It is a world in which we are hostages to prejudices, half-baked ideas, and fear.

Where we seek to find security only by making others feel insecure.

Where our successes are ephemeral and fleeting because they lead us nowhere we need to go.

Where the empty places in our hearts give us over to doubt, and doubt leads to fear, and fear leads to hate.

You know far more now about the world and about yourselves than you did when you entered Mount Holyoke College. You have a far distance yet to travel, but that is true of us all.

You have begun to understand these things, not exclusively as a student at this college, but in the trial and error of this life. But this college has self-consciously and deliberately created an environment in which these truths can blossom. It has endeavored to plant the seed of Enlightenment in each of you. I am certain that it has succeeded in doing so. Whether you nurture that seed is now entirely up to you. You have become both the garden and the gardener. And so you now know what you've been doing these past few years. You have been laying the foundation for the rest of your life.

Let's turn to the second question: what does the rest of your life look like?

Quite frankly, since we don't know the future, we can't really answer the question. But we do have a pretty good idea of what the next fifty years will be like. They're probably going to be tough years. Actually, they are going to be decisive ones in the history of the species.

The reason is pretty straightforward: the world has plunged headlong into a completely new demographic reality. The last 70 years of the 20th century saw the biggest increase in the world's population in human history according to Joel Cohen in the September 2005 issue of Scientific American:

• Global population reached 1 billion people in 1802.
• 2 billion was reached 125 years later in 1927.
• 3 billion was reached 34 years later in 1961. I was 12
• 4 billion was reached 13 years later in 1974. I was 25
• 5 billion was reached 13 years later in 1987. I was 38
• 6 billion was reached 12 years later in 1999. I was 50
• We are now about 6.4 billion. I am 56

a. No person who lived before 1930 ever experienced a doubling of the world’s population--no person born after 2050 is likely to experience a doubling of the world’s population.

b. In 1950, the poorer countries of the world had twice the population of the richer countries—in 2050 the ratio will be 6 to 1.

c. Virtually all the population increase will occur in the poorer countries, and 9 countries will account for half of that increase: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the US, Ethiopia, and China. In contrast, 51 countries will lose population by 2050: among them Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia.

d. For the first time in human history, older people will outnumber younger people globally.

e. Virtually all the population growth will be in urban areas. To handle the population growth expected by 2050, poor countries will have to build the equivalent of a city of one million people each week for the next 45 years.

None of these problems is insoluble. But we cannot solve them using the mindsets developed when the world population was less than a billion. The real problem, however, is that we do not seem inclined to solve them at all. Our attitudes right now are conditioned toward parochial interpretations of the problems, and not toward a complete rethinking of what these numbers mean.

You can choose your most troubling apocalypse: resource depletion, war, poverty, disease, global warming. Unfortunately, the list is long. The middle of this century is when all these problems will converge--just at the point when all of you will be the ones in power. Good timing.

However, there will also be wonders beyond our limited imaginations: the promises of astounding medical and scientific breakthroughs, the growth of a vibrant and diverse global civic culture, the hope that globalization will lead to the recognition that all our fates are inextricably linked, leading to common purposes and destinies. So there is much to look forward to if we are both rational and wise.

Every generation has faced extraordinary challenges, but I will concede that your generation gets the prize for the most difficult. Some of the problems facing the world are possibly game-enders. So your generation is stuck with the prodigious task of saving the world.

My first bit of advice is don't whine about it. No generation has ever had the luxury of choosing its challenges. Just because your challenges seem unduly unforgiving is no reason to sulk. I am not sure what sulking would accomplish in terms of saving the world--more than likely it means that the world would end in a pout. But it would still end. With your tears on a river.

My second bit of advice is to understand that saving the world requires that you save yourselves first. This is the insight of the flight attendant, who warns us to put on our own oxygen masks first before we try to help anyone else. The logic is unassailable: you can't help anyone if you're passed out. This advice means that building on the education you have received here at Mount Holyoke is imperative. One cannot save the world without knowledge, wisdom, or self-control--the oxygen masks of the 21st century. You've begun to develop those faculties here and your foundation is sure and authentic, but there is much more you need to know and understand about yourselves and the world.

My third bit of advice is to make sure you define the world in terms that are consistent with who you are. Some of you will work well with large groups of people, and will develop the leadership skills and charisma to implement large-scale changes. One of you will end up being Secretary-General of the United Nations. Others of you will work best one-on-one.

You must define the world in your own terms: we need your strengths and not your weaknesses. Indeed, many people want only to save the world because they do not wish to confront their own inadequacies and fears. The last thing the world needs is people who displace their own problems onto a larger population.

Remember that the idea of the "world" is nothing more than an artifact of our limited imaginations. Effectively helping an autistic child is more important then poorly negotiating a treaty on nuclear disarmament. Relieving the suffering of a homeless person is just as consequential as discovering a cure for cancer. Because the world is not just the mass of people living on the planet; the world is every single person on the planet. If your strengths lie in saving the one, then focus on that task. If your strength lies in the ability to mobilize the creative talents of millions, then focus on that activity. Let your personal power define the world.

My final bit of advice may sound a little strange in the context of what I've just been arguing, but I mean it in all sincerity. Saving the world requires that you laugh, no matter how desperate the situation may be. Losing the ability to laugh, or sing, or dance in the moment of great crisis is a signal that you've lost the point of why you need to save the world. We want to save our humanity, not just humanity. Laughing in the face of great crisis is the clearest sign that we have not given ourselves over to fatalism and fear.

We cannot let the world control us. It's too big, too unpredictable, and too complex. Besides, those who have tried to control it--Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao--only made things worse.

We can, however, control our reactions to the world. Indeed, without that measure of self-control it is unlikely that we will accomplish any good at all.

So laugh because you are alive.

And laugh because the struggle is heroic and worthy.

And laugh because winning and losing is not the measure of your courage or your greatness; only your will to be who you wish to be is relevant. Who you need to be. Who you must be.

And if you remain true to yourself and the values of this place, you will not fail.

So we've taken care of the past and the future. Which leaves us with the present moment. Which is all we ever really have because there is actually no rewind or fast forward button.

Enjoy this moment--celebrate this moment.

Don't dwell on the past--the late nights, the disappointments, the abject stupidity of the forum on the Daily Jolt, the fights with your roommate, and the shortcomings of life in South Hadley. Those are all integral parts of who you are and who you've decided not to be.

Don't assume that the future is the only time where you can finally afford to be happy--happiness does not come from the external world; it is something that we carry inside of us. We just need to let it out.

Don't be optimistic or pessimistic about the future--don't think about the glass being half-full of half-empty. Get a different glass.

Be confident that, no matter what happens, you will measure up to the task. Trust your abilities. Love yourself.

And if your courage weakens, remember this moment. This moment when you are surrounded by many others who are embarking on the same journey. Look to the person on your left and on your right, and make a vow to be there for them if the night is too dark, the water too deep, and the shore too distant.

Because we don't journey alone. We shouldn't 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 this place, 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 the greatest crisis in human history, and it is a challenge worthy of your intellects, your courage, and your fundamental decency. And you will save the world.

I wish you all well. Godspeed.

Related Links:

2006 Commencement Home Page