Baccalaureate Address Frederick J. McGinness

Sunday, May 24, 2009 - 09:00

Baccalaureate Address
Frederick J. McGinness, Professor and Chair of History and Chair of Complex Organizations
May 23, 2009

History Lessons

Thank you, class of 2009, for the honor of speaking on an occasion you will remember for the rest of your life (or so we hope). Graduating from college is one of life's milestones, and like every tribe, we celebrate this liminal moment with a rite of passage. The solemn ritual is designed to protect you at this perilous moment when you leave your kindly Alma Mater and cross the threshold to Life After College, that is, life in the Real World, where a deadline is really a deadline.

Like all tribes, our tribe has traditional ritual magic to help you across this awesome threshold. We wear dignified ceremonial garments meant to evoke solemn reverence (though the reverse is also true). We listen to tribal elders weave together past and future to offer inspiring words to guide you and “vaccinate” you against all harm. As one of your tribal elders today, I offer you the ritual magic of a history lesson about this very ceremony and what it might hold for today.

Our august attire dates from the Middle Ages; the skullcap replaces a monk’s cowl, and the mortarboard evolved from a napkin worn on the head. The cowl and habit were just the things for young clerics in Paris, Oxford, or Bologna in the thirteenth century because they kept you warm in drafty cloisters, and were roomy enough for napping anonymously on cold wooden benches. On this auspicious occasion, we seek to guarantee your future by linking ourselves with those clerics who were the first university students, or rather, the university itself (the Latin universitas means corporation or guild). You and your fellow students were that guild, a corporation, a group--a “university.”

These clerics were unmarried gents--bachelors, in our sense of the word--who had taken minor religious orders to enroll in the school attached to the bishop's church--the cathedral. Secular schools do not exist yet. The baccalaureate is eponymous--it is named after those clerics who had completed courses qualifying them to be the apprentice or bacalarius of a master. Bacalarius refers to a beginner, like an aspiring knight or an apprentice in a guild. It has nothing to do with victory laurels. Our laurel parade is a recent tradition that “improves” the history.

Nor is it the only “improvement.” You could be here at the podium instead of me. Centuries ago, the clerics themselves gave the baccalaureate address as a final oral exam to demonstrate their qualifications to be the apprentices of a learned master. Luckily for all of you, these bachelors’ orations came to be replaced by a sermon preached by the master or doctor himself, and the tradition of a sermon still exists today at some universities. At Mount Holyoke, we have a reminder of the ecclesiastical ancestry of this ceremony, because it is called the baccalaureate “service” and is held --where else?--but in Abbey Chapel.

Had you been there centuries ago, the doctor would have preached a sermon appropriate for the occasion, and a likely topic would have been the four cardinal virtues--prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Timeless virtues. Still valuable today, although we are not a society given much to speaking of virtues. But you know them all in a practical way, in the lives of those you admire. Of these four, I invite you to consider fortitude that you might take it as your watchword in these times. I shall take this as my theme.

By fortitude, one really meant moral courage, the ability to speak the truth openly, to say the right thing at the right time, and to persevere with the consequences of speaking out your convictions--enduring the pain that often follows doing this.

The great medieval teachers spoke of fortitude as the courage not to flatter those in power, not to cave in to the pressures, influence, and threats of the mighty, not to need to go along with your fellow companions for fear they will dislike you or think you’re weird. It is what one might call today the courage to speak truth to power. Back then they also called it your “principal spirit” (Saint Jerome)--as it dominates and directs you. If I were the sixteenth-century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, I would now present the biblical example of Peter and the other disciples of Jesus who on the day of Pentecost at last found the courage to speak up, when “strengthened by the principal spirit [they] were not frightened by any threats of the wicked or cast down by any afflictions or elated or puffed up by any honors . . . .”

This moral courage may have come to Peter through divine assistance, but is not easy for us. For the past 50 years, studies on how human beings conform have shown that we are social creatures keenly sensitive to peer- and pressure-groups, to authority figures, and even to the rapidly unfolding dynamics of an emotionally-charged social situation or the demands of institutional policies. Solomon Asch’s pioneering "Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority" of 1956 revealed that only 25 percent of subjects had the fortitude to affirm a correct answer when facing a unanimous majority voicing the wrong answer. Most caved in to group pressure, not wanting to be alone in their judgment. This compliance can be disastrous in all manner of social settings, as we know from the Bernie Madoff scandal, and the home-mortgage lending crisis. Madoff’s associates knew something was wrong, but they didn’t really want to know (they didn’t want to inquire too deeply what it was)--they just wanted to believe the party would never end and the money would just keep rolling in.

The human tendency to obey authorities rather than personal conscience is also powerful, indeed shocking! In 2008, the British Psychological Society repeated the infamous Milgram experiments of the early 1960s, with the same results. Subjects were instructed to shock learners who erred when memorizing pairs of words, to see if punishment made them learn faster. Sixty percent of subjects obeyed the authority figure to the maximum of 450 volts; and a full 100 percent were willing to shock the slow learners with 300 volts. Such statistics go far to explain Abu Ghraib, even though in our day no one--especially those graduating from college--could possibly be unaware that at Nuremberg the defense of “I was only following orders” was disallowed.

Conformity to the group and obedience to authority figures are not the only magnets to distort the moral compass: institutions, complex organizations, and power-situations can be equally compelling. In the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (which explored the question what happens when you put morally decent people in authority in an evil environment), civilized, nice students were to play roles of guards or prisoners for two weeks in a mock prison in the basement of the psych building. But after only 24 hours, role-playing began to morph into the real thing. Guards began abusing the prisoners, and prisoners rebelled, sulked, or became unhinged. After six days, the experiment was so out of control that it was shut down. Without strong moral leadership, complex organizations have a way of neutralizing individual consciences and creating moral zombies. You see them frequently at congressional hearings answering questions with the mantra, "I can't recall. . ."

Such studies of conformity are sobering and perplexing for what they say about us. How is it that 49 percent of Americans support torture, when our laws have opposed torture since the foundation of this republic in the Age of the Enlightenment? How can it be that regular church-goers are even more enthusiastic about state-supported torture against terrorist suspects—54 percent, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public. How is it possible that so many of us concur with a former vice president that torture is an effective, indispensable way to “protect the country”?

Seven hundred and fifty seven years ago (that takes us to the year 1252), bright baccalaureates like yourself with excellent clerical skills (accurate writing) might have been hired as public notaries (for dictation) with your local bishop’s inquisition. In those days, the bishop was the spiritual equivalent of the head of homeland security in your district. To be sure, the physical security of his flock mattered to him, but far more important to him was its spiritual security, keeping you from being seduced by heretics--dissenters whose poisonous teachings, it was believed, might corrupt your mind and imperil your soul, the consequences of which it was then believed resulted in the direst of all outcomes, the loss of your immortal soul in perdition’s fire for all eternity. To prevent this, your bishop’s team would be charged with the investigation and prosecution of heresy carried out by the local ruler. Your job was to transcribe every word spoken by all participants; when torture was deemed necessary to extract information, you would write down exactly the dialogue, the method of torture used, the length of its application, the effect on the detainee, the words the suspect uttered in pain. We might assume your intentions were pure. The social, spiritual benefit of these interrogations brought to light the subversive activities of heretics in your district and allowed the bishop to ferret them out, thus keeping his flock secure from the poison of their doctrines and the dreadful prospect of eternal damnation.

The justification for applying physical pain came from an unimpeachable source. No less an authority than the pope in 1252 sanctioned the use of torture by local inquisitions to prosecute heretics; these methods had long been used by secular lords. The document’s words allowed that:

“. . . the podestà or ruler (of a city) has the duty of compelling, short of the loss of limb or the danger of death, all captured heretics to speak out their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know, like true robbers and killers of souls and thieves of the sacraments of God, [and they are to compel them to make known] those who give them refuge and protect them, just as thieves and brigands of temporal goods are made to accuse their accomplices and to reveal the evil deeds that they do.” (Ad extirpanda)

The goal you might well have believed was a noble one--what greater good could you imagine than working for the salvation of another’s immortal soul? The logic for its justification was iron-clad: if torture could be used by secular magistrates to get robbers and thieves to confess their crimes, how much more its utility in guarding against killers of your immortal soul?

As a young baccalaureate then you might have been convinced by the authorities’ reasoning, but how little convinced of this are you baccalaureates today! “How impossible!” You surely say: “How impossible it is even to imagine an educated person could think this way!” But such thinking was at the heart of medieval systems of justice deriving from the Roman Empire, and sanctioned by the sixth-century Code of Justinian. Such was the reasoning down to the age of the Enlightenment, if not to our present day.

For those who ponder the “lessons of history,” the terrible consequences of this reasoning at last became apparent with the great European Witch Craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when in a climate of plague, unprecedented warfare and violence, famine, and mass hysteria “controlled judicial torture” quickly dissolved into the most unimaginable excesses, when in the midst of what most everyone believed was a pan-European crisis of unbridled demonic activity authorities intensified measures against these heretic-witches--speeding up the judicial process, dispensing with previous legal precautions and restraints, devising new forms of effective cruelty to get to the truth quickly and yield “actionable intelligence”; only in this way might local governments (which now ran the inquisitions) thwart the fatal effects of witches’ spells that were widely believed responsible for so much human misery in this age--loss of cattle, deadly diseases and physical ailments, sudden deaths, still-births, hail storms, crop failure.

In a world where virtually all of the brightest and best educated, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, once believed in the existence of female and male witches who made pacts with the devil (as surely as so many see terrorists everywhere today), the absurdity of torture--in all forms and in all degrees--became increasingly and painfully clear, though no one had the moral courage to denounce it, for fear of being accused of being a witch her- or himself. One individual, Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635), at last spoke out, though anonymously, with his book Precaution in Criminal Procedure (Cautio Criminalis), wherein he noted that:

Many people who incite the Inquisition so vehemently against sorcerers in their towns and villages are not at all aware and do not notice or foresee that once they have begun to clamor for torture, every person tortured must denounce several more. The trials will continue, so eventually the denunciations will inevitably reach them and their families, since, as I warned above, no end will be found until everyone has been burned. (question 15)

It was not long before a great many Europeans agreed with von Spee. His anonymous words moved others to action. Within a generation or two, the witch persecutions had passed. Our witch trials at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 were among the very last. The next generations of thinkers--in the age of the Enlightenment--such as Cesare Beccaria (1735-1794) would reflect on the futility and inhumanity of it all, rightly looking back in horror at what had happened in the previous centuries (and still in their own day) in the name of religion and in the name of good government. In the dark justice of the past they pondered the terrifying lesson of how far and quickly we human beings can sink once we begin to loosen moral constraints, once we make just one or two exceptions--because this is a special case--a “ticking time-bomb,” because we’re dead certain this person really knows something.

The reflections of these Enlightenment thinkers on their own past left us a valued, but still fragile legacy in our Bill of Rights and in the constitutional protections we enjoy. It is a legacy that speaks out against the inhumanity of torture, because, as John McCain says, “It's not about them, it's about us.” Do you want to torture others, or have your children do so? It's about who we are, our fundamental humanity. Torture marks the bright line between law and anarchy, between civility and savagery, between justice and tyranny, and has so for centuries. To quote the former General Counsel of the United States Navy Alberto Mora, “Cruelty disfigures our national character. It is incompatible with our constitutional order, with our laws, with our most prized values. . . . Where cruelty exists, law does not.”

Most of us may never be thrown directly into a moral crisis as the one we now face in the sanctioning of torture. Yet, we all like to think of ourselves as having fortitude and belonging to the courageous minority, because, truly, we all know the consequences of conformity can be tragic, as we see today in our nation’s six-year war, which was facilitated by our spineless conformity to incorrect answers and predispositon to consume information served us as entertainment and sportslike we-versus-them hype.

Perhaps for these reasons some of your studies over these past years have explored the moral courage of the whistleblower, and the moral failings of the herd that still wants to believe we did the right thing, the dynamics of “group think,” the personalities of those whom psychologists call “informational conformists,” the unforeseen consequences when the individual meets up with the corporate ethic.

But it is important in all this to recall that there were those--many like you--who dared to be different, and who had the fortitude to speak out. Reporters of the McClatchy newspapers and the Knight-Ridder syndicate, and some veteran reporters like Helen Thomas, Bill Moyers, and Seymour Hersh were exceptions to the “information conformists” serving up war; they were the dissenters who warned us of misinformation, even though few listened. They spoke out on what is called “alternative” or “independent” media, or in foreign newspapers, and even on Comedy Central. They all deserve credit for getting it right, and their lives and deeds echo the memorable words of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr--that “There are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.”

As Mount Holyoke baccalaureates, you are a fortunate few. You may have escaped the medieval mind and its complex logic, the dark justice of earlier centuries, the cold choir stalls of a thirteenth-century Paris classroom. Your opportunities will certainly be far greater. You may have the chance to cure a certain kind of cancer, save an endangered species, write that Pulitzer Prize-winning history, or accomplish some other great thing. We can't predict this. But if we can read one lesson of history and make one prediction it is to alert you that you will at some time in your life face that lonely moment when you must have fortitude, when someone asks you to cut corners, pass over a mistake, or hold your tongue--when you feel deep in your gut there is something terribly wrong here. When you simply say to yourself, “I wish I didn’t know what I know.” It is my hope--and the hope of all of us here--that you--indeed, all of us, including your tribal elders--will have the courage to stand up for what we believe is right and persevere in that commitment. What you do in that moment can have consequences for all of us. Your fortitude will preserve our precious legacy.

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Class of 2009 Baccalaureate Service

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Commencement 2009