Commencement Address: Allan E. Goodman
Allan E. Goodman
Allan E. Goodman
Since you are entering a world marked by the connectivity celebrated at yesterday’s Baccalaureate and increasingly shaped by Facebook, permit me to start with the movie.
In the opening dialogue of The Social Network, Mark asks his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend: “How do you distinguish yourself in a population who all get 1600 SAT scores?”
While each member of the class of 2011 found a different way to do that, you all started at the same point. Your common aim was, in Dr. Benjamin Rush’s words and your parents’ hope, to get “a useful education.”
It is a good way to think, too, about the liberal arts—then and now.
Your founder used his education to become a physician, admittedly with all the imperfections of that science in those times—to include an unfortunate and for some patients deadly reliance on bloodletting. But he also practiced the art of citizenship, which required him to use the insights from history and literature to make choices about what he would support. He signed the Declaration of Independence at a time when taking sides was very risky. And despite espousing 18th-century views on race and gender that are troubling by today’s standards, he was outspoken in his opposition to slavery and supported education for women. He criticized the way one general conducted a war; he felt it was his duty to speak out. And also his duty, when he realized he was wrong about George Washington, to say so publicly. And he thought deeply about what it would take to prevent war. He called, consequently, for the establishment of a Department of Peace—something we could still use.
So regardless of your Dickinson major or the next degree you will get, you can aim to be useful, engaged, and above all, thoughtful citizens. People from many different professions signed the Declaration of Independence—just as it took people from every walk of life and profession to fill Tahrir Square and liberate Benghazi.
Like Dr. Rush, you should care about issues of war and peace, and especially what you can do to promote more of the latter and less of the former. Had General Petraeus been able to give this speech, he would have certainly wished for a world where this was the trend. And he would have applauded the initiative this college is taking to prepare every graduate of liberal-arts institutions, whether they will wear a uniform or not, for the practice of global citizenship. As your president learned, encouraging a global and intercultural perspective is a gift that pays dividends over many years and in distant places; for it was thanks to Professor Blosser tasking all his students to memorize a chapter from the Quran that enabled a Dickinson graduate to open a dialogue with village elders in Afghanistan that probably saved his life and theirs.
Like Rush, you should help others to get the benefit of a truly liberal education. At one moment in Egypt’s drama, a CNN reporter thrust the microphone in front of a joyous protester who thanked two Americans (both of whom happened to work for our Cairo office) who helped him get an education. And it takes education to make revolutions useful.
Now Senator Fulbright also thought that education had its uses in diplomacy. He championed the exchange of people for mutual understanding because, in his words, it “transforms nations into people and humanizes international relationships.” And it has the powerful potential to make friends of enemies, as Harriet learned during a visit she and the senator made to Tokyo some years ago. As Harriet reminded me, what people were thanking the senator for was not just the new tools they got from gaining an American degree but a new way of thinking about Americans. As one person put it to them during a reception, “we had no idea that you would treat people who once were their enemies so generously and so kindly.”
Maestro DePreist also benefitted from the kindness of others, in particular that of Leonard Bernstein. That maestro was the recipient of a letter detailing what you called “my problem” but also your dream. He encouraged you “to give conducting a shot” by entering an international competition that you did not win. But Bernstein wrote another letter afterwards saying how impressed the judges were and that you had a bright future. “That was enough to keep me going,” you would much later tell a magazine. Giving others hope is also a very useful thing to do.
In the past decade, over two thousand scholars gravely threatened by war, repression and terrorism from over a hundred counties have applied to the institute’s Scholar Rescue Fund for help. When I mention to academic audiences the scale of what is happening today, most reply that “we had no idea.” We do not have the funds to help everyone. But, just as Leonard Bernstein did, we do let all who apply know we care. And sometimes that knowledge gives people hope and the courage to try again or find some other form of assistance.
Adversity and world problems seem far away from this lovely place and dignified ceremony. As England’s poet laureate John Masefield once observed, “few earthly things are more beautiful than a university.” But he was thinking about more than lawns and architecture. What makes them so, he observed, is that they are places “where those who hate ignorance strive to know” and they “welcome thinkers in distress and or in exile.” Performing these functions makes this college profoundly useful—and our world a less dangerous place.