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President Herbst asks seniors to be rule-makers of digital age

By Contributing Writer on May 20, 2012

(Note: The following is President Jeffrey Herbst’s prepared remarks to the Class of 2012 for Colgate’s 191st commencement.)

Please join me in congratulating the Class of 2012!

Now, will all the parents and grandparents please stand.  The students, are, of course, responsible for the considerable achievements necessary for graduation.  However, they could not have arrived at this point without all that you have done for them.  On behalf of the faculty and staff of Colgate, thank you for your support.

In addition to their many individual accomplishments, I am pleased to announce two collective achievements of the Class of 2012:

First, of the 738 students who entered Colgate in the fall of 2008, 661 will receive a bachelor of arts degree today.  Their graduation rate of 89.7 percent is the highest in recent decades.

Second, the Class of 2012 has achieved a participation rate of 95 percent for its senior class gift, a scholarship in honor of Vic Krivitski ’12.  That is an all-time record, surpassing the previous participation rate of 94 percent.  Congratulations, and thank you also to an anonymous rugby alumnus who matched the class’s contribution.

It probably will not come as a complete surprise to you that presidents agonize a fair bit about what to say at graduation.  The demands to be serious, profound, funny, and — please god, brief — are hard to reconcile.  However, this year, just as I was about to start the search for a topic, one was presented to me in an unexpected way via YouTube.  This was surprising because I previously thought of that particular website as largely the repository for videos about cute kittens, Star Wars mashups by guys with a lot of time on their hands, and, yes, the occasional dancing president.

As many of you know, my own academic field is the study of the politics of sub-Saharan Africa.  Part of my work has been to examine the dynamics of insurgency, counter-insurgency, peacekeeping, and the myriad ways that people have found to kill each other.   And, I have on occasion offered advice on how the killings might be stopped.  While I hardly consider the distribution and security issues facing more than 800 million people to be obscure or, for that matter, “merely academic,” my area of work has seldom  been the subject of much popular attention in the U.S. for a series of historic, strategic and cultural reasons.

That all changed with the release of the video Kony 2012 in the spring which suddenly, surprisingly, and briefly put my own field of study under the spotlight.  As most of you probably know, the 30 minute video about warlord Joseph Kony, who has committed gross human rights violations in central Africa, went “viral,” reaching 100 million viewers faster than any other and affecting people around the world.

The idea of the video was that if Americans, in particular, knew more about Mr. Kony and made him “famous,” the American government, which had already committed a small number of troops to help find him, would not face pressure to bring those troops home.  The video’s preferred method of making Mr. Kony famous was to identify 20 celebrities and 12 politicians (this mix is itself revealing) who would serve to channel American, particularly young American, outrage over Mr. Kony.  It was suggested that all this had to be done in calendar year 2012 or else Americans would presumably lose interest and Mr. Kony would no longer be “famous.”

I found the video deeply troubling.  Yes, it is true that Mr. Kony, who has wreaked havoc, including the use of child soldiers, through large swaths of central Africa for more than a decade, is the rare individual for whom everything people say bad about is true.  However, the video itself was problematic.  Egregiously, it suggested that Mr. Kony was still in Uganda.  In fact, he has left Uganda and that country is recovering from the brutality that he had caused in the past with considerable success.  The video also suggested that the American troops, who will likely only play a small role in Mr. Kony’s eventual demise, might be withdrawn when the Obama administration had indicated no such wavering.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Kony was presented as an American problem that could be solved by Americans, if only we bought enough bracelets from the charity that put out the movie, put up posters, and tweeted the necessary celebrities and politicians.  The notion that Ugandans, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Congolese, and citizens of Central African Republic already might know a great deal about Mr. Kony and that it was their actions that would fundamentally decide his fate was ignored.  Indeed, Kony 2012 seemed to be much more about the video makers than the people of the aforementioned countries who, at various points, have actually lived the war and still may be dealing with the warlord after December 31.

Eventually there was a critical reaction to the video, most notably from Africans, and the night when Americans were supposed to make Mr. Kony famous fizzled.  I don’t know that that much damage was done by Kony 2012 and, in the end, it may have just been a missed opportunity because the planets had somehow aligned so that there was a moment when a non-trivial proportion of the world’s population was willing to focus on security problems in central Africa.

The Kony 2012 phenomenon did demonstrate that in the digital age the speed of transmittal has very little to do with the usefulness or veracity of the message.   Most importantly, the video demonstrated the potential for networks  to be manipulated on a viewership scale and speed previously unknown in human history.  The potential for good and, equally striking, the possibility that people could be manipulated in almost unimaginable numbers was starkly demonstrated.

Not long after, in April, there was another incident much closer to home that raised similar issues.   A website in South Carolina reported that Governor Nikki Haley was about to be indicted for tax evasion.  The story had no basis in fact.  Nonetheless, the tweet containing the charge was, almost instantly, widely reposted, including, the New York Times reported, by a reporter from  the Timesitself, theWashington Post, CBS News,  and the Huffington Post.  The story—still with no credible source—then appeared on the websites of, among others, the Atlantic Wire, the Drudge Report, and The Daily Beast.  Governor Haley, suddenly besieged by calls for comments, produced a letter from the IRS saying that there was no tax investigation.

It was, of course, bad enough that even reporters from distinguished news bureaus decided to repost without knowing the facts.  What is perhaps more interesting, and disturbing, is that some simply excused the reposting of a false and, potentially, malicious reports by arguing that in the Twitter world information was constantly evolving and that self-correction would happen soon enough.  Reputations don’t quite work that way, and I have to believe that there will be some number of people who will think, when Governor Haley’s name is next mentioned, “didn’t she have some kind of tax problem?”

No matter your political allegiances, I cannot believe that this is how we want our national conversation to proceed.  The idea that you can distribute any charge against anyone and then let the facts catch up later (maybe) is a recipe for a downward spiral in the quality of conversation and another impediment to figuring out how to confront our very serious national challenges.

This is not a call to go back in time.  I don’t yearn for the old days when information only could be on paper and only was distributed once a day.  There were lies and gossip back then also, although the physical challenge of transmitting information resulted in a speed of rebroadcasting that was infinitely slower and the cumbersome nature of print production and fixed news cycles meant that there was a need, and the time, at least to try to get the story right.

Rather, I am filled with excitement about the prospects that the revolution in digital media offers and I certainly try to take advantage of as many of the new ways of communicating as possible.  The fact that every time you open your computer you have more access to information than at any time in human history is a wonderful thing that can enrich your lives and will be central to how you live.

Some might argue that since we are only in the early days of the democratization of information, new rules and norms eventually will be developed so that it will be a safer world in the future.  I doubt that will happen automatically, simply because of the wonderful anarchy of the web.

The challenge therefore for you graduating now is how to become wise citizens in the digital age.  And my message to you is simple:  the intellectual skills and habits of mind that you have learned here — to think critically, to understand an argument in context, to think through counterarguments, to develop a healthy skepticism about propositions while retaining an optimism about life — need to be fully operational when you open up your iPhone.  What you learned here was not just for college or when you open a book — I mean ereader — but is going to be absolutely essential in a world of unlimited messaging and, apparently, no rules.  Use your Colgate filter when you process media of all types and you will be putting your education to good use indeed.

One of the great paradoxes of our age is that our form of education — based on classical precepts and having a deep historical pedigree — will be especially relevant in the twenty-first century.  What I hope that you will do is, in fact, to finally and truly merge the norms and values of the old media world with the web, blogosphere, Twitter feeds, etc.  We talk about how new media has taken over but as long as there are very different intellectual norms about the truth — no small issue — between the old world and the new, the digital age will remain problematic.   As true digital citizens, you will have to help lead the charge to take the set of cherished values which you learned and apply them to this exciting age.

I wish you the best as you move forward and I urge you to embrace all of the technological progress the world has to offer.  I hope that you play an active role in the battle of ideas and attempt to raise the standard of discourse rather than be paralyzed by them.  Your generation will set the rules for the digital future.  Do it with care and with the knowledge and critical habits that you have learned at this timeless place.

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3 Comments



  • Laura Merrill said:

    I loved the address. While Mark Murphy’s cheese hat was fun, Herbst’s hopeful response to the challenges of our digital age will stick with me far longer.




  • Dan Napolitano said:

    In large part, love it–but President Herbst may wish to note that one doesn’t “open” an iPhone.

    Further nit-picking: many of us prefer to capitalize the proper noun “God,” just as others are capitalized. I’ll presume that one was the copy editor’s, but who knows? I’m not suggesting what President Herbst or the copyrighter should believe, just encouraging them to pay others the respectful courtesy.

    I’m just reading critically, skeptically, and optimistically here. Good address.