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2014 commencement remarks by President Jeffrey Herbst

By Contributing Writer on May 18, 2014
Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst addresses the Class of 2014 at Sanford Field House.

Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst addresses the Class of 2014 at Sanford Field House. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

(Note: The following is President Jeffrey Herbst’s prepared remarks to the Class of 2014 for Colgate’s 193rd commencement on Sunday, May 18.)

It is a pleasure to speak before you on this special day. Before going further, I ask all parents and grandparents to please stand. Congratulations to you. We are grateful for the support you have provided to your students and to Colgate. While the students’ accomplishments are their own, they would not be here without you. Thank you.

This ceremony is especially poignant for me because I have always thought of you, the Class of 2014, as my class. We entered Colgate together in the fall of 2010. Now you will leave, but it has been a special pleasure to watch you learn, evolve, and leave your mark on our school over the last four years.

This ceremony is also the first in many years where Professor of English George Hudson is not serving as university marshal. Over the years, George played a critical role in the execution of this complex event and allowed us to process with good cheer and aplomb. George passed away in November, but his memory is especially powerful today. I am grateful to Professor Karen Harpp for taking on the duties of university marshal and to Professor Susan Thomson for assisting her.

This weekend and this ceremony inevitably remind our graduates of the many roles they have. Son, daughter, brother, sister, niece, and nephew are identities joyously reaffirmed by the arrival of family for this once-in-a-lifetime event. You are also now looking to shift from being a student—which most of you have been more or less continuously for the last seventeen years—to entering the world of work and to acquiring new identities. Others of you will go on to graduate school where your role will be very different from what you experienced over the last four years.

In the tumult of family, moving, jobs, graduate school, and travel, you may not be thinking as much about another role that, as graduates of one of the nation’s premier liberal arts educational programs, the faculty and I also hope that you will now embrace: that of citizen. As adults, as members of communities, citizen is a role that will become increasingly important to you as you establish your place in society. It is on this role that I would like to share some thoughts this morning.

Colgate’s educational program, starting with the curriculum, is designed to enable you “to learn, reflect, and live with an expanding awareness of [your] responsibility to self, community, and the larger world.” I hope that you recognize that part of the return on a Colgate education is to think, wonder, and agonize about what that means for the rest of your life.

Of course, the definition of citizen in dictionaries and, yes, Wikipedia, is clear and simple: Citizenship bestows by custom or law a set of rights and duties. However, in reality, it means something greater. Most would agree with Yale Professor Rogers Smith that American citizenship, and citizenship in other countries, is “much more than a merely legal meaning. It is at bottom a statement of political and personal identity that evokes complex, powerful, and often contradictory ideas and sentiments, for Americans and non-Americans alike.”

I sense a paradox in citizenship around the world today. On one hand, over our time at Colgate, we have witnessed some of the most extraordinary expressions of citizenship in recent history. The Arab Spring—which began with the protest of one man—saw governments fall under the weight of popular protest, the ignition of civil war, and the wholesale questioning of forms of government. We have seen in a few short years drama, contention, and violence in an arc of countries from Morocco to Iran that fundamentally centers on differing conceptions of the rights and duties of citizens.  The results are incomplete and inchoate with plenty of backward movement, but that is inevitable with such difficult questions. Americans, impatient for other countries to resolve their issues, should remember that we fought a civil war of extraordinary violence eighty-five years after our independence, and not until the 1960s was the franchise guaranteed for all citizens.

There have been other dramas that center on citizenship. In Ukraine we have seen populations mobilized to overthrow an authoritarian leader, as well as the illegal annexation of Crimea justified on a call for citizenship based on language. In Africa, the independence of South Sudan in 2011, through the first voluntary change in boundaries on that continent, brought about that most unusual of events in this world: the advent of a new nation with new citizens. Even in Europe—often derided as sclerotic—there continues to be a debate about the role and duties of citizens to their traditional state and to the European Union in Brussels.

In the United States, on the other hand, at least at the national level, we seem to be playing “small ball.” Polls indicate that most Americans are unhappy with what is happening in Washington and view our most cherished institutions unfavorably, but very little seems to change. Indeed, elected representatives report that they are doing exactly what their constituents want. It is hardly that we lack for problems to address:  budget deficits, that will profoundly affect your generation; environmental deficits, that will profoundly affect your generation; an immigration system that most everyone agrees is broken; debates about our conception of our place in the world; and a host of other issues.

What bothers me is not that these issues are hard or that there are significant disagreements about how to handle them. That is why they are unresolved issues.  What truly pains me is the underlying current of belief that they will not be solved and, perhaps more perniciously, that we cannot solve them.

Of course, we do not lack for explanations for the current situations. Usually, given the polarization of our society, the fault is assigned to the other side. If only “they” were more flexible, donated less money, listened to the science, knew economics, listened to the people, were less ideological, then we would come to a reasonable solution.

My view is different, although some parts of all of the above are undoubtedly true. I believe that the fault lies with us. In a democracy, as the oft-quoted phrase goes, the people get the government they deserve. Before we watch and participate in the endless 24/7 news cycle of blame and stagnation and get fired up again about what the other side has done, we should look anew at what we, the citizens, are doing. And, critically, what we—what you—must do. After all, as you have learned, with rights come responsibilities.

Of course, citizens in all countries should exercise their right and their responsibility to vote for their leaders in free and fair elections. For those who can, especially Americans who disregard their franchise in large numbers, you should understand that the simple act of voting is a profound exercise and a great privilege that is still an enormous source of contention elsewhere in the world.

And of course citizenship does not end with voting. It also means participating in processes and issues that you care deeply about. But herein lies the tension. As the Internet enables global participation, it has never been easier to signal your beliefs. We are rightly outraged by the kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, so we tweet #BringBackOurGirls. We want to make Joseph Kony famous, so we join a web campaign. We want to state our position on an issue, so we “like” the relevant Facebook page.

As you know, I am extremely excited about the possibilities of the Internet and social media to improve our lives in innumerable ways. That said, I do not believe that a tweet does much, precisely because digital participation is so easy. Joseph Kony was made famous briefly, but then the digital zeitgeist soon moved on to something else.  He is still on the loose. Tweets will not save those girls in Nigeria, only hard power will. Despite all the talk, it was not Facebook that overthrew Mubarak in Egypt. He was expelled from power after decades of rule because of the thousands who showed up and risked their lives in Tahrir Square.

It is, in fact, showing up that matters the most—precisely because it is hard, time consuming, and sometimes dangerous. In the new academic year, the incoming class will reflect on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer when, in 1964, more than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers, many your age, went to Mississippi. Working with thousands more, the volunteers tried to register African Americans for the vote in the face of intimidation and violence. Many faced threats, and a few did not return, having given their lives to a cause. By showing up, they changed the course of the struggle for civil rights in America.

We face nothing quite like the Jim Crow system in America today. However, I wonder, at times, whether this very physical protest of people in the face of a clear injustice, and with the potential for violence, would occur today. We would, of course, tweet about it and numerous Facebook pages would be set up, but would the very personal and physical movement of people to help with the franchise of their fellow citizens occur in an age when participation is both easy and fleeting? I hope so.

However, showing up is usually not about something as dramatic as what motivated Freedom Summer. Recently, Colgate applied for a zoning variance for the proposed Center for Art and Culture that we hope to build in the village. After a significant amount of work, the variance was discussed at several public meetings, including two that I attended that went on for many hours into the night. Some of our fellow citizens supported our position, which I appreciated, and some opposed us. While I did not agree with the latter, I could not help but think that, as a variety of points were being made, here was the democratic process at its most basic: citizens taking time out of their busy professional and personal lives to argue and debate about a subject that was important to them. In the end, the village voted to support our variance, which made me happy, but I was also pleased that I was able to witness at a very personal level what citizenship actually means.

Your voice will be most influential when it is obvious that you have had to go out of your way to make your point, win the debate, or influence government. In an age when clicking “like” and tweeting are so easy, we must constantly search for ways to indicate the intensity we feel about important issues.

Finally, take an occasional inventory of what you believe. You will be reminded, soon enough, to have an annual physical, get your teeth cleaned regularly, conduct regular reviews of your finances, and, yes, update your will—all good advice. Your beliefs about the important issues of the day facing your community and nation are also important. But the world is constantly changing. The facts change and the economic, technological, and demographic forces that we should account for are also constantly evolving. You will also change over time as you gain experience and perspective.

Be intentional in what you believe. You will wrestle with some of the great questions of our time—including the appropriateness of US intervention overseas, the rights to privacy in the digital age, the role of the federal government in addressing social issues. Apply to yourself the habit of critical thinking that you have learned here, to see whether your own beliefs stand up to the scrutiny you apply to everything else.  This interior dialogue—so different from the noisy news cycle—is necessary if you are to be an active and engaged citizen.

And isn’t that the ultimate desired “outcome” of your Colgate education: to be an active and engaged citizen?

I am optimistic about the world that you, as citizens, will help govern. Shaped by your Colgate education, you are prepared—not to merely spectate, but to actively participate along the many different avenues open to you. If you do not like how your community, your state, your world is evolving, then you will do something to change it. By voting. By showing up. And always by questioning yourself.

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