Christopher Van Hollen '83
Congratulations graduates - and to families and friends, and the entire Swarthmore College community. It's an honor to be with you today. I have so many fond memories of Swarthmore - good friends, late night debates, Crum Creek escapades, and Spring Break road trips.
While I wasn't always the most serious student by Swarthmore standards, I was always struck by the infectious enthusiasm Swarthmore professors brought to their classrooms. After each new course, I wanted to change my major. Which in fact I changed four times - two times before taking a year off to travel to Central America and South Asia - and then two more times after I returned. I am sure my parents were holding their breath, and checking their pocketbooks, wondering if I would ever graduate.
Well, I made it through, and so have you. And with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that Swarthmore had a big impact on my approach to life.
Swarthmore helped me develop a real curiosity for exploring things I had never focused on before. While I had had great adventures as a foreign service child growing up in places like India, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, I must confess that when it came to scientific subjects like - physics, chemistry, or biology - I was pretty illiterate. At Swarthmore, I shared a suite my freshman year with a fellow named Neil Gershenfeld, who was, yes - a physics major. We became good friends, but sometimes I couldn't understand a word he said.
Probably thanks to Neil, I began taking physics my junior year. I had great professor and, to make a long story short, I actually considered majoring in physics. I got through quantum mechanics before realizing that I would never be a Nobel Laureate in physics, and changed my major to philosophy - which, by the way, was a great choice.
But here is the moral of the story - I am still fascinated by physics and the experience of opening up this unknown area encouraged me to follow my curiosity wherever it has led me.
So, in these times of increasing pressure to narrowly specialize, I urge you to constantly plunge into unknown areas. The material I learned in physics has been of great use to me in debates over nuclear arms control but, most of all, cultivating a range of interests makes life much more interesting. By the way, my friend Neil is now the head of the FAB Lab at MIT and - I still can't figure out what he is talking about.
A second lesson ingrained at Swarthmore is the need to constantly question the assumptions behind the views that I hold, and the ideas expressed by others.
The bumper sticker "Question Authority" was very popular when I was a college student. And the premise of that expression is certainly true. That conventional wisdom is often not wise, and that people in positions of authority don't have a monopoly on the truth - whether they be professors, CEOs, generals, or members of Congress. This was not a call to be disrespectful, but simply a call to ask the hard questions.
This exercise is useful in every field of endeavor. But political debates are especially rife with group think and ideological orthodoxy. And the trends are worrying. The data shows that many people are avoiding ideas that clash with their established views.
When I was your age, people got their news primarily from our nation's leading newspapers and from the Big Three Broadcast networks. Today, we have the benefit of a large array of information sources - cable channels, online services, blogs, social networks, Twitter, and others.
But we face a paradox. We have more news sources than ever, but most people tune in to narrow bands of outlets that reflect their political leanings - and filter out the rest.
I'm sure you've witnessed this. Republicans and conservatives tend to tune in to FOX News. Democrats and liberals lean toward MSNBC. CNN, which tries to straddle the mushy middle, has lost market share.
This pattern is now reinforced by technology. The algorithms of social networks like Facebook automatically send you news analyses based on what you have previously "liked".
As a result, we increasingly find a divided public talking past each other in competing echo chambers.
I encourage you to buck this trend and make a deliberate effort to listen to alternative views that test your own assumptions. At the risk of raising my family's blood pressure, I do watch the cable shows associated with opposing viewpoints. It has helped me better understand the perspective of others and I urge you - regardless of your views - to do the same and raise your political blood pressure.
I am not naive enough to believe this will end political polarization. Most of our political differences stem from genuine disagreements that are part of a healthy democracy. And we also know that the truth - or the right policy - does not necessarily lie at the mid-point between two opposing political positions. For example, there is no mid-point between the evidence-based reality that humans are contributing to climate change, and the political rejection of that reality.
Still, even when better listening doesn't result in compromises that advance the common good, a clearer understanding of opposing views helps to better define the real choices we face.
Finally, at Swarthmore I first came to appreciate the power of direct action. One of my first political experiences was participating in a movement called the Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid Committee to pressure the college to divest from companies doing business with the old apartheid regime in South Africa. If you go to Swarthmore's own Global Nonviolent Action Database. you will find a section entitled "Swarthmore College Students win divestment from South Africa, 1978 thru 1989." Two lessons are embedded in that headline. The first is that student protests had an impact. The second is it didn't happen overnight - it took persistence.
In my first job out of graduate school, I worked on foreign policy issues as a staffer in the U.S. Senate. And I was there in 1986 when the Congress passed bipartisan legislation to impose comprehensive sanctions on South Africa. That legislation helped break the back of apartheid. But, as Nelson Mandela recognized, the political wave that helped pass that historic legislation was generated, ripple by ripple, by activists on college campuses in the 1970s and 1980s.
Witnessing those developments taught me that social and political change is not imposed from the top down. It almost always bubbles up from the grassroots.
We face huge challenges and opportunities today - from addressing climate change, to comprehensive immigration reform, to fixing our campaign finance system, to confronting huge gaps in economic opportunity.
But change only happens when individuals make the conscious decision to get in the way of injustice. It is great to have theories about change, but ideas without action accomplish nothing. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, the world needs dreamers and the world needs doers, but, most of all, the world needs dreamers who do.
I know that Swarthmore has prepared you to be both dreamers and doers, and to make the world a better place. Let's get to work.