Commencement Address -- President Alfred H. Bloom
30 May 2004
Class of 2004, I ask you today to respond to the imperative of this, your century, to build an inclusive world!
And by inclusive I mean, a world where neither gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation nor disability compromises the respect that individuals accord to one another; a world where good nutrition, heath care, education, and the chance to chart one's own productive course, are the birthright of every human being; a world where all people live under systems of governance that fairly reflect their input and interests; and a world where all nations join together with mutual respect, to meet critical human needs.
Although the concept of a socially, economically, politically and geographically inclusive world might seem utopian, several months ago, Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias reminded us that it would take only 5 percent of the world's combined defense budgets to extend minimum nutrition, health care, and education to the entire world's population. If that estimate is correct, the resources are already at hand to fund an inclusive world. And the responsibility becomes all the greater to marshal the vision and the will to accomplish the rest.
Moreover, we have reached a historic moment when, for the first time as well, around the world expectations are in place that an inclusive world can, and must, be built.
The spread of images and products of material comfort to every corner of the globe; the dissemination of ideals of individual rights, self-determination, and democracy; the consciousness awakened by migration from the countryside to the city, and from the third world to the first; the centrality of global markets and institutions; and the global dispersion of ownership of technologies of war and peace have inspired people everywhere, not only to dream of comforts, freedoms, and levels of participation they never before dared to dream, but to infuse those dreams with a sense of unprecedented possibility and urgency.
With revolutionary speed and across the globe, traditional acquiescence to the inevitability of exclusion as a function of color, culture, class, politics, or geography has given way to a new sense of what is possible, what is desired and what is fair. Indeed, I suggest that for the first time in history, in this very decade, college graduates across this nation and around the world share your legitimate expectation of a fair share of the world's respect, resources, and rights.
Society's failure to accommodate these revised expectations generate the high levels of crime currently plaguing most African, Latin American, and many Asian cities. Twenty-five years ago, no one could have imagined the fear of robbery and personal assault that compromise life in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, or Karachi today; and if rising expectations are not met, the geographical range of such crime is only likely to spread.
Likewise, no one could have imagined how the continuing failure to accommodate these transformed expectations might catalyze popular support for terrorism worldwide.
National failures to accommodate these aroused expectations play out in civil violence, from Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Rwanda, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine, reminding us of how critical it has become for both mature and emergent democracies to respond to the heightened expectations of marginalized groups to retain or build political cohesion.
And failure to accommodate these transformed expectations by excluding others from the processes and outcomes of international decision-making only hardens barriers to cooperation in trade, health, and the environment and cripples efforts to prevent terrorism and preserve peace.
In other words, transformed global expectations join to the ethical mandate to build an inclusive world, a pragmatic imperative, which we ignore at the risk of gravest consequence. We no longer enjoy the luxury of simply believing that greater inclusion would be a good thing.
Yet, higher education, the best potential training ground for citizens and leaders who would steer societies and the world toward greater inclusion, has not, in general, recognized such training as part of its mission and responsibility.
So, despite the extensive resources that societies commit to higher education, despite the significant portion of their lives that students conscientiously devote to it, and despite the central role higher education plays in shaping conceptions of society's nature and purpose, we cannot be confident that graduates of higher education will be more likely, as a result of that experience, to embrace inclusion as the long-term goal for their society or world, or to be more practiced in achieving it. Nor, can we be sure that graduates of higher education will even be more alert to, or disquieted by, actions and policies that explicitly serve to solidify or to deepen social, economic, or geographic divides.
We may differ about the import and implications of these examples, but I see evidence of higher education's failure in this regard in the alarming number of well-educated Americans who readily lend their support to dismantling affirmative action, to implementing regressive taxation, to ratifying what would be this nation's first exclusionary constitutional amendment, and to accepting less than the most compelling justifications for unilateral decision-making in the international arena.
To those who argue that in taking on this task higher education oversteps the boundary between fostering independent ethical judgment and influencing the content of that judgment, my answer is, "That boundary is already porous, and it must be!"
Most of us here would agree that in addition to cultivating intellectual honesty, cultivating interpersonal respect and social and global responsibility are legitimate, if not essential, responsibilities of liberal arts education. And in this transformed world, interpersonal respect and social and global responsibility presuppose understanding and committing to inclusion.
To those who wonder whether higher education can succeed at this vital task, my answer is, "Look at what is happening at Swarthmore!"
Each of you has been part of a community which acts deliberately through its admissions and hiring practices to strengthen its own diversity, and then, through the expectations it sets, to build a world in which interpersonal respect is not contingent on identity, background, or perspective — in which differences are valued in the light of our common humanity and purpose.
Each of you has been part of a community which acts deliberately, through its commitments to need-blind admission, to meeting fully assessed financial need and to opening activities to all without additional cost to create a student experience into which, to the greatest extent possible, differences in economic background do not intrude.
Each of you has been part of a community whose students, staff, faculty, and alumni act deliberately, and in remarkable numbers, here and abroad, to broaden inclusion in its multiple forms.
Each of you has been part of a community which acts deliberately, through listening and through involving one another in the decisions it makes, to live the commitment to inclusion anchored in its Quaker tradition.
And, in the heart of your experience here, through your academic work, each of you has come to a more complex and subtle understanding of the realities and processes of exclusion and of what it will take to release communities and societies from their grip.
Through your academic work as well you have each honed a habit of critical inquiry which enables, indeed compels, you to see through situations, assumptions, and claims to what you judge significant and right. And reinforced by a culture that asks intellectual life to serve a better world, you have directed that habit of critical inquiry to defining your own vision of what kind of world that should be.
To judge by those of you whom I have come to know personally, and by the generations of Swarthmoreans who have occupied those very chairs you occupy today, the consistent result of that analytic undertaking within this deliberately inclusive community has been your own embrace of inclusion as the ethical and the pragmatic sine qua non of that better world.
We may not all agree on the best steps to take in particular situations at particular moments to get there. The differences which emerged among us as we struggled with issues ranging from the living wage, to the Diebold controversy, to funding closed-groups — from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to American domestic and foreign policy — are potent reminders of how necessary it is as we proceed to remain open to diverse perspectives, to take account of competing interests and values, and to balance what can be achieved in the moment against what is most constructively deferred for the longer term.
But I am confident that such differences will only add richness to a legacy which this College has transmitted to you, and which this College will transmit through you to the world — a legacy of belief in the ultimate rightness of inclusion.
The rightness of inclusion may, in fact, appear somewhat self-evident to you who have been so much a part of what Swarthmore is and believes; but, I fear, it is not self-evident to most graduates of higher education today — for the mission of higher education remains so predominantly equipping students with the knowledge and skills required to find, and to fill, their place in a complex world, rather than obliging them as well to consider what kind of world that should, or must, be.
As each of you takes on responsibilities of greater consequence, gains the profound respect of others for the way you handle those responsibilities, and makes your own individual, innovative mark, I ask you to be conscious and deliberate in living that Swarthmore legacy — that imperative to build an inclusive world — and to do so through the candidates and policies you support, the actions you take, and the vision you communicate to others of what must be the agenda of your century.
And, closer to home, I ask you to defend, to promote, and to support education that responds to that agenda, for that education is society's most powerful instrument — and hope!
Class of 2004, I wish you continuing success in this and in everything you undertake, and I wish you ever deepening satisfaction and happiness.
Warmest congratulations to each of you!