SWARTHMORE, Pa. (June 1, 2003) — Swarthmore College President Alfred H. Bloom called on the College's graduating seniors to help America resist the "cycles of history" to which other great nations at the apex of their powers have succumbed.
"Each of you has lived the experience of a nation which not only possesses extraordinary military, economic, technological, and human strength, but which has achieved exceptional progress towards democratic and societal goals," Bloom said in his commencement address in the College's Scott Outdoor Auditorium. "However, history repeatedly demonstrates that success of this magnitude carries serious risks — among them the risk of becoming complacent about what more can be accomplished at home and the risk, which is at the center of my concern this morning, of becoming uncritically certain about the rightness of one's own institutions, perspectives, and moral visions as compared to those of others across our globe."
The College awarded degrees to 360 undergraduates and gave honorary degrees to astrobiologist and public policy expert Christopher Chyba, child psychiatrist Margaret Lawrence, and U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff. Chyba and Rakoff are both Swarthmore alumni, members of the classes of 1982 and 1964, respectively. The ceremony — the College's 131st commencement — was held Sunday morning.
Bloom briefly reminded the graduates of lessons taught by history on the dangers that arise when nations become too convinced of their own "rightness."
"When the English sought to take up the 'white man's burden,' the French to enact their 'mission civilisatrice,' and the Chinese defined themselves as 'junggwo' — the middle kingdom — they did so with this very kind of certainty at the foundation of their world view," Bloom said. "I ask you to take every opportunity that comes your way, or that you can reasonably create, to keep America from succumbing to a similar temptation.
"If you see America becoming so certain of its own strengths that it begins to underestimate the extent to which its own well-being is linked to that of others, I ask you to remind America of how its public health depends on international response to disease, its economic well-being on global networks of trade and finance, its environment on global regulation and responsibility, its internal security on the global effort to counter terrorism, and its external security on collective success in containing the spread of violence wherever it erupts....
"If you see America becoming so certain of its own perceptions that it begins to misjudge how others will interpret and respond to the initiatives it takes, or so persuaded by the righteousness of its own moral vision that it fails to see the possible hurtful implications for human beings that its actions... may exert, then I ask you to draw on your ever-deepening global awareness — and, I hope, global experience — to develop and share a more nuanced understanding of how America's actions are likely to be perceived and of what their full human consequences are likely to be....
"In sum, if you see America failing to take adequate account of its dependency on others, or acting in ways that discount others, or turning away from its responsibility for the whole, I ask you to draw on the understanding you gained at Swarthmore of what it means to take leadership responsibility for and in a community of respected equals. Draw on that experience to lead America... in ways which will enable (it) to make that positive difference for itself and for others that this moment in history empowers it to make."
Of the 360 graduates, 346 collected the bachelor of arts degree and 22 the bachelor of science in engineering degree. Eight had double degrees. Highest honors were awarded to 12, with 60 collecting high honors and 47 receiving honors.
The senior class speaker, as voted by his classmates, was Ranmal Samarasinghe of Kensington, Md., an honors English and biology major who immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka with his family at the age of eight. Samarasinghe, who graduated with high honors, plans to pursue either medical school or biomedical research.