Elizabeth Anderson '81
Let me first extend my congratulations to you all. You've got so much to be proud of today. And so to your parents. It's a thrill and an honor to receive an honorary degree from Swarthmore, exactly 40 years ago I earned my BA from Swarthmore. So this is a fitting occasion to reflect on what I learned since graduating about the value of the first rate liberal arts education that I got from Swarthmore.
Of course, I found and you will find that having a Swarthmore degree is a valuable credential for your careers, but the liberal arts have always aspired to be more than vocational education. They've always been about living a better life beyond work and about doing one's part to make a better society. We face many challenges in the 21st century among other urgent issues we need to address climate change, racial injustice and the rise of authoritarianism. And these challenges arise, not just in the United States but all around the world.
To deal with them successfully, we need to confront the crisis of democracy worldwide. And in the United States we are witnessing rising authoritarian tendency. These are fueled by political polarization, which is spread by floods of disinformation, propaganda, and hate speech and amplified by both legacy media and social media. This destructive discourse functions to spread distrust amongst citizens from different walks of life. And it strikes at the heart of democracy.
We can't depend on politicians or government officials to sustain democracy. This responsibility lies with ordinary citizens for the heart of democracy lies with the dispositions of ordinary citizens to discuss matters of public concern freely, sincerely and respectfully with one another across lines of race, religion, party and other social identities.
This is one place where you can all bring to bear the lessons of a liberal arts education. My favorite memories of Swarthmore include passionate discussions about philosophy, politics, economics and society deep into the night with my friends and classmates. We often came to these discussions with very different assumptions, and we vigorously disagreed with each other, but we learned inside classrooms and outside of them, how to constructively engage one another. Swarthmore's Quaker legacy is very salient in this regard.
The promotion of peace is closely related to the promotion of democracy. 80 years ago, my favorite philosopher, John Dewey spoke to the crisis of democracy of his day brought about by rising fascist and communist movements. He characterized democracy as an attempt to take the resolution of conflicts outside the domain of force and into that of discussion. Do we argue that this requires that we treat those who disagree even profoundly with us, as those from whom we may learn? He said, "Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression and free assembly are of little Adele. If in daily life,freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts and experiences is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred." I think his words are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them.
What would it take to heed them? I think it requires the following, that we listen to others and be prepared to change our minds. that we consider why others' views make sense to them, that we appeal to the better angels of their natures rather than addressing them as if they're stupid or evil. And it also requires that we make ourselves open to criticism from those who are situated less advantageously than we are, that we not view their criticism as a personal attack to be defended against, but rather as an invitation to join a project of making the world a more just, peaceful and sustainable place. I learned these lessons at Swarthmore and have applied them successfully in teaching my students at University of Michigan.
I encourage you to practice them in your lives too, in discussions with others from all walks of life. In this way, you will help to make the world a more peaceful and cooperative place.