Swarthmore Commencement Address
May 2006
President Alfred H. Bloom

President Alfred H. Bloom   
Welcome, and congratulations, Class of 2006, and welcome and congratulations, as well, to your parents, families, friends, and teachers, who guided, encouraged, and supported you, in your extraordinary undertaking.

And thank you graduates for providing by dint of your hard and creative work the basis for this celebration, and for your individual contributions to the quality of this College, for which we share such affection and esteem.

We look forward to your stream of accomplishments, both large and small, for which we will of course be pleased to take partial credit, and to your continuing attachment to a community which promises you a very warm welcome whenever you return.

I would like to take a few minutes to consider several habits of person and mind you have cultivated here - rare and powerful habits, which ready you for leadership of a truly distinctive kind.

Over your Swarthmore years, you have not only mastered a great deal of content and myriad skills, but have repeatedly accepted this College's distinctive invitation to step back to gauge the relevance of that content and those skills to the broader purposes of disciplines, of intellectual pursuit itself, of societies and of life. You not only explored disciplinary paradigms, but stepped back to ask what questions are most important for those disciplines to ask. You not only built the intellectual foundation required to find your place, and thrive, in our societies and world, but stepped back to define your own sense of the priorities our societies and that world should set. You have not only begun to consider the career paths you are likely to pursue, but have stepped back to imagine the impact you want to make through and beyond those careers.

And in your papers, experiments and artistic work, rather than be satisfied with simply completing the requirements of the task, you set yourselves the much more demanding goal of producing insights, results and artistic forms which might, even in the smallest measure, extend the frontiers of understanding and creativity and, therefore, represent advances of significance. In fact, that very practice of stepping back to define significant ends and then stepping forward to make a significant difference - on however small a scale, has become a habit integral to who you are and to what you expect of yourselves.

Over your years here, you have also accepted this College's distinctive invitation to test your perceptions, claims and visions against the most exacting juries of truth and reality you could assemble - against relevant theoretical and experimental findings and historic and contemporary analogies; against the most reliable and comprehensive picture of facts and circumstances you could muster; against the perspectives and interpretations of others - those who tend to confirm as well as those who may unsettle your world-view; and, again and again, against your own maturing critical eye.

And that exercise of intellectual humility, of seeking to verify what you believe and represent to be true, has also become a habit integral to who you are and to what you expect of yourselves.

And you have accepted this College's distinctive invitation to engage complexity. You have taken joy in the intricacies of beautiful arguments, performances, programs and proofs, but as importantly come to recognize that responsible understanding - whether of texts or of theories, of personal choices, or of institutional and societal circumstances and priorities, often requires similar engagement of complexity. And based on constant practice, engaging complexity, and committing the disciplined thought and persistent energy necessary to take command of it, have become as well habits integral to who you are.

Moreover, active membership in a community resolute in its commitment to intellectual and personal honesty has reinforced in you the habit of demanding of yourselves and of others the highest standards of integrity.

Active membership in a community united in its commitment to the worth of the individual, has reinforced in you the habit of seeing and valuing the other, through whatever difference, as a fellow human being.

And active membership in a community premised on confidence in the other's potential to become, through education, an independent decision-maker of a better world, has reinforced in you the practice of persuading others through arguments of logic, fact, consequence and ethical vision rather than through moralistic and sentimental appeal or instrumental threat and reward. Leading others to independent understanding and embrace of a point of view, rather than imposing, or inducing unexamined acceptance of that view, has likewise become a habit integral who you are and to what you expect of yourselves.

I am quite sure that you see these habits as now intrinsic to who you are and recognize that they have been developed or strengthened here, but I am not as sure that you appreciate how uncommon they are, or how powerfully they prepare you for leadership of a truly distinctive kind.

Your habit of stepping back to define significant ends, and then stepping forward to make a significant difference, ensures that your leadership will be distinguished by your exceptional abilities for intellectual and ethical analysis in setting its significant goals and by your resolve to make a difference in energizing momentum towards those goals.

Your habit of seeking to verify what you believe and represent to be true ensures that your leadership will be anchored in realistic assessment of the obstacles and opportunities in its path, open to new information as it unfolds, and vigilant that its own vision does not override consequences it does not intend.

Your habit of engaging complexity ensures that your leadership will take careful account of the complex trade-offs inherent in the choices it makes, trade-offs such as those between likely benefits and possible harm, between the competing interests of diverse constituencies, between response to individual circumstances and furthering collective purpose; and that that leadership will imagine complex solutions which not only make the hard decisions required to stay on course but at the same time respond as well as possible to all legitimate claims, not simply those of highest priority.

Your habit of demanding the highest standards of integrity ensures that your leadership will, to the best of its awareness, speak the truth; to the extent that prudence and confidentiality allow, maximize transparency; and with unqualified commitment, honor community and public trust.

Your habit of valuing others across difference ensures that your leadership will listen to others, seek to build common ownership of the directions it takes, weigh carefully the consequences for fellow human beings in the trade-offs in makes, and be willing to draw the line on decisions which risk visiting unacceptable harm.

And your habit of turning away from moralistic and sentimental appeal, as well as from instrumental punishment and reward, ensures that your leadership will empower colleagues to independently embrace your vision, rather than conscript followers to that vision.

Across the disciplines, professions, organizations, communities, nations and the world you will serve there exists a deep and pervasive thirst for leadership. And I am convinced that when humankind has the choice, it will opt for the very distinctive qualities of leadership you are ready to provide.

So whenever you envision a promising direction for your discipline or profession; or spot an imaginative strategy for your for-profit or non-profit organization; when the opportunity arises to take responsibility for a group, institution or society; step forward mindful of the quality and power of the leadership you can deliver. If you don't, someone else will. And it's all too likely that that "someone" will be less prepared to distinguish significant goals and less able to inspire others to embrace them; less resolved to test the realities that bear on the implementation of those goals; less committed to respond to the full range of complexities at play in the decisions made; less resolute in sustaining integrity; less practiced in open and fair process; less determined to seek solutions which affirm the value of all human beings; less compelled to find and build on common ground; and less certain to choose a mode of persuasion which respects colleagues rather than demeans them.

The world is searching for the truly rare and distinctive leadership skills that you have cultivated here. I know that is so, from observing the way the world has responded to the leadership offered by those who over the years have sat in the very seats you occupy this morning. And you will know I am right once you begin to test your leadership skills beyond Swarthmore, and watch the world respond to you.

The credential I will hand you shortly not only testifies to what you have accomplished, but promises what you can accomplish in a world that waits. So I ask you, as you walk from those seats to this stage, let go forever of any hesitancy you might harbor over your ability to lead!

Class of 2006, your college takes great pride in each of you, and looks forward to the way in which and the success with which, each of you will lead us towards a better world! Warmest congratulations!