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Commencement 2000 Address -- Alfred H. Bloom

Human Commonality

Welcome, and congratulations, Class of 2000, 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 for providing the basis for this celebration by dint of your hard work, and for your individual contributions to the enduring quality of this institution.

We look forward with great anticipation to that steady stream of accomplishments, large and small, that lie ahead for you and for which, whether we deserve it or not, we will be pleased to accept partial credit.

We count on your wise counsel to keep Swarthmore on a responsible course and on your financial support to help sustain its quality. And we count on your continuing attachment to a community, which promises you a warm welcome whenever you return.

In this same year that you assume your new status as alumni of the College, Joyce Glackin, after 25 years of service, is retiring from our staff. Thomas Blackburn, Centennial Professor of English Literature, and John Gaustad, Edward Hicks Magill Professor of Astronomy, are retiring from our faculty. Please join me in thanking these very special members of our community for their important part in shaping Swarthmore's excellence.

Class of 2000, you stunningly confirm my own conviction that what truly distinguishes a Swarthmore education is not only that it broadens and deepens knowledge and that it builds analytic and communicative skills, but that it also cultivates an invaluable set of habits of mind.

I have often spoken about the awesome ability and readiness of Swarthmore graduates to embrace conceptual complexity; to listen fairly and carefully to others' points of view; and to exercise ethical intelligence.

About their determined optimism over what can be accomplished, and about their willingness to demand of themselves the highest standards of excellence in whatever they pursue.

And consistently replicating evidence makes clear that Swarthmore graduates distinguish themselves as well by their resolve to combine professional accomplishment with personal contribution to a more informed, just, and generous world.

I hope you recognize these habits of mind in yourselves. I know others will recognize them in you and that they will be at the heart of the leadership you offer our world.

But, before you set out into that world, let me draw your attention to yet another habit of mind which Swarthmore has reinforced in you and which will be as critical to the leadership you provide — namely, your readiness to see beyond differences to the astounding commonality in conceptual, emotional and ethical life, which similar genetic codes, combined with fundamentally similar experience, have conferred on all human beings — a commonality which has become all the more encompassing as global communication and contact have spread common aspirations, and common modes of thinking and valuing, more broadly than ever before.

You have come to recognize that, although the particulars of what is learned will be different, except in case of severe impairment all human beings share the ability to learn, to stretch conceptual categories, to discriminate among them, to build new ones, to think with words and beyond words, and to combine the words of their own language to capture ideas expressed in another.

You have come to recognize that although emotions may be expressed or suppressed differently, all human beings share the capacity for being amused or bemused by irony, for being inspired by beauty or heroism, for appreciating a pat on the back or a wink of an eye, for engaging in conscious deception or well intentioned white lies, for feeling respect in the presence of an admired teacher, or stage fright in the face of a large audience, or a mixture of elation and anxiety at a ceremony marking the passage to a new stage of life.

And you have come to recognize as well that although virtues and responsibilities will be defined differently, all human beings share a sense of moral obligation to social groups or to religious or ethical principles beyond themselves; judge moral conduct on the basis of both intentions and actions; value qualities akin to integrity, fairness, and trust; expect appropriate reciprocity; appreciate generosity, and resent treatment they deem oppressive or unjust.

You have built that recognition of fundamental human commonality through exploring the universalities of human physiology, psychology, language and behavior; through discovering the similar ends for which human institutions, across time and cultures, have been designed; through becoming aware of the contributions that diverse cultures have made to universal advances in mathematics, technology and science.

You have built that recognition of commonality through being moved intellectually, aesthetically, emotionally and ethically by the voices of other cultures, times and circumstance as expressed in their art, literature, music, and philosophy, and by realizing how often those voices speak to ideas, sentiments and values that are meaningful to you.

You have built that recognition through witnessing in your own engagement with other languages and cultures how many of the subtleties of other worlds can ultimately be understood, precisely because we share the underlying foundations of our conceptual, emotional and ethical lives.

And I would suggest that no experience has been more critical to developing that habit of recognizing commonality than living and working together in a diverse community, dedicated to shared goals. It is often harder and more transforming to recognize similarity across divides closer to home — over race, class, sexual orientation, ability, disability, accents, interests, beliefs, or life style — than across more distant and thus less threatening divides. And the diversity of this community has allowed you in one instance after another to discover how much you share beyond those socially constructed, initial perceptions of difference.

In a world of unprecedented wealth and opportunity, your readiness to recognize human commonality makes clear that those who have not benefited from that wealth and opportunity are not fundamentally different from yourselves or fundamentally less deserving.

And that knowledge prompts you to use your voice and talents to awaken collective responsibility to create conditions that allow everyone the real chance to achieve a better life.

In a world which tends to dismiss humane approaches to conflict resolution as weak or naive, because it perceives those on other sides of international cultural divides as responsive only to threat and punishment, your recognition of human commonality makes clear that responsiveness to extensions of generosity and trust and capacity to be moved by shared vision are as distributed in other societies as in our own; and that the results achieved through affirmative, and particularly mutual, initiatives are more likely to be lastingly embraced than those which are unilaterally imposed.

And that knowledge prompts you to use your voice and talents to insist that approaches based on the constructive attributes we share have been adequately tried.

In a world in which single dimensional human differences are so readily inflated into stereotypes which distance and discount the other as a whole, your recognition of fundamental human commonality compels you, in your personal interactions with individuals and groups, to refuse to define others by their difference, and rather to reach for the common ground you know you share.

And that knowledge prompts you to use your voice and talents to lead our societies both to respect difference and to understand how easily exaggerating difference can destroy community and undermine justice and peace.

I believe there is no stronger argument for diversity on college and university campuses than its crucial role in developing that internalized recognition of fundamental human commonality.

You, the Class of 2000, have been the most diverse class in the history of this College and have drawn on that essential context to respect what each other brings and to see beyond it to what you share.

In so doing you have each developed a habit of mind which transforms you into an agent of connection among the individuals and across the groups and societies of our world. And you have collectively defined a clearer standard of distinctive achievement for all future Swarthmore classes to meet.

Thank you, Class of 2000, for that central contribution to this institution's remarkable educational legacy and for the multiple additional ways in which you have helped Swarthmore to become an even finer institution as it enters the 21st Century.

Warmest congratulations! I wish you every satisfaction and happiness.

We will now proceed to the granting of honorary degrees!