Commencement Address -- Josef Joffe '65
2 June, 2002
Dear Class of 2002:
I am enormously proud to be here. Or more precisely, I am enormously proud not to be Henry Kissinger, who is an old teacher and friend. Because Henry never received an honorary degree from his alma mater, Harvard. And I did.
Which proves that Swarthmore is a lot smarter than Harvard. But we knew this all along.
I am proud to be here in yet another way. That I stand here in front of you should be an object lesson to all of you, as you are about to march off into the "real world" (which, by the way, is nothing compared to the grueling educational challenge that is Swarthmore).That I should be receiving this honorary degree proves not only to me, but also to all of you that everything is possible.
Why? Because I entered Swarthmore with an SAT of 1220 and English language skills at about the same level. And yet I did graduate. And yet I did graduate with honors. And now I am graduating again, with the highest honors Swarthmore can bestow.
The point is: This experience of mine should be a powerful encouragement to all of you. If I can do it, you can do it. If you apply yourself diligently to your pursuits, both intellectual and financial, if you send in your regular check to the College, if you keep the Alumni Office's records up to date, so that they can find you, you, too, can stand here in 37 years and do better than Henry Kissinger.
I mean it. What Swarthmore has given us is the best education that can be had between Chester, Pa. and Beijing, China.
Everybody now touts "continuing education" as the great weapon against the rapid obsolescence of knowledge.
My education at Swarthmore never became obsolete. What I learned here in philosophy, economics and political science, in psychology and fine arts history, was money in the piggy bank of the mind that was never depleted. It was the asset of all assets which kept multiplying. Because liberal arts, unlike all those "relevant" subjects from management studies to computer science never turns obsolete. Liberal arts is the tool of all tools that will accompany you all your life. And make you not only a bit smarter, but also a bit wiser than those who did not have the privilege of attending Swarthmore.
But I am not just singing a paeon to the typical Swatty, "Turkeys," as we called them in our days. What I have in mind, very apropos this year, is Spider-Man.
Look at him. In school he was put down as "bookworm" and ignored by the girl he adored. He had to navigate the shoals of self-doubt and desperation, as we did, when we could not finish that seminar paper due in six hours. Or face that outside examiner in the orals. But then, he was bitten by the spider, and he turned into a superhero. That's you: You, the graduates, have been bitten by the spider that is Swarthmore.
You have been infused with the rules of first-rate thought and good writing.
You have learned to think beyond the cliches and homilies of the day.
You have learned not just how to find, but how to analyze and weigh information. Which Google can never do for you.
You have learned about the pleasures of the mind and the crystal-clear high of a hard-driving intellectual debate.
You have also learned that sheer learnedness is not enough; it has to be leavened by wit and irony.
But Spider-Man is about more than just teenage angst. Spider-Man in the shape of Tobey McGuire begins his career with the typical self-absorption of young people. He just wants to make some money to buy the car that would impress his Guinevere. But then he listens do his dying uncle who is whispering: Power requires responsibility.
This is what the liberal arts college is also about — about the progress from the exuberance of youth to the maturity of adults, from the "me" to the "us", from the individual to the community. What Uncle Ben taught Spider-Man, Swarthmore has taught to all of us: responsibility.
And I have a much better authority than Spider-Man to make this point. He was talking not just to graduates but to America, the country as a whole:
"The price of greatness is responsibility. One cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes."
That was Winston Churchill on 6 September 1963 when, unlike Kissinger, he received an honorary degree from Harvard.
Please forgive the Harvard digression. I had to bring in Harvard because that's where I got my Ph.D. In Harvard, by the way, they call Swarthmore "None" — n-o-n-e — , as in "Harvard is second to none."
So go out there and take Swarthmore with you. Be Spider-Man, be Churchill, but above all, be Swarthmoreans.
Congratulations and thank you. Thank you for listening, and thank you, Swarthmore, for bestowing its greatest honor on this member of the class of '65.