Commencment Address -- Alfred H. Bloom
June 1, 2003
Welcome, and congratulations, Class of 2003, 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 are looking 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.
In this same year that you assume your new status as alumni of the College, David Lester, after 44 years of service, and Delores Mingledoff, after 30 years of service, are retiring from our staff; and Lee Devin, Professor of Theater; Jim Freeman, Underhill Professor of Music; Jerry Frost, Jenkins Professor of Quaker History and Research; and Hugh Lacey, Scheuer Professor of Philosophy, 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 2003, you are graduating at a historic moment in the relationship of this nation to the world — at a moment when, given the power and resources at this nation's command, the form of international leadership that America adopts and the policies and actions it pursues will fundamentally influence, if not determine, both its own future and that of the world.
I ask you, today, in addition to all else that you do and accomplish, to help shape that leadership, to ensure that America takes advantage of this unprecedented moment to make a positive difference for itself and for all the nations with whom we share this globe.
Recent events make starkly clear that defining effective international leadership is an awesomely complex task, but precisely because that task is so complex, and at the same time so singularly consequential, I feel more confident entrusting it to you than to any other soon-to-be-graduates, anywhere.
Because I know that you will continue to think hard about the world you would like to see, and the role America must play in that world.
Because I know that as international circumstances arise inviting American response, you will push yourselves to as clear and comprehensive a framing of the issues, as imaginative a conception of alternative responses, and as careful a weighing of the likely and possible consequences of those responses, as anyone can.
Because I know that as you make these assessments you will bring your own independent judgment to bear on the critical variables involved, such as whether this nation's security, or another's, is truly at stake; whether circumstances justify intervention, to defend the freedom or well-being of a people; whether the use of force is warranted; whether America should act alone, if others cannot be persuaded to join; and how much America can afford to spend, or cannot afford not to spend, for its own sake and for the sake of building a more secure, healthy and inclusive world.
I feel confident entrusting the definition of American leadership to you, because I also know that you will maintain your conceptual and ethical bearings in the face of mass opinion, political rhetoric, moralistic appeals and instrumental pressures; and that you will decide which courses of action to support, or not to support, in the light of what you think is good and just both for your own society and for all of humanity — and in the light of what you believe will most likely advance the world you hope to build.
I know that you will employ these habits of mind because of who you are and of what it means to have been educated here. As you employ them, you will model a way to think about these issues, which others will come to prefer, just as you have, above less complex approaches; and — as citizens, opinion leaders and decision-makers of this nation or of another — you will influence directly or indirectly the way America leads.
But, before you go on to make your mark, in your careers and on the world, I must ask you to accept responsibility for a further dimension of American leadership, one which this moment in history invests with particular urgency.
Whether you were born here or have come to this country to take advantage of the education this College and America offer, 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 ideals. For over two centuries it has sustained a working, though not yet inclusive, democratic system, without experiencing an overthrow of the framing principles of its republic. It has developed an economic system which offers remarkable, though still far from universal, opportunity for economic and social mobility; and, for that, has become the model emulated by much of the world. Through immigration, it has enriched extraordinarily the diversity of its population. It has made important, though far from complete, progress towards creating equal welcome and treatment across differences of gender, race, culture and sexual orientation. And it has produced a culture with pervasive impact across the world and hegemony over the very large majority of intellectual fields.
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 the globe. That unexamined certainty creates the conviction that oneÕs own nation or people have the corner on modes of political and economic behavior, on appropriate priorities among values, on what constitutes relevant experience, and on what societal and global accomplishment are truly about. And, buttressed by national, cultural and religious pride, that unexamined certainty, can become quite resistant to rational analysis and quite impervious to alternative views.
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 'zhong gúo' — the middle kingdom — they did so with this very kind of certainty at the foundation of their worldview.
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 this nation beginning to underestimate the extent to which its own well-being is linked to that of others, I ask you to help America focus more clearly on the risks entailed by not giving collaborative approaches every chance — to remind it of the vision underlying its own federal structure, which sees the best protection of the interests and security of each state in an overarching commitment to the well-being and purpose of the whole.
If you see America so persuaded by its own success that it begins to assume that only its political and economic practices and its chosen societal priorities are right for everyone — if you see it begin to assume, for example, that its preference for political freedoms over universal health care, equal educational opportunity and economic mobility, or for interpersonal fairness over building inclusive society, are the only responsible choices for a free society, then I ask you to help America to listen more openly to other views, and particularly as they relate to nations at stages of economic and political development different from our own.
If you see America becoming so certain of itself that it begins to believe itself better than the other nations and peoples with whom it shares this globe, I ask you to help America to apply its own democratic ideals to the world stage — to see the world as a community of peoples of equal worth and potential, each of whom demands our full respect, each of whose lives and satisfaction matter, and each of whose trust in us would count as a measure of the effectiveness and legitimacy of our own leadership. It would be more than a disappointing irony for a nation built on democratic aspirations and on the strengths of immigration to begin to disrespect its own international roots.
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 here to lead America to lead — in ways consistent with its own democratic tradition, in ways consistent with the symbolism that the world has and wants to associate with America, in ways consistent with what an increasingly educated and aware world looks to in a leader, and in ways which will enable America to make that positive difference for itself and for others that this moment in history empowers it to make.
Asking any other group of very-soon-to-be graduates to provide the complex and vigilant guidance required for this crucial task might seem a bit utopian, but to judge by the alums who have preceded you in those very chairs, the respect you will earn across the paths of life you take, will allow you to exert influence far more extensive than you now imagine.
Combining your potential with that of this nation creates a realistic way to overcome for the good the cycles of history.
Class of 2003, I wish you continuing success in this and in everything you undertake, and I wish you ever deepening satisfaction and happiness.
Warmest congratulations to each of you!