Skip to main content

David Kennedy '80

David Kennedy, you are a renowned teacher, an influential scholar, and a tireless activist in the area of criminal justice and public policy. You have advocated for a justice system based on policing and prevention that enables young offenders to rethink their choices and reform their lives. Your imaginative ideas have been implemented in major cities around the world, reducing crime rates among young people and saving lives. You have helped to build organizations and establish programs that enable communities to protect neighborhoods and renew their sense of common purpose.
Full introduction.

Thank you so very much for that wonderful introduction.

I'm sort of an academic, which means I sort of talk for a living, and I'm going to say I'm pretty good at it, and I'm rarely at a loss for words, or — for better or worse — to know what I think and how to get that said. This is very much an exception to that. I got the call from Swarthmore that I was to receive this honorary degree several months ago, and it was so unexpected and, frankly, incomprehensible that for some little while, on my end of the phone, I literally could not understand what was being said to me. I of course understood then that I'd be expected to say a few words today, and have had all that time to think about it, and really haven't done much better. But here is my not-very-good attempt to say how very much it means to me to be standing here today.

I'm standing, to begin with, in front of my parents, Chris and Jane, who met here over 60 years ago. Swarthmore is therefore literally part of the reason I'm here today. Growing up, their love for this place and what it meant to them was part of the fabric of my family. It's not why I came here myself, but it's a large part of why I even knew about Swarthmore, and eventually made my own decision to come here. When I opened the letter saying I'd been admitted, my father cried.

The family I grew up in, the tone my parents set, was a fiercely moral one, something I think my sister Betsy, who is also here today, will vouch for. Some of that came naturally to both of them. My mother has the carefree, self-indulgent nature typical of those who grow up in Scots families, and my father came to Swarthmore to be trained as an engineer, which is itself a pragmatic, no-nonsense calling. But the larger part of it was I think a set of choices, a fundamental framework, for how they came to believe it was correct to approach the world, at least some of which I think they learned here. The morality I was raised in was not received or religious, or even very easy to specify. It was an overarching attitude that said, do your homework, educate yourself, think clearly, and do the right thing. Do that responsibly, do your best, and you will have no one either to answer to or to apologize to. Do any less and you are violating your obligations to yourself and as a responsible person, an adult, a citizen.

That is, I've come to believe, a pretty good gloss on what a liberal arts education, and particularly this college, seeks to produce: people who feel obliged to, and capable of, thinking and acting clearly, independently, effectively, and rightly. I sat in a chair out where you are over 30 years ago, delighted and relieved to be being graduated, and had not the slightest idea of what I was about to do with myself. A few years later I stood in one of the worst crack markets in Los Angeles — I was there in a professional capacity, I hasten to add — and saw the devastation around me and thought, we have to do something about this. Thirty hard years later I can stand here and say, we have in fact figured out what to do about the worst of the violence and fear and racial tension that saturate America's most distressed and oppressed communities. That path has been travelled by a growing community of extraordinary people who have refused to accept that those problems could not be solved, have been willing to think in unexpected and very often deeply unpopular ways, and have honored equally clear thinking and effective action. That community is saving lives, restoring neighborhoods, and dissolving racial animosity all over the United States. It is so profound on the ground that it is often called a miracle. It is not a miracle. It is real people doing real work, with relentless intellectual, practical, and moral seriousness.

Nobody taught any of us to do it; we have been making it up, in some considerable terror, every step of the way. But I genuinely believe that the habits of mind, the fundamental orientation, that was bred into me personally, at least, at home, and honed here at Swarthmore College, are central to why we have been able to make our way. Hans Oberdiek, one of my favorite professors and my advisor for my honors thesis on Immanuel Kant, is here today. I loved my studies, with him and with others, and then I sat here in 1980 and thought, what in God's name is a Swarthmore philosophy degree good for? I stand here today with at least one answer to that question. And since this is a day, more than anything else, to honor and celebrate your accomplishments, and to share your families' joy and pride in your accomplishments, let me say that it has been the most unexpected and wonderful adventure. Which I am delighted to tell you is what your paths hold for you, in what will be their own unexpected and wonderful ways. And let me predict also that some of you here today will get your own phone call, years hence, and you will not expect it or be able to take it in either, and that you will be at least as overwhelmed and overjoyed as I was: and am.