Taking responsibility

Baccalaureate address

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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I imagine you are finding it difficult to believe that your time here has come to an end. Let me tell you from experience: your memories of Yale College, and the lessons you have learned here, will endure, but you have so many exciting possibilities ahead that the sense of loss you feel today will fade quickly. And think of all that you have accomplished! You have opened for yourselves worlds that you never knew existed when you came here four years ago. You have discovered that you love philosophy, or music, or art history, or archaeological fieldwork, or analyzing economic data or computer images of the stars, or characterizing endophytes you gathered on a field trip to a rain forest, or helping to build a quantum computer. Nearly 900 of you spent at least one summer or semester in South America, or Africa, or Asia, or Europe learning a language, doing research, working as an intern, or taking a course led by a Yale professor. You have learned the value of seeing the world and the value of appreciating the differences among its peoples. You have worked hard. You have had fun. You have made friends for a lifetime. And you have come to know yourselves better than before—not only from the books you have read and the courses you have taken, not only from the overseas experiences you have had, but also from your endless discussions with classmates about your beliefs, hopes, and aspirations.

You have also learned something here about responsibility. You have lived in communities—communities formed by your suitemates, your entryway, and your college, as well as in communities defined as singing groups, chamber orchestras, dramatic societies, service organizations, publications, religious organizations, athletic teams, fraternities, sororities, and societies. Living in these communities and making them work has been a big part of your experience. You have learned that as gifted and talented as you are—and you are—it is not all about you. It is all about us. You have learned that making communities productive and a positive experience for all means taking account of the perceptions, feelings, and aspirations of others. Living in some of Yale’s many communities has made you a better listener, more respectful of others and better equipped to serve and to lead in the world beyond these walls.

And what of the world you are entering? There are big communities out there in which you will have roles, and, therefore, responsibilities. We are a global university, and each of you has a nation to which you now have an opportunity to contribute. Problems abound all around the world, and choices of direction are confronting every nation. Europe is debating austerity versus growth. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern and North African countries are testing whether democracy can thrive. China is struggling to find a way to distribute the fruits of increased prosperity more equitably and to diminish the adverse environmental impact of rapid growth. The argument I wish to advance now applies equally to those of you with responsibilities as citizens of countries around the world, but I will focus on the United States, where all of you have chosen to attend school.

Surely you have noticed that there is a presidential election going on. But it does not seem to have captured the imagination of many of you, as elections have often in the past. Let me suggest why. Perhaps it is because the issues that truly matter for the nation and the world are not at center stage. And there are, for sure, issues that truly matter. How do we create a sustainable foundation for long-run prosperity, with good jobs created in ever-increasing numbers to spread the fruits of growth more equitably across the population? How do we provide high-quality and humane health care at a cost we can afford? How do we prevent the continued consumption of fossil fuels from warming our planet to the point that ecosystems are destroyed, food supplies are threatened, and rising sea levels force hundreds of millions to relocate? And, as a nation, how do we engage with a world in which the distribution of power and influence is inevitably becoming more multipolar?

It is not that these issues are being altogether ignored. For example, competing approaches to revitalizing the economy are very much the subject of debate, but the issues are typically broken into unconnected pieces and discussed in terms that reflect oversimplified ideological preferences rather than serious analysis. We talk about whether to increase the debt ceiling as if it were a religious issue, or whether to extend the tax cuts enacted a decade ago as if this were in itself the single question defining the proper role of government in the economy. Meanwhile, we ignore serious deliberation of how to undertake and finance, on a substantial scale, the investments in infrastructure, innovation, education, and training that are of fundamental importance to our future well-being.

The issue of climate change seems to have disappeared under the table, buried in an avalanche of know-nothing advocacy that disparages decades of disinterested scientific research. And the implications of a shift in the distribution of power among nations are simply not in the debate chamber. Instead, we talk of securing a new American Century, as if continued global dominance were a national objective. I do believe that America can prosper and lead in the twenty-first century. But the global landscape today is far different than it was in 1945, when World War II ended, or 1989, when the Cold War ended. We should be talking about how we might work effectively with other nations in the context of more widely shared power and responsibility.

I was poignantly reminded of the poverty of our current political discourse when, a couple of weeks ago, Professor Steven Smith, who recently stepped down as master of Branford College, gave me a copy of his new edition of The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, published by the Yale University Press.

How utterly refreshing it is to read Lincoln’s beautifully written, closely argued speeches and letters that grapple directly, deeply, and forcefully with the issues of his time. Of course, Lincoln’s main preoccupation was with the subject of slavery, and he addresses that issue with a rigor and depth of argument that is simply unknown in American political discourse today. But he also touched brilliantly on other subjects of more direct relevance to our current situation. In a speech given in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Association in September 1859, Lincoln addressed the full range of issues associated with deriving maximum social benefit from the development of what was then the nation’s most significant natural resource—its fertile and abundant agricultural land. Like so many of Lincoln’s speeches, it is remarkable for displaying an extraordinary mastery of his subject matter. His discussion focused on the need for continued innovation as a means to greater productivity and prosperity. To enable such innovation, he stressed the importance of infrastructure in the form of access to adequate supplies of water, and he especially emphasized the need for education. Farmers, said Lincoln, need not only to be literate, but also to have a working knowledge of botany, chemistry, and the mechanical arts.

One might have thought that Lincoln’s vision of increasing prosperity through investment in innovation, infrastructure, and education might have been set aside in the face of the overwhelming priority of civil war that confronted him within six weeks of taking office. But, no, within a period of two years, working with Congress, Lincoln was able to enact legislation authorizing a transcontinental railroad; the Homestead Act, enabling the establishment of farms across the western territories; and the Morrill Act, granting land for the establishment of colleges to teach agriculture and the mechanical arts—colleges that subsequently became our treasured state universities. These public investments were the foundation of late-nineteenth-century America’s prosperity.