Taking responsibility

We need to make such investments again today. We need to repair our crumbling physical infrastructure: our highways, ports, railroads, and airports, as well as waste and water management, traffic control, and communications systems. To make possible the flow of innovations upon which our economy depends, we need to maintain our commitment to investing in science. And to equip our citizens with the skills required to be productive and competitive in a modern, technology-enabled workplace, we need to make large and well-directed investments in both basic K–12 education and in specialized technical training. The gap in earnings between the highly educated and the poorly educated has grown dramatically in the last three decades, and the earnings of those without a college education have not kept up with inflation. Educating our workforce is the most effective way to prevent rising income disparity.

Tomorrow, I will confer upon you the degrees in Yale College as recommended by your dean, and I will at that moment “admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” Not “rights and privileges,” which is the language used at most of our peer institutions. You have already had the privilege of an extraordinary education. Now, you will assume the responsibilities that are entailed by that privilege.

By using the powers of reason and expression you developed here at Yale, by drawing upon your wide exposure to many disciplines and forms of discourse, each one of you has the capacity to make a difference in the quest to build a better world, for yourselves and for future generations. You can start by engaging in the public debate about the investments needed to secure our future and the perspective needed to operate effectively in a multipolar world. You can bring rigor and seriousness to the political dialogue, and insist that others do so as well by rejecting the superficial ideological slogans that are no substitute for true argument. And you can engage more directly in repairing the world through the career paths you choose and the organizations you join and support. I am not saying that you all need to take up public service or teach school, although I hope and trust that some of you will. Instead, I am urging you to engage with the future by helping to raise the sights of your communities, as Yale graduates traditionally have, and not confine your activity merely to the private pursuit of health, wealth, and happiness.

This is where I started, by reminding you that Yale is not merely a place that enabled you to define and transform yourselves as individuals. It has been for each of you a network of many communities in which you were expected to participate and to which you were expected to contribute. The world outside is no different. We need you to engage, to consider the well-being of others as well as yourselves: we need you to take responsibility.

Lincoln closed his Wisconsin speech with a memorable passage, inspiring his audience in his inimitable and graceful prose not to accept the world passively, but to work actively toward its betterment. He said: “Let us hope … that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

Women and men of the Yale College Class of 2012: congratulations! Your accomplishments, inside and outside the classroom, have earned our heartfelt praise and admiration. You have expanded your own horizons, and you have sustained and improved the life of Yale’s many communities. Now is the time to build flourishing lives for yourselves, and also to strive for the betterment of your communities—local, professional, national, and global. Help these communities cultivate the world around us and the worlds within us. Take inspiration from Lincoln and from your own experiences here at Yale, and make your course, and the course of those without the privileges accorded to you, onward and upward.

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