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Commencement Address

Harold H. Saunders

I congratulate you on reaching this milestone. I can only begin to imagine the mix of feelings swirling around in each of you—exhilaration and confusion, pride and apprehension, confidence and uncertainty. Everyone who has sat where you are today has her or his own memories of moments like this. But be assured: your faculty, families and friends are confident that you are well prepared to take the next step—whatever you choose it to be.

I want to use these very few minutes to share with you two closely related thoughts that are on my mind. One is a thought about the wider world into which you are stepping. The other is a thought about the world that you have been shaping for yourselves.

First, I believe our country is more deeply and angrily divided today than at any time in my lifetime. Too many of us have lost the capacity to talk respectfully or relate constructively to one another.

Second is more a question in that context: I hear faculties say that this problem of a divided nation is deepened by the rapid replacement of face-to-face communication by retreat to the keypad and the screen.

I heard the president of another Pennsylvania liberal arts college recently lament that current modes of communication buffer students from dealing face to face with difference in ways that are essential for building the relationships essential to creative learning communities. He was so concerned that he invited students, faculty, administrators and staff to a meeting in the gym under the banner, “Can We Talk?” They broke up into small groups to share their concerns about the character of interactions on the campus. They came back together to share possible initiatives for next year to enhance the quality of dialogue on the campus.

We do indeed need to recapture a culture of dialogue. A colleague of mine, referring to the New England town meetings, once characterized the “quintessential American political speech” as the following: “We have a problem; let’s talk about it.”

I define dialogue in a very specific way, and I use it for a very specific reason.

First, dialogue is not about talking. It’s about listening. Dialogue is one person listening carefully and deeply enough to another to be changed by what he or she hears.

Second, that openness of one person to another makes dialogue the essence of genuine relationship. Relationship is at the heart of a peaceful and productive society.


Unfortunately, dialogue and relationship are among the words in American usage that have become trivialized by casual use. For that reason, I have carefully defined both. I have mentioned my definition of dialogue. I have defined relationship in terms of five components: identity, interests, power, stereotyping and patterns of interaction.

The title of my last book was Politics Is About Relationship. That was intended as a direct rebuttal to the mantra of American political science for the last three generations, “Politics is about power,” with power defined as coercion and control. Where was that kind of power when the Berlin Wall came down? Where was that kind of power in Tahrir Square in Cairo two months ago? Power is generated when citizens come together in relationship. I grew up during World War II, when one of the most valued American traits was teamwork—teamwork on the battlefield, on the production line, in the laboratory, in government, in the executive office.

I fear that neither dialogue nor genuine relationship can happen with the touch of a few characters on a keypad.

Yes, one may be changed by what he or she may read on someone’s Facebook wall. But that does not produce the relationship that comes from sustained, direct interaction.

Twitter may have played an important role in bringing Egyptians into Tahrir Square. But what can it do to build a relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians that will prevent a church from being burned?

Modern modes of communication can be incredibly useful, but we need to learn how they can complement dialogue and relationship—not replace them.

I believe a few of you have engaged this year in a process called Sustained Dialogue. It can provide a space where students of different ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, religious beliefs or economic class come together repeatedly through the academic year to talk honestly about their differences, to turn difference into strength—the strength of relationship.

Let me say a word about that word sustained. I am told that sustainability has been an organizing theme for a number of discussions and programs at Susquehanna this year. Sustainability normally refers these days to the aim of enhancing the capacity of our earth to sustain life over eons to come. That will depend in part on the ability of human beings to relate peacefully and productively.

Since relationship will be critical to that effort, we need to cultivate the capacity for dialogue, which is the essence of relationship. Experience has shown that dialogue doesn’t just happen. Like everything of value, it takes time and systematic interaction. We resist it, because it isn’t always comfortable to open ourselves up to others. It isn’t always comfortable to make ourselves vulnerable to others. We have to persevere in dialogue to overcome the resistance to showing empathy for others who are different. Dialogue must be sustained.

For over 40 years, I have been intensively involved in, or have conducted dialogues among, enemies—Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians, Soviets, Americans, Iraqis, Indians, Pakistanis. It can take days of dialogue before someone will say, “If I had had your experience, I would probably feel the same way you do.” It can take many more days before someone can say, “Let’s see whether we can figure out together how to deal with the problems between us.” Dialogue must be face to face. Dialogue must be systematic and sustained. Sustained Dialogue is a powerful instrument for change.

Some people tell me, “That’s just touchy-feely stuff.” I can testify with intense feeling that, if you have ever sat in a room with people who have been killing each other and watched them, as I have, learn to work together to end a civil war, you would feel its power.

Or consider the following story from a college campus. In 2001, students at Princeton who launched the first Sustained Dialogue programs on a college campus were in their last months before graduation. They learned of a young man who had been admitted to Princeton in 1935. When he arrived for registration, the dean of admissions saw that he was black. He told the young man, in effect, “Princeton doesn’t discriminate, but this is a very southern school, and I strongly advise you to think about whether you wouldn’t be happier with students of your own race.” The young man left, ultimately earned a law degree and joined a New York law firm, where he represented some of the leading jazz musicians of his day. He was appointed a justice of the supreme court of New York state.

The students in the dialogue tracked Judge Bruce Wright down in retirement and asked him whether he would accept honorary membership in their class as they graduated. He accepted, and at the class day ceremony was inducted into the Class of 2001. As it happened, the two other inductees that day were the outgoing and incoming presidents of Princeton. The New York Times published a story with a picture. As one of the deans said, it triggered a period of deep introspection in the university community.

There’s nothing touchy-feely about such moments. That is the serious work of contrition, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s the work of transforming the culture of a community.

Now, I’m not here to sell my approach. I am saying very seriously that you face a tremendous challenge: reversing what it is not an exaggeration to call a potential breakdown in the quality of American social and political life. The evidence is all around us.

You, the next generation of leaders, can provide essential leadership in helping to overcome the deep and angry divisions in our society.

But that can happen only if we acknowledge that we do have a problem, and only if we can learn to talk about it. We need to recapture a culture of dialogue. That’s the challenge before you. Go to it!

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