May 17, 2021

The following are my remarks to our students who graduated this past weekend:

I will always think of you as my class. We came in together, and I am sure that none of us anticipated how these four years would play out.

The purpose of a liberal-arts education is to provide you with a broad base of knowledge and a developing sense of the profound interconnectedness of things and ideas.

Those of you who know our mission statement, please join me.

Susquehanna University educates students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.

This is not a pithy slogan. It is the foundation of global citizenship. Over the coming years, I hope you will reflect on how these lofty goals unfold in your own lives and how your experiences at Susquehanna cultivated your capacity to live our mission to its fullest.

I often hear students and colleagues say “In the real world,” as if we were a community of avatars. Plato’s idealized academy in Arcadia was an attempt to shelter reflective learning from the noise and distractions of daily life entirely so his students could focus on the big issues of their real world, just as you have.

If there were ever any legitimacy to college life being in the shelter of an ivory tower, over the past two years, the real world breached the ramparts and made itself quite at home.

The pandemic, social unrest, advocating for racial equity, and a nation and world torn apart by divisive tribalism moved into our Arcadia, our Susquehanna, but it didn’t daunt our mission, and it didn’t compromise your education.

Artists, musicians, and actors went to extraordinary lengths to reach audiences who had a new-found understanding of what the arts mean to them and how they serve as a lens for reading the evermore complex text that is our lives.

Social scientists have watched the fraying of social systems, community morés, and a loss of faith in institutions once deemed to be the center of our common good.

Those in the humanities have witnessed existential dilemmas about what justice means, for whom, and why, and they have seen historically central ideologies aggressively challenged for good and bad.

Scientists learned that knowledge and facts alone are inadequate tools to convince the populace to do what is in their own and our collective best interest.

The world has been our classroom. In our first semester together, I spoke of Diogenes referring to himself as a citizen of the world. We now know that is what we are, because we have all become students of the world.

The Enlightenment was a phenomenal moment in our history in every sense of the word. Political upheavals, scientific revolutions, and economic transformations kindled an intellectual transfiguration that acknowledged the capacity of science to understand the world around us, provided models for a just and free society, and most importantly recognized and elevated the value and capacity of the individual.

The Enlightenment was the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and of the American and French Revolutions. Sadly, it was also the forge for expanding social stratification and slavery.

The failure of the enlightenment was that it was neither universally distributed nor equitably applied. That failure was the crucible for the leading challenges of our age.

How do we enact the bold and beautiful ideas of the Enlightenment fairly and audaciously to all, and how do we learn from the history of our failures and struggles to achieve those lofty, yet fundamental goals? This is what it will mean to achieve, lead, and serve. This is what it will mean to be better.

What can we learn from history, and what can we learn from our present experience that can make those goals a reality? We can only fully learn from our past by acknowledging all of it, the good and the bad. We must not reject the good because of its association with the bad, and we dare not ignore the bad, because we have the capacity to do far worse if we deny the sins of the past.

As you all know, the Renaissance refers to a rebirth. Often, we lose sight of how literal that name was. We acknowledge the remarkable flourishing the arts, science, and literature, but those achievements were connected to a rediscovery — a rebirth — of philosophy, literature, and science from ancient Greece and Rome.

One of the great architectural achievements of the Renaissance was the construction of the dome on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. When Filippo Brunelleschi accepted the commission to design the dome, no one knew how to construct a dome of that size, and yet the Pantheon in Rome, which is even wider had been built by the Romans over 1300 years earlier.

We lost over a thousand years of ideas and technology because of their association with other ideas and practices that rightfully remain in our past.

You have spent the past four years in a marketplace of ideas. Our future success will depend on its continued breadth and free exchange, and fortunately, you have learned to discern truth from opinion and facts from propaganda. You have become sophists whose goal is to divine the truth and lift up the good.

You have seen first-hand how truly interdependent we are. We are able to be here today because you chose to work as a community for the common good, and nearly every setback we experienced resulted from a moment when someone lost sight of that. As leaders, you must always choose the common good.

Class of 2021, you are graduating into a world of unprecedented complexity and challenge, but I am hopeful because I know what you can do. I am so proud of you, of what you have accomplished, and even prouder of what you will achieve.

Congratulations!

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