Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed May 30, 1997
Contact: Mark Nickel

Remarks at Brown University's 229th Commencement

By Vartan Gregorian
Sixteenth President, Brown University

The College Green
May 26, 1997

Ladies and Gentlemen:

This is a joyous day for the magnificent Class of 1997!

In celebrating you, today we are celebrating your continuous journey

towards the creation of the future. We are celebrating knowledge as a means to learning , to autonomy, to dignity, to individual and collective freedom.

We are celebrating hope, the human spirit, human potentiality, the joy, agony and ecstasy of learning and discovery. We celebrate our community with humankind.

Today is a double holiday. It is Commencement Day and Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a national remembrance day, a day of gratitude for sacrifices of past generations, their contributions to future generations, to us. Today we also remember Brown University's historic losses, as well as recent losses.

From Brown University's very inception, its "merry youth" left these halls to serve their country. The same year as the Declaration of Independence, this college lost its first student in the American Revolution. Twenty-one Brown men lost their lives in the Civil War.

Yesterday, at Soldiers' Arch, we paid our respects to four Brown University generations who fought during World Wars I and II, as well as in Korea and Vietnam. Yesterday, the bell in University Hall tolled 243 times to honor those who died.

To echo Ambassador Nathaniel Davis' senior oration in 1944:

".....some day [America's] arms will grow rusty and we must have a force of ideals, not consumed, but strengthened. For we should not have a small objective for such a big war, when there is a big objective: to build a free world for free men and women."

And many Brown University students did return to begin rebuilding America at the end of each war. Last year we celebrated the great 50th reunion class -- the wartime Class of 1946. Today, we celebrate the 50th reunion of the Class of 1947. Together, they marked not only the end of a war, but new hope for a just society. They formed a new generation which, aided by the GI Bill, restarted the engines of America.

I salute the entire Class of 1947 for their courage, their sacrifices and their hard work, and I salute all veterans of all wars who are present at these ceremonies. The Class of 1997 -- and all of us here today -- owe you men and women a personal debt for preserving the freedom we have in abundance in America today.

I also want to pay tribute to the memory of our faculty and alumni who died during this academic year, particularly the faculty and students who suddenly and tragically lost their lives since last Commencement.

But let me now turn to the joyous happenings of today -- the beginning of the best of beginnings. Your future -- the future of the Class of 1997.

Since Brown does not have a tradition of Commencement speaker, every year I address the Senior Class at a dinner held in their honor. You, as parents and grandparents of this class, should know the substance of my remarks on that occasion.

Last Tuesday, I reminded your sons and daughters once again that they are not sociobiological, consumer or entertainment units in the great course of things. I reminded them that they are spiritual, moral, rational human beings, that they are not mere actualities, they are potentialities.

I told them that life does not end with college. I even reminded them not to worry -- that most of them will have another 60 or 70 years of challenge to fulfill their potential.

I also reminded them that while pursuing success, they should remember that success comes in different forms. While youth is forever, material wealth, fame, beauty, laurels of every kind are ephemeral. What is enduring in life is character, reputation, integrity, honesty, authenticity and, indeed, a much abused word -- honor. None of these should be mortgaged for opportunism.

Members of the Class of 1997, on many occasions you have heard me warn you to resist the charm of cynicism -- the most corrosive of human failings. Cynicism sows suspicion and distrust, demeans hope and debases idealism. It diminishes us all.

My fellow seniors, I hope you have learned at Brown that education is not to be equated with the intellectual act of clever debunking and the elimination of all beliefs, that it does not advocate the debunking of all myths and moving beyond all values, that its aim is not to promote an "incapacity for commitment, nihilism and pathological fear of settled principles, that its aim has never been to destroy everything and conserve nothing. As C.S. Lewis put it so eloquently in his Abolition of Man: "You cannot go 'explaining away' forever, or you will find that you 'explained away' explanation itself. You cannot go on 'seeing through' things forever . . . if you see through everything, then everything is transparent. A wholly transparent world is an invisible world, to 'see through' all things is the same as not to see."

Yes, healthy skepticism is indispensable, if the interaction is to distinguish the correct from the false, the lie from the truth. But an exaggeration of the skeptical attitude can, but must not, lead to cynicism and the disavowal of all values.

We must build and affirm rather than merely deny and debunk. We must attempt to lead an examined life and not a life of spiritual negation.

Today as our communities and our sense of community are weakened or are disintegrating, when we have lost the understanding of the interdependence of the individual and the group that has existed below the level of consciousness in all healthy communities from the beginning of time, our task, your task, is to restore an awareness of that mutual dependence.

Individuals have a duty to nurture and constantly reconstruct and renew the community of which they are a part. We must be committed to the continuous rebuilding of society and to the continuous reweaving of the social fabric.

For a nation's greatness is measured not only by its gross national product or military power, but also by the strength of its devotion to principles and values that bind its people and define their character. National character depends on and must be embodied in the character of our people. This, in turn, is influenced by a sense of who we are as a nation and that which we believe. Our social and cultural institutions can only be as good as the people who serve in them. Policies created in national process are only as good as the public servants who implement them. Above all else, remember we are citizens, citizens in a democracy, citizens of these United States.

Without a sense of citizenship, we become moral isolationists. It is the concept and the essence of citizenship that ties a pluralistic democracy.

It is citizenship that makes the social contract a moral transaction, governing not only our behavior towards one another now, but toward generations past and future.

We must remember that our society is more than a vast market and individuals are more than producers, consumers and entrepreneurs.

We become a community of citizens bound by mutual commitment not by chance and circumstance. For freedom and obligation, liberty and duty, are intertwined. Individual responsibility is at the heart of a true democratic citizenship.

So my dear seniors and graduates, please do not surrender to the charm of cynicism and cynics. After all, it is cynics who have tried to foist upon you the label of "Generation X." Such generalizations are not new. It was Hemingway who, in 1926, gave "The Lost Generation" its name. That was followed by other facile characterizations, such as The Restive 30's, The Conformist 40's, The Beat Generation of the 50's, The Unstable 60's, the Me Generation of the 70's, and the Self-Contented Yuppies of the 80's.

Adlai Stevenson was right when he said, "Nothing so dates a man as to decry the younger generation." So I ask that you refuse the title of Generation X and insist on one that suits your highest ideals and aspirations. I know what those are, for I have witnessed firsthand your idealism, your under- standing, the high expectations you have of yourself and your peers, the 50,000 hours of service which you, as Brown students, give annually to Providence and the Rhode Island community.

Through that public service and in many other ways, you have already affirmed the concept of citizenship as the social and political bond that unites us. You have shown that you understand that it is citizenship that makes the social contract a moral transaction, governing not only our behavior towards one another now, but toward generations past and future.

Therefore, in my opinion, you have the makings of The Compassionate Generation, the one which cares for social justice, the one which will dedicate itself to the unfinished agenda of American democracy.

You leave here understanding that educated men and women must build and affirm rather that merely deny and debunk. You leave Brown understanding that your liberal education encourages -- not discourages -- the formation of stable ideas and the taking of firm commitments.

Remember that our Founding Fathers did not found a land of opportunists, but a land of opportunity. I am confident that you will do well. I am also confident you will do good. You have learned to perform well as writers and speakers. You know your way around the laboratory, the stage and the playing field. Most importantly, your professors have endowed you with the skill for critical thinking. I share their confidence and your pride. I am sure you will leave for the next generation a better future.

As a valediction, I paraphrase a sage who said, "Every age has its time, every man has his hour. To seize the time, to seize the hour is all." This is your hour and you must seize it with all your strength.

I would like to add a final word to the Corporation and to our alumni, faculty and staff about the prospects of Brown. We have intellectual wealth, great talent and financial resources. For Brown, the issue is no longer survival. Rather, the issue is to maintain and support our highest aspirations and integrity and to continue to excel at every endeavor upon which we choose to embark. We must prepare ourselves for an era of rapid change. That is our obligation to those who have been creating Brown since its creation, and it is our obligation to generations of students and faculty in the years to come.

When I became an American citizen, I quoted Thomas Wolfe's assertion of America's dream when he wrote, "I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfillment of our spirit, our mighty and immortal lamp, is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us and I think that all these things are certain, as certain as the morning, as inevitable as the noon."

This morning, let me paraphrase Wolfe's eloquent observation on potential. I think the true fulfillment of Brown's role in higher education is yet to come. I think the true discovery of Brown's potential is still before us, I think the true appreciation of a liberal education is before us, and I think that all these things are certain, as certain as the morning, as inevitable as the noon.

Brown, like America, is not a past, but a future. It is not only an actuality, but a potentiality. We have all shared in Brown's heritage and we have a responsibility for its future mission.

Thank you very much. It has been a wonderful nine years.