By the authority vested in me by the Charter of Brown University and the Board of Fellows of the Corporation, I hereby declare the 247th Commencement of Brown University convened.
Welcome to this historic place on this glorious day. These will be your last academic exercises as Brown undergraduate students and the commencement of your distinguished careers as alumni of the Brown University Class of 2015.
We are here in a place that has long been part of Brown’s history. This meeting house was built in 1775, and it has deep ties to the university. The purpose of the building was explicitly stated at the time of its construction and is noted on a plaque inside: “For the Publick Worship of Almighty God and also for holding Commencement in.”
With a few exceptions, Brown commencements have taken place here ever since. In its early years, the building was able to accommodate the entire student body, faculty, staff, family, friends, as well as interested members of the Providence community.
Obviously, times have changed. The college has grown enough that we have to hold this graduation on the lawn of the meeting house, and even then we cannot accommodate your family and friends. Fortunately, technology has progressed to the point that people can watch this ceremony on big screens positioned on the Main Green.
I say “fortunately” because this is truly the most important moment of this very long day: this is when your degrees are actually conferred. Your families need to see this!
But before your degrees are granted I want you to do something. I want you to take a minute and ask yourself this question: what are the most important lessons you are carrying away from Brown—the knowledge that will most enrich your life and the many lives you will touch going forward?
Of the many possible answers to this question, I want to single out one that I think is especially important at this point in your lives. This is the ability to make choices—the kinds of choices that will lead you to what Aristotle called “the good life,” and what the founders of Brown called “lives of usefulness and reputation.”
You are not strangers to choice. For the past four years, you have survived, and thrived, in Brown’s Open Curriculum. You have had the freedom and responsibility of deciding how to structure your education, and how to blend your academic pursuits with everything else you do. Some of these choices yielded glorious success. Others may have led to less happy conclusions. But I expect that you learned something even from choices that, in hindsight, were disappointing.
The truth is that life is an Open Curriculum. Going forward, your lives will reflect a series of decisions that you make for yourself: where to live and work; whether to make a major career change.
Much like a Brown education, your paths will not be straight. I can guarantee that at least one of you who is initially going into finance or consulting will decide, at some point in your lives, to ditch it all and join the Peace Corps.
I can also guarantee that at least one of you who was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement during your first year of college will find yourself, someday, occupying an office on that very street.
There is nothing inherently good in following a linear route through life. I hope that you take from Brown the confidence to make bold choices, and the wisdom to know when it is time to make a change.
The transition from college to “the real world” forces you to make many choices: whether to take that (overpriced) apartment in Brooklyn or that (even more overpriced) apartment in San Francisco, enroll in a specific graduate program, or accept a job offer.
The choices seem of paramount importance at this point in your lives. And they are. But they are not the choices that will define your lives. When we speak of “the good life”—a life of usefulness and reputation—we mean much more.
I think it boils down to three ideas, all of which involve choices you will make—questions you will be confronted with--throughout your lives. I cannot answer these questions for you, but at least I can articulate them.
First, a good life requires resources: grinding poverty limits the human spirit. But money, although important, is a means to an end. As a graduate of an elite American university, you are poised to be wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population. Throughout your lives, you will be asked to strike a balance between doing well for yourselves and your families, and giving back to the world with a generous spirit. How will you choose to strike this balance?
Second, a good life hinges on making ethical decisions or, in plainer language, doing the right thing in circumstances where it is all too easy to get it wrong. I’m sure all of you think of yourselves as ethical people, and that you are right to do so. But we live in a complex world where “doing the right thing” is often not nearly as clear cut as we would like it to be.
“Getting it right” involves making full use of your human capacities—of reason and intellect combined with compassion. This is a process: every choice you make is guided by and contributes to your own personal ethical scaffolding that will inform your choices in years to come. Will the ethical scaffolding you build lead you in the right directions?
Finally, living a good life means being willing to act on your convictions. It is easy to identify problems in the world. It is another to have the courage to act on your knowledge, to make change where it is needed. Yes, we all know about the threat of climate change. But what positive steps will each of you make to address this threat? Yes, we all see that there are deep injustices at play in the United States, as there are in countries around the globe. But trouble-spotting is not good enough. What actions will each of you take to create peaceful, just and prosperous societies?
Has Brown taught you how to live lives of usefulness and reputation? Perhaps not explicitly. Brown has no required courses on ethics, and (unlike in its early days) no mandatory daily chapel attendance.
But, we are a community that supports discussion and, at times, fierce intellectual debate on matters of conscience.
We are a community that fosters mutual respect and caring between people with very different experiences, backgrounds and points of view.
And, we are a community that encourages its members to translate knowledge and ideals into action.
And if we have done these things well, we have done more than enough to put you on paths to truly good lives.
Members of the Class of 2015, I hope that the knowledge and experience you have gained here—in and out of the classroom—have helped you develop the informed convictions, the compassion, and the courage that will guide you as you move forward in your lives of usefulness and reputation.