Yale Bulletin
and Calendar

May 31-June 21, 1999Volume 27, Number 33

Baccalaureate Address

Beyond Community Service: The Nation and the Wider World

The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address delivered by President Richard C. Levin in Woolsey Hall on May 23.

Four years ago, at your Freshman Assembly, when you felt for the first time the great Newberry Organ rumble beneath your feet, when you saw officers, masters, and deans arrayed before you, I told you that you had come to a serious place. I told you that this is a place where ideas are taken seriously, where athletics, extracurricular activities, and community service are taken seriously, where involvement and moral responsibility are taken seriously.

In my attempt to predict what would be in store for you here, I suggested that you would come to appreciate the life of the mind, develop your capacity to think critically and independently, engage actively in something you feel passionately about, form friendships that you would treasure, and come to understand yourself more deeply than before. I also predicted that many of you would develop an interest in helping those around you.

Your record of involvement in our local New Haven community impressively confirms this last prediction. You have worked with schoolchildren, teenage mothers, battered women, the homeless, and those with mental retardation. Each semester, about half of you found time to engage on a regular basis in one or more of the many outreach programs affiliated with Dwight Hall, the Office of New Haven Affairs, the Athletics Department, or one of our professional schools or museums. In these activities, you have come to understand that the helper and the helped share a common humanity. Along with the knowledge and habits of mind you have acquired here, your experience in giving service has prepared you well for participation in and leadership of civic, religious, and community organizations.

What you have done for this city you must now do for your country and the wider world. I want to encourage you this morning to re-direct at least some of your admirable energy for social betterment and service. I want to urge you to take more interest in public issues at the national and global level.

I recognize that on this score you might require some persuasion. Many of you have expressed to me disillusionment with the institutions of representative government and cynicism about the people who shape and conduct public policy. I think I understand some of the reasons for your disillusionment. Our nation often seems obsessed with the personal lives of its leaders and indifferent to their politics. Many politicians appear to be more concerned with tomorrow's newspapers than with the long-term consequences of their actions. We can't muster the will to enact meaningful gun control despite a murder rate vastly in excess of other developed nations. And we have recently entered a war without formulating clear strategic objectives and, seemingly, without thinking through many of the simplest and most probable contingencies.

It is all too easy to blame politicians, special interest groups, television, or the press for the diminished quality of public discourse and the apparent incoherence of public policy. We must instead acknowledge that these are our problems. I remind you of what our nation's founders had to say about this, in The Federalist, Number 1, Page 1:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies ... are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend ... on accident and force.

I recalled these powerful words of Alexander Hamilton two weeks ago, as I listened to Jared Diamond, the noted scientist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, who was on campus to deliver a lecture at the groundbreaking for our new Environmental Science Facility. Diamond told the story of Easter Island, where the inhabitants built a flourishing culture best known for the enormous stone statues erected on the coast. The stone was quarried many miles from the sea and transported on the trunks of giant palm trees that served as wheels. The palm trees were subsequently used as levers to lift the stones into place, and then the trunks were carved into large sea-faring canoes, which ventured far from the island to harvest tuna and dolphin, the principal source of protein in the diet of the Easter Islanders. When the last palm tree was cut down, the natives turned for subsistence to the meager wildlife resources on the island, and ultimately to cannibalism. When European explorers arrived, the island was an uninhabited, barren wasteland.

How do such things happen? They happen for the same reason that avoidable wars and genocides have occurred repeatedly in this century. They happen because people go about their daily lives, seeking fulfillment for themselves and their families, without recognizing that large-scale forces are going awry and without taking action to reverse them. Hamilton's question is still open: It is up to us to determine whether our future is to be decided by "reflection and choice" or whether it is destined to depend on "accident and force."

Your generation of Americans has enjoyed material prosperity, the absence of general mobilization for war, and, although this work is still incomplete, unprecedented opportunity for members of minority populations. I want to suggest that these three blessings, which have established for you an environment in which you can choose freely the lives you wish to lead, haven't been conferred on you entirely by accident. Wise leadership and sound public policy have made a large contribution to shaping the conditions that allow you so much hope and promise.

Consider, for example, the benign state of our national economy. We prosper in large measure because we have a system that allows decentralized agents -- individuals and firms -- to seek profit in relatively free markets by responding to the abundant opportunities created by the rapid advance of scientific and technological knowledge. But the quality of public policy and national leadership has a powerful impact on how well the system works. For example, a long history of generous public funding for basic scientific research has contributed mightily to establishing the foundation of our current prosperity. More recently, the able leadership of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a graduate of the Yale Law School, and Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan has prevented regional financial instability from causing a global depression.

Nor is it entirely an accident that we have avoided war on a substantial scale for the past quarter century. The collapse of Soviet Communism may have been inevitable, but our response to the collapse might easily have been mismanaged. During the crucial transition years, we were fortunate to have an experienced foreign policy team in the White House. As their recent memoir illustrates, President George Bush, Yale College Class of 1948, and Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Adviser, wisely focused on the long-term global and strategic implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, rather than seeking short-term political advantage from these events.

Nor is it an accident that members of minority populations have greater opportunities in your generation than ever before. Here we all benefit from the concerted action of private citizens like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the millions of every color who voiced support for his position, as well as the political courage of President Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through legislation that has made an enduring difference.

I cite these examples to remind you that good government, and the action of citizens to encourage good government, has mattered, fundamentally, in your own lives. This is an important reminder because the issues I have just discussed -- prosperity, peace, and racial justice -- still demand our urgent attention. Because of improvements in health care and changes in family size since the Second World War, your prosperity in mid-life will depend profoundly on whether we seize the opportunity, now, to reform the Social Security system. The poorly conceived military action now under way in the Balkans makes it abundantly clear that we must design and maintain a consistent framework for global security that at once reduces the risk of nuclear confrontation and deters aggression and genocide. We must also recognize that, without substantial improvement in early childhood, elementary and secondary education, too many children will be unprepared to take advantage of the career opportunities that are now potentially available to all citizens without regard to race or other circumstances of birth.

Finally, we must attend to the degradation of our global environment, lest we ourselves suffer the fate of Easter Islanders. If we fail to intervene, by the time your children graduate from college, nearly all of the world's rain forests will be gone. And by the time your great-grandchildren graduate, global temperatures will have risen between one and seven degrees centigrade. If we reach the high end of that range, the results would be catastrophic.

In all these matters -- Social Security, international security, racial justice, and environmental protection -- powerful interest groups will make it difficult to find and implement solutions. Still, your responsibility is clear. Your education here has prepared you to be thoughtful, reflective, intelligent citizens. The nation needs your involvement, and the wider world demands your attention. Public service and engaged citizenship are part of your Yale legacy. From twelve representatives in the Continental Congress to three of the last five presidents of the United States, many Yale graduates have distinguished themselves as public servants, while others, as private citizens, have strengthened our democracy by speaking, writing, or simply participating in the public arena. I urge you to perpetuate this legacy.

Women and men of the class of 1999: To you much has been given, and from you much is expected. You have been given four years to develop good habits of mind, to pursue your passions, to appreciate your teachers, to cherish your classmates, to understand yourself more deeply. You have seized all these opportunities and more, and you are prepared to lead lives of great personal fulfillment and service to others. You have also been given the blessings of prosperity, peace, and justice, and the perpetuation of these blessings requires more than serving well your families and local communities. Get involved with public issues; participate in public life. Give the right answer to Hamilton's question. By your conduct and example liberate our democracy from dependence on accident and force. Your task is to shape the future by reflection and choice.

C O M M E N C E M E N T1 9 9 9


Baccalaureate Address

Honorary Degrees

Senior Class Day

Teaching Prizes

Scholastic Prizes

Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize

Athletic Awards

David Everett Chantler Prize

Other Undergraduate Honors

Wilbur Cross Medals

Graduate Student Awards


Yale celebrates 298th Commencement
Yale launching a more user-friendly home page on the World Wide Web
Anthony T. Kronman reappointed as Dean of Law School
Festival will bring world of art and ideas to city
Endowed Professorships
New Haven attorney Julie Carter joins Office of General Counsel
To eat well, relax at the table, advises master chef Pépin
Reunion programs will both educate and entertain returning alumni
Some Yale graduates dancing down a different path
Yale's new student-built solar car headed for Sunracye '99
New alumnae's nursing training included health work overseas
Harold Samuel dies; brought musicians' archives to Yale
Dining staff friendliness ranks high on survey
Prostate Cancer Awareness Stamp to be unveiled at campus event
Conference to explore the future of language
Dr. William F. Collins is recognized for lifetime contributions to neurosurgery

Bulletin Home|Visiting on Campus|Calendar of Events| Bulletin Board
Classified Ads|Search Archives|Production Schedule|Bulletin Staff
Public Affairs Home|News Releases|E-Mail Us|Yale Home Page

Twice on May 23, Woolsey Hall had a full house as graduating seniors as well as their families and friends gathered to listen to President Richard C. Levin present the 1999 Baccalaureate Address.