Yale Bulletin and Calendar

June 10, 2005|Volume 33, Number 30|Four-Week Issue















Seniors sing during the Baccalaureate ceremony in Woolsey Hall.

Reviving Public Discourse

The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address delivered by President Richard C. Levin on May 21 and 22 in Woolsey Hall.

When you entered Yale four years ago, I offered some reflections on the letters exchanged by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the last 14 years of their lives. You probably don't recall, but I suggested that there were many lessons to be learned from reading this extraordinarily rich and erudite correspondence. Though very different in temperament, these two founding fathers shared a vigorous passion for lifelong learning, a capacity for independent thought, and a friendship rooted in mutual respect and admiration. I urged you to use your time at Yale to develop the qualities of mind and character that would make these traits your own.

Every bit of evidence I have suggests that you have done this. Inspired by passionate and committed teachers, you have plunged into your studies deeply and seriously. You would be pleasantly surprised to know how often I hear from your teachers about what wonderful students you are! I hope that you will never lose the curiosity and the open-mindedness that you've exhibited in the Yale classroom, and that, like Adams and Jefferson, you will never cease to question, learn, and grow.

As for your capacity for independent thought, look around. As any bulletin board on campus demonstrates, there is an astonishing range of viewpoints and activities here. The vigor of debate in student publications and the lively discussions you've had in seminars provide ample proof that you can think for yourselves.

And then there is the building of enduring friendships, so long a hallmark of Yale College life. For this, it might seem that you needed no special inspiration, just a unique residential system and a spirit of community that made it easy to form deep bonds. But the formation of enduring friendships required more than a supportive environment; you had to work at it, work at the self-understanding that is prerequisite to any deep relationship. You should take pride in this, as you treasure, for a lifetime, the "friendships formed at Yale."

If you are leaving here with a passion for learning, a capacity for independent thought, and deep friendships rooted in self-understanding, then you've accomplished much of the work of a college education. But now, as you graduate, I want to set one more goal for you, one for which your Yale experience has prepared you well. I want to urge you to take a role in public life, to take responsibility as citizens in a world that has changed dramatically in the short time you have been here.

That the world has changed came shockingly to our attention only 10 days after we met here in Woolsey Hall for your Freshman Assembly. Many of the changes wrought by September 11 will be enduring, but the altered geo-political landscape is not what I intend to talk about today. Instead, I want to challenge you at a more personal level to do your part as citizens to improve the quality of civic discourse in the United States and around the world. In particular, I want to talk about two disturbing trends in contemporary political discourse in democratic nations: oversimplification and polarization. The strength of our democracy and the wisdom of our collective choices will depend on the efforts of your generation to reverse these trends.

Consider the Presidential debates. Following the advice of the experts, the candidates reduced every issue to a formula. Proud as we were that both candidates were Yale graduates, think how often the same phrases were invoked over and over again. "Staying on message" was the name of the game. There was no real debate, no progression in the argument. Neither we nor the candidates learned much from the interaction, as we would in a normal conversation, when one person responds to, criticizes or builds upon the ideas of another.

President Richard C. Levin and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey make their way to the ceremony, accompanied by residential college masters.

It wasn't always this way. Go back and read the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Here was true engagement, detailed and sophisticated argumentation on the most vexing question in American history: the question of slavery. Even the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first to be televised, were much deeper and more penetrating than what we've come to accept as inevitable today.

Public discourse is not only over-simplified, it is polarized as well. In the last presidential election, the candidates were more deeply divided on foreign policy, economic policy, and moral or life style issues than at any time in recent memory. For the first time in generations, the prevailing wisdom of the pundits was that the candidates had to secure the base within their own parties rather than win the swing voters in the middle. And so, compared to any election since at least 1984, the Republicans moved more to the right and the Democrats more to the left, with each party seemingly speaking to those on its flanks rather than those in the middle.

The tendency to over-simplification and polarization leads us to represent too many important public choices as false dichotomies. I am an economist, and so I ask your indulgence if I illustrate this point with examples from the realm of economic policy.

The public debate suggests that we must choose between a flat tax and a progressive income tax filled with loopholes that advantage special interests. Isn't there an obvious middle ground: a progressive income tax with fewer loopholes?

We are presented with a choice between preserving the current Social Security system -- which is headed toward bankruptcy -- and creating a system in which individuals maintain their own retirement accounts and make their own investment decisions. But why can't we create more incentives for private savings while preserving the social insurance or safety net features of Social Security?

We are asked to choose between protectionism that slows worldwide economic growth and a passive acceptance of the dislocations caused by free trade. Can't we maintain free trade and design more effective programs to assist and retrain those displaced?

We need to talk sensibly about the policy choices that confront us. There are plenty of good ideas that aren't that complicated. But we need to raise the level of discussion beyond sound bites.

Your Yale education has prepared you to help. You haven't been shy about expressing your opinions here. Don't lose the habit. As citizens, here in the United States and elsewhere, you will need to engage to improve the quality of public discourse. Insist on an end to oversimplification and polarization. Write letters, join organizations that advocate for your beliefs, participate in local politics, and, above all, use the critical faculties you have developed here to raise the level of discussion.

Many of you have become well practiced in civic engagement during your time here. You have worked to improve New Haven's neighborhoods, helped to raise the standard of Yale's environmental practices, sought the return of ROTC, won national recognition for combating hunger and homelessness. You have given time to tutoring and coaching young people in the community. Seventy of you gave a summer to work on community service projects sponsored by Dwight Hall, the President's Office, or local Yale clubs around the country. You have written opinion pieces of every persuasion for student newspapers and magazines. At one student journal of international affairs, the Yale Globalist, the editors are developing a network linking similar magazines on campuses around the world. This effort to promote reasoned dialogue among students on a global scale exemplifies the kind of project any one of you might undertake to raise the level of public discourse.

Maintaining your admirable engagement with civil society in the years ahead in the manner that I am suggesting will require your determination and courage. In the next few years, as you are struggling to succeed in new jobs or graduate studies, it will be easy to turn inward. There will be more than enough to keep you occupied. But on Monday when I award your degrees, here is what I will say: "By the authority vested in me, I confer upon you these degrees as designated by the Dean and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities." Three centuries of history have defined these responsibilities to include rising to the challenges of the day and making a contribution to civil society -- from the four Yale graduates who signed the Declaration of Independence, to those who fueled the abolitionist movement two and three generations later, to those who fought to preserve our freedoms in two world wars, to those who led the way in extending those freedoms to all in the civil rights efforts of the past half century.

Whatever your passion may be -- saving the environment, alleviating poverty, conquering infectious diseases -- we can make little progress in a democratic society without intelligent public discussion of the issues. By pursuing your passion and doing your part to improve public discourse, you can make a difference.

In one of his last letters to Adams, Jefferson, the eternal optimist, wrote: "I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance." Adams, by contrast, was skeptical. He believed that tyranny was as likely to emerge from free elections as from a seizure of power. He saw checks and balances, and an educated and informed public, as critical to the survival of liberal democracy. He would not be surprised by the current impoverishment of political discourse, but his response would be clear. He would appeal to education as the solution.

We are fortunate that, on the question whether liberal democracy would survive, Jefferson has had the better of the argument for these past two hundred years, at home and around the world. It is our responsibility as educated citizens, your responsibility, to keep it that way.

Women and men of the class of 2005: As you go forth from here with a passion for learning, a capacity for independent thought, and deep and enduring friendships, never forget your obligations to serve responsibly those around you, to engage in civic life, to demand reasoned public discourse from others, and to set a standard with your own. The continued flowering of the freedoms you have so vigorously exercised in this place depends upon your engagement and your vigilance. Lead on.


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Project funded by Class of 1957 is adding music education . . .

International festival marks 10th year of arts & ideas

Student writer's works cast light on injustices



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Team sheds light on RNA quality-control system

Music linked to decreased need for sedation

Biologists successfully extract and analyze DNA from extinct lemurs

Law deanship endowed with Goldman family gift

Harvey Goldblatt is reappointed as Pierson master

Radio interview leads Ruff to a 'magical' discovery

Head coach post endowed in honor of late Yale tennis star

Swimmer donates Olympic gold to alma mater

Tsunami-causing earthquake yields new data about Earth's core

Children develop cynicism at an early age, says study

'Lost' papers of journalist noted for her stories on Russian Revolution . . .

All hail Hale!

New risk assessment program will provide early genetic screening

Works by young playwrights to be staged as part of Drama School project

Internationally renowned tenor joins the faculty as voice teacher

Workshop explores chronic disease prevention

MacMicking named a Searle Scholar for infection research

Elimelech garners Clarke Prize for water research

Congresswoman to speak at benefit gala for cancer research

Student Awards and Fellowships

Search committee named for School of Music dean

Memorial to honor Dr. Alvin Novick

Campus Notes

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