Madeleine K Albright

Scripps College Commencement Address - May 14, 2016

Madeleine K Albright
May 14, 2016— Claremont, California
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Thank you very much, Interim President Marcus-Newhall and distinguished faculty and trustees and parents, alumni, friends, and members of the class of 2016. Good afternoon and thank you all very much for inviting me to come and for this very warm welcome.

I have delivered a few commencement addresses before and I can tell you my biggest fear is being upstaged by the student speaker. This year, those fears were justified. But Catherine [Chiang], I want to commend you for your openness, your willingness to confront tough issues, your commitment to helping this community grow together and rest assured, there is a special place in heaven for anyone who speaks truth to power. [applause]

From what I can tell, Scripps College today is full of such people and I want to say loudly and clearly that it is a pleasure to be among the magical, radical and change-making members of the class of 2016.

Graduation ceremony serve two purposes: to look back at what has been accomplished and to look forward at the journey ahead.

To the parents who are here: if you are as I was when my daughters graduated, your emotions this graduation day are very mixed. You feel both incredibly proud and a little bit sad, excited that this day has finally arrived and yet astonished at how short the interval can be between diapers and diplomas.

So to the class of 2016, I say congratulations, you have finally made it. All the late nights, the research papers and examinations were worth it. And so were the candlelight dinners and afternoon teas and many hours spent at the Motley. This afternoon as you sit there in your beautiful caps and gowns, hardly anything stands between you and your degree—except me.

But beginning tomorrow you will embark on a new stage in your lives, meeting different people, traveling far and wide, and experiencing life as never before. You will be able to face the future with confidence because the skills and values you've developed here at Scripps will go along with you, and this means you are as well-equipped as any young people could be to continue your search for truth in an uncertain and often confusing world.

It is that search that I'd like to discuss with you this afternoon. In so doing, I realize the truth has many dimensions and that even talking about it can be tricky.

For example, when I was in grade school I was eager to please my teachers and so was entrusted at one point with the responsibility for conducting morning inspections, and I took the job really seriously. In fact, whenever my classmates didn't have clean enough fingernails or hands, I told the truth and reported them. This demonstration of honesty did wonders for school hygiene but cost me all my friends.

Truth can be a blunt instrument and at times a dangerous one. In some countries, even in our era, bearing witness to the abuse of authority can put truth tellers in prison—or worse. It's also possible to be completely convinced that something is true and at the same time completely wrong. There are people in our world today who are ready to die or kill for alleged truths that are grounded less on the validity of their insights that on the false certainty generated by their resentments and fears.

We have also learned through history that supposedly eternal truths can in fact go out of fashion or be wrong. The earth is flat, the sun is a golden chariot, there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Pluto is a planet and women are the weaker sex.

So truth is a complex topic, but for an educated person it's an inescapable quest. Here at Scripps, the alma mater talks about searching and exploring the life of the mind. You cannot do that without trying to separate what is true from what is not. But this mission begins with an important premise—that we do not already know everything there is to know—and that can be hard for many of us to admit.

I mentioned earlier that as difficult as it may be for some of you to believe, I was once in college myself, and this was about halfway between the invention of the iPad and the discovery of fire. At the time, I knew that I had an awful lot to gain from the words of my professors and from the books that they would assign, but I neither questioned or doubted the fundamental values with which I had grown up. And this is the way it is for most of us. After all, the only completely open mind is an empty one. We all have our opinions and prejudices based on who we are, where we come from, what we've experienced and how we've been taught. The key to further education is not to put aside what we think we know but to employ that knowledge as a platform for learning more. And this means we should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them. And it means that we should always leave a little room in our brains for ideas that we've not thought about before. And it means that we should never be fully satisfied.

It is in that spirit that I met this morning with members of the Scripps community, among those whom were some who were concern that their views were not being represented at the ceremony, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to answer the wide-ranging questions. And I was not there to defend a particular policy but to talk about the importance of hearing from and actually listening to other perspectives.

These kinds of conversations allow us all to grow and to learn, no matter where we are in life. Because if we're not learning, we're not living, and the years during and after college are an ideal time to explore new aspects of life.

What is so exciting is that in our era, the opportunities for exploration have multiplied. When I was a student, we had to look up information in books, which were located by rummaging through the library stacks, after which we copied down whole paragraphs of text in longhand using, in my case, color-coded pens. If we wanted an article from a newspaper we had to actually find a newspaper, years of which were kept in yellowing piles, separated by months going back years.

Research was laborious, but it was not the only factor that slowed our pursuit of knowledge. In my class, almost everyone was American, Caucasian and Christian. I was not an American yet, there on a scholarship and a Democrat. Here at Scripps, even as you agitate to make the environment here more inclusive, you have students from a diversity of backgrounds. You attend class with students from every continent, and many of you spend time overseas. And I encourage you to continue taking advantage of these opportunities, because in the 21st century the pursuit of truth will surely be a global one.

Consider for a moment some of the questions that the rising generation both here and abroad will have no choice but to confront. How can our leaders build a future of peace when so many nations and rival groups are still angry about the past? How can we prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists or aggressors? How can we fix our global system of institutions and laws so that we can shape events instead of being forced constantly to cope with bursts economic bubbles, financial meltdowns, humanitarian crises and genocide? How can we penetrate the thick wall of our own denial and recognize that human actions are a leading cause of climate change and that if we don't stop it, it will stop us. And how can we create a future of prosperity for the many when technology does more and more of what people were once hired to do?

In years past, wealth was generated methodically from the daily labor of countless workers but wealth tomorrow is more likely to come from a handful of breakthrough ideas. So where does that leave people whose education and skills are only average, and how can we retain strong incentives for innovation and excellence without further widening the gap between the rich and the poor?

Even from this partial list, we can see that the principal challenges of the future are not going to be surmounted solely by any one country or small group. A new era of collaboration is required that will extend to every corner of the globe. And the responsibility for forging such a network does not belong to governments alone. Everyone must participate in solving shared problems, including corporations, academic institutions, religious leaders, civil society and individual citizens.

A summons of this nature is easy enough to proclaim but it cannot be answered without a healthy approach to the truth. Because we're not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if anyone insists on his or her own narrow version of reality. To me, this is the great divide in the world today—not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between anyone race or creed and all the others. It is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.

One of the great advantages of serving as secretary of state was the perspective that it brought. It was my responsibility to defend U.S. positions, but also to listen. And I can tell you that the way the world looks depends almost entirely on your vantage point.

For example, a resident of Claremont, California, will ordinarily have a far more favorable view of the police that a democratic activist who's tried to avoid arrest in Cuba or an African-American teenager in Cleveland. A child growing up in Pakistan will have a perception of history that varies widely from that of a boy or girl whose home is across the border in India. One's sense of urgency about world hunger will be affected by whether one lives in a nation whose families can't afford to buy bread or where diet books are best-sellers.

The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of these perspectives, because that's not possible. The challenge is to manage them and when necessary moderate them, so that we're not defined primarily by what keeps us apart.

Those of you who are graduating today are generally a little more than 20 years old. For perspective, South Africa's Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. As a victim of racism and persecution, Mandela could have used that time to nurture his bitterness and to allow his anger to grow. Instead, he used it to learn about the people who'd put him in jail, the Afrikaners. He studied their language, their history, their grievances and their fears. By the time he was released, he was not only able to understand those who had imprisoned him, he was able to communicate with them, find common ground with them, forgive them, and most astonishingly, lead them. Nelson Mandela knew that the surest way to defeat his enemies was not to make them do what he wanted—it was to persuade them to want what he wanted. He led his jailers to a new understanding of their own best interests. In other words, he taught those who were blind to see, and in so doing he reminded us all that we are each and every one of us at least partly blind.

This afternoon I'm not suggesting that any of you—graduates, students, alumni or friends—cast aside your own opinions or downgrade the value of your perspectives on life. I ask only that you make a real effort to keep learning more. And learning by definition means exploring areas of existence and opinion with which you are not already familiar. Instead of choosing to read or to listen only to the people whose views make you the most comfortable—which is becoming easier and easier to do—choose instead to study those who make you the most upset. Instead of surrounding yourself with friends whose experiences are similar to yours, reach out to people whose life stories are unknown. Instead of repeating over and over again the opinions you've expressed in the past, stop venting for a while and ask yourself why you believe as you do and submit your own conceptions of truth to the rigorous standards of critical thinking.

Above all, I ask you to understand that there's an enormous difference between entering into an argument for the purpose of proving how smart you are already are, and engaging in research and discussion for the purpose of stretching your mind and giving free rein to your conscience. One path may earn you a reputation for brilliance, but the other will lead you toward real wisdom.

In saying all this, I'm not conceding that all truth is relative or that every point of view has equal merit. On the contrary, I'm proposing that we place our greatest faith in principles that have proven themselves through decades of testing and struggle. These are principles that bring people together instead of driving us apart, principles that challenge us to think not once but continually, principles that demand the best from each of us while honoring the rights of all.

These principles include a commitment to justice, belief in freedom, respect for the dignity of every human being, the capacity for forgiveness and a desire to pursue the truth wherever that journey might lead.

Today, the class of 2016 begins its journey into the future and as the Scripps College motto says, Incipit Vita Nova—here begins new life. My closing advice to you is to make this new life an adventure. Don't settle for an old, well-worn path and you may be surprised by the miracles you could achieve.

I am so honored to have been asked to come and speak here and to spend time with many of you. I congratulate you, and I know that you are the magical class of 2016. Thank you so much.

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