Thank you very much, President Botstein, for your very kind and generous words of introduction. More importantly, thank you for being such a strong, creative force, and such a bold leader, in the field of higher education. Let us salute our great president. Sometimes it seems as if he is spreading the word of Bard College everywhere. On a recent occasion I saw him in Budapest where he was conducting a symphony and bragging about Bard. What he loves best, of course, is teaching classes on campus. Mr. President, your accessibility to students, your vision and values, helped build Bard College into this very extraordinary institution over the past almost 40 years—39 years. Imagine that—a baby when he started. And you do all this with a sense of humor—as everyone knows who have seen you on the Colbert Report not once, but twice. That’s quite a feat.
I join you in saluting the parents, grandparents, families and friends of the graduates: your love and support, your hard work and sacrifice, have helped make this day possible for our graduates. Let us all cheer our family and friends who made this possible. You can give them a standing ovation.
From one generation to the next. To the graduates: this is your day, your achievement, your success. Congratulations to Bard College class of 2014! It is a distinct privilege to join you today as a fellow graduate with my honorary degree – though, luckily for me, no one asked me to turn in a senior thesis or project before I could get this degree.
To Chairman Charles Stevenson; to my friend, trustee, Sally Hambrecht; to my faculty sponsor whom you will be hearing from; and to the students, faculty and staff of Bard College: thank you for the honorary Doctorate of Laws. I am especially honored to be receiving it along with such distinguished honorees: Anne Bogart, Jacob Neusner, Jacqueline Novogratz, Henry Rosovsky, Darren Walker. I say that because it is so meaningful to me to be identified with them—to be identified with these leaders of the arts, of education, of faith and philanthropy—and we’ll be hearing more about them soon.
Standing on this campus, surrounded by the beauty of the Hudson Valley and your performing arts center, seeing you – the students, the creative forces behind this college – I am reminded of the words of the poet Shelley. He once said: “The greatest instrument of moral good is imagination.”
When Shelley said this, he could have been speaking of the students and graduates and faculty and leadership of Bard College – where imagination is cultivated and encouraged. Bard has provided you with “a place to think.” Bard has offered you a place to learn, to explore, to imagine. Imagination inspires creativity—you know that. Imagination enables empathy: to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to understand, to solve problems. Indeed, imagination is at the heart of Bard College.
Your initiatives are well-known when it comes to education. Among other things, you have used your imagination to address pressing challenges – with a network of “Early Colleges” to ensure that underserved high school students can seek and find a path to success. You have applied your imagination around the world – building partnerships and investing resources on campuses from Berlin to St. Petersburg to the Middle East—and I hear soon, in my hometown of Baltimore.
You have directed your imagination to improving public policy and people’s lives – most notably, with the Bard Prison Initiative, once a “senior project”; now a model recognized by Governor Cuomo for educating incarcerated youth statewide. I learned just recently more about that from Sarah Botstein, and also had the pleasure to meet Erica Mateo, an alum of the Bard Prison Initiative. She has taken her Bard education – her second chance – to give back to her community in Brooklyn. You are all representatives of that great tradition: where you use imagination to ensure that Bard will always stand as a small school with a great impact.
At this time in our nation’s history, your imagination, you values, gives me hope – because today, our country has some important choices to make. In his study of civilizations, the great British historian, Arnold Toynbee, found that, over time, societies faced challenges that will look familiar to you as I describe them. He wrote that, at the beginning of a hopeful country, the political leadership formed a “creative minority” that inspired and enabled the flowering of civilization, for people to flourish.
He also wrote that, in some nations, leaders became a “dominant minority” of “exploiters,” focused on their own wealth and power. Toynbee suggests that these competing mindsets and motivations create “schisms in the body social” and “schisms in the soul” of the body politic. Toynbee clearly recognized that the fate of each civilization is determined by its response to that challenge. Doesn’t it sound familiar? And now, as in centuries past, overcoming the challenges society faces depends on imagination.
Imagination is required to address growing income disparity, to close the opportunity gap, to build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. As Aristotle once wrote, “It is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class…in which the middle class is large and stronger than all of the other classes.” In the United States, the middle class is the backbone of our democracy. So let’s build ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard, take responsibility, and play by the rules – to achieve the American Dream and strengthen the middle class. Thank you—thank you, students of Bard College—for imagining a fairer economic future – and for acting in your own backyard, to secure equal pay and benefits for Bard staff members and grounds workers.
To do more, we must unleash the power of women in our economy – because, as President Obama has said, when women succeed, America succeeds. Another boost to our economy and our country is the invigoration and imagination of newcomers to America. So let’s embrace that tradition, that essential character of our country, by passing comprehensive immigration reform. To make real progress, to restore confidence in our political system, we must reduce the role of money and increase the level of civility in our politics. Only then, if we do that, I guarantee you, we will elect more women, more minorities, more young people, more LGBT community members to public office – and America will be the better for it.
That change will enable us to do things faster and better. That change will enable us to protect the American people by passing gun safety laws, and doing it soon. Thank you, Pia, for your work.
This is especially necessary as we confront the climate crisis. We are faced with cynics who deny science and reject the evidence of climate change. But the facts are clear and indisputable. Again, thank you, Bard students, for your leadership, for your initiatives to protect that planet. You have imagined and implemented solutions to preserve our planet – with an office dedicated to sustainability and energy efficiency, with solar power, with compost efforts initiated by students, for students. Thank you for doing that. We must keep America number one in new green technologies and research; we must embrace science. When we embrace science, we will be able to preserve God’s creation, our planet.
Imagination is not only central to finding solutions; as we all know, it is central to creativity and the arts. And of course, Bard is on the forefront of all of this. President Kennedy—he was the president when I was in college—once told us that “the life of the arts…is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose.” Bard is well-recognized as a leader in the arts – Thank you for ensuring that the arts remain at the center of our nation’s purpose.
Your values, and imagination and innovation and creativity: these are the qualities you brought to Bard as freshmen, that grew stronger with every year here. Thank you, Bard graduates, for being an inspiration, for giving us hope. I have faith in the future because of you. As you leave today as Bard graduates, be confident in the knowledge that Bard has empowered you to use your imagination for the sake of progress and justice – as an instrument for moral good. You may not know what opportunities await you.
But when those opportunities present themselves, be ready. When I left college, I was idealistic; I could never have imagined that one day, I would go from the kitchen to the Congress, from homemaker to House Speaker. But I was ready. My wish for you today is that you know your power to imagine, to inspire, to shape the future with your ideals, your optimism, and very importantly, your courage. And it is my wish, that in doing so, you enjoy every minute of it.
As we mark Memorial Day weekend, let us remember our men and women in uniform, and let us build a future worthy of their sacrifice. I am honored to be a part of the Bard College class of 2014 with my honorary degree. I am proud to join you in saying: “We’re all Bardians.”
Congratulations to you, to your families, to Bard College. Enjoy this day. May God bless all of you. May God always bless the America. Thank you for allowing me to be part of it.
Speech from http://www.democraticleader.gov/Pelosi_Commencement_Address_Bard_College and edited to match speech as delivered.