Repair the World!

Speaker: 
Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
Date: 
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Event: 
Baccalaureate Address, Yale College Class of 2015

Colleagues, friends, families, graduating seniors: it is such a pleasure for me to greet you today and offer a few words on everyone’s favorite weekend of the year. 

I have participated in the baccalaureate service as a member of the faculty, as a dean, and as provost. But this is only my second time around as Yale’s president. I have noted over the years a charming Yale tradition. And I would like to honor it today:

Might I ask all of the families and friends here today to rise and recognize the outstanding – and graduating – members of the Class of 2015? 

And now, might I ask the Class of 2015 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?

Thank you! 

I delight in this custom, and last year even focused my baccalaureate remarks on the topic of gratitude. This year, however, I want to try something different with you. Not because gratitude is unimportant on a day like today – far from it! And not because I am personally some kind of ingrate! But a few weeks ago, I conducted a little thought experiment: If a graduating senior asked me to capture the purpose of life after graduating from Yale in just a few words, what would I say? What would that purpose be? Could I articulate your life’s mission as you leave Yale – on Commencement weekend, no less – while “standing on one foot”

The phrase “standing on one foot,” as some of you know, derives from a story about Hillel, the first century BCE rabbi and scholar. He was asked to summarize the meaning of the entire Torah (the Old Testament) while standing on one foot. His reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.... That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this – go and study it!”[1]

Well, in trying to address the question – what is the purpose of life for a Yale graduate? – I am a bit concerned that I will be vividly defining hubris while standing on one foot! After all, what does a university president know about such matters that you have not already figured out for yourselves?

There are many perfectly fine answers to the question about your commitments after Yale. Your purpose in life might be to find work that is meaningful to you: a wonderful goal. Your purpose in life might be to find someone to love, nurture a family, and create the next generation: also wonderful goals. Your purpose in life might be a kind of long-term loyalty to those who have supported, inspired, and shaped you by making very, very certain that – as the song goes – “time and change shall not avail to break the friendships formed at Yale.”[2] This is also a laudable desire. Your purpose in life might be to accumulate whatever amount of wealth would make you feel comfortable and secure, and – despite what you might suspect – I am not going to argue with that goal either.

What I am going to suggest to you today, however, is that your purpose in life as a graduate from Yale is simply this: to improve the world. In the Jewish tradition this is called Tikkun Olam, literally to repair the world.

Tikkun Olam is a theme and a phrase that has permeated American popular and political culture. (American clergy – not to mention college deans and university presidents – tend to give so many sermons on Tikkun Olam that there is a joke about an American traveling to Israel to work in an orphanage. He is met by his cousin at the airport. After exchanging greetings, the American asks his Israeli cousin, “How do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew?”)

The idea of leaving the world an improved place is also captured in concepts from other faith traditions such as Khalifah (the principles of succession) in Islam and the Kingdom of God in Christianity. There is a Buddhist idea too that personal enlightenment and liberation is impossible until all humans are freed from suffering. Of course, the idea that improving the world can be an important life purpose has a relatively more secular tradition as well, from Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith to community organizer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams.

What I like about this proposal for life’s purpose is that improving the world can be accomplished from within nearly any political framework. Repairing, healing, or improving the world – often captured in the idea of alleviating suffering – can be pursued from a liberal perspective (develop social programs that encourage self-sufficiency but provide a safety net), from a conservative point of view (teach fundamental values in order to cultivate individuals of good character who make the world a better place), and even from a libertarian agenda (enable free market forces to reinforce good ideas and good behavior; in the meantime, live and let live).

I also favor improving the world as the life purpose of a newly minted Yalie because it is possible to embrace this life mission in so many ways:

When you start a new business that employs people and contributes something new, you improve the world.

When you serve others with great distinction in one of the professions, you improve the world. 

When you pursue an academic career in order to light fires in the bellies of the next generation of college or high school students, you improve the world.[3]

When you inspire others by creating a beautiful work of art, you improve the world.  

When you build a service organization and you listen to and collaborate with those who you would like to help, you improve the world.

I am confident that all of you have walked past the sculpture of Yale graduate Nathan Hale (Class of 1773) on the Old Campus hundreds of times in your four years at Yale. And most of you know his story as a spy for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, as well as his final words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” But you may not know Nathan Hale’s second most famous line, “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary.”

Yale’s culture of service to others – service to repair the world – is indeed legendary and centuries old. As the first official historian of Yale, Professor George W. Pierson wrote, “The horizons have rolled back. But Yale still believes in character and fair play, in the learning and teaching of truth. It remains, as it has always been, a nursery of scholars and a gateway to that life whose test is achievement and public service.” [4]

I am impressed by your sense of obligation. I am overwhelmed by the organizations you have built and the activities in which you have engaged as Yale students in order to be useful and of service to others. They have the potential to improve the world. Many of you have contributed something new by addressing niches where very little light has been shined. But will these efforts be sustained after your graduation, or are they merely lines on your résumés? Will there be progress or back-sliding? Is Tikkun Olam ever actually finished? Is your work ever truly done?

Improving the world is a difficult project to take on because – unlike so many aspects of your education at Yale or of life itself – there really is no beginning, middle, or end here. There is no “bottom line.” What may be most challenging is that even after a lifetime of work, further repair may be necessary. Maybe even more than when you started. My predecessor, President Richard Levin (whom I like to refer to as “Twenty-Two”), often quoted Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it....”[5]

I hope in these remarks I have not been too preachy, let alone preached to a knowing choir. I trust the efforts to improve the world you have begun during your bright college years will continue in some way after you leave this place. Living a life of meaning and purpose helps others and inspires others, but it also will bring you a kind of happiness that is otherwise difficult to find.

So, women and men of the Class of 2015 (please rise):

We are delighted to salute your accomplishments, those that improved yourselves, those that improved your friends and classmates, those that improved our community, and those that improved the world. We know, of course, that these are not unconnected. Remember to give thanks for all that has brought you to this day. Go forth from this place with grateful hearts, paying back the gift you have received here by paying it forward for others. Find that part of the world that feels chipped or bent or broken – and commit yourself, once again, to Tikkun Olam.

Congratulations, Class of 2015! 


[1] From the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a.

[2] From “Bright College Years,” Yale’s alma mater.

[3] Yeats, William Butler. “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”

[4] Pierson, George W. (1979). Yale: A short history (2nd edition). New Haven, CT: Office of the Secretary, Yale University, p. 95.

[5] From Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Chapter 2, Mishna 16.