Drawing a Larger Circle

Speaker: 
Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
Date: 
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Event: 
Baccalaureate Address, Yale College Class of 2018

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Graduates of the Class of 2018, family members, and friends. It is a pleasure to be here with you today, a day filled with joy for the present and hope for the future. 

There is a wonderful Yale tradition that I would like to honor right now:

May I ask all of the families and friends here today to rise and recognize the outstanding—and graduating—members of the Class of 2018?

And now, may I ask the Class of 2018 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?

Thank you!

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These are the months and years when people tend to make a lot of plans. Some are practical: you schedule flights and rent apartments and consider where you will live, work, or study after graduation. Others are more aspirational: you imagine your future life and what you wish to accomplish in the years ahead.

I want to begin by sharing a passage Pauli Murray wrote in 1945 about her aspirations. At the time, she was a young lawyer and civil rights activist.

“I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods,” Murray wrote. “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”[1]

So today I ask you: How large will you draw your circle?

Will you draw a circle that is large, inclusive, and vibrant? Or will it be small, “puny,” and privileged?

The work of inclusion is difficult, but the rewards are great.

Let me suggest ways you might follow the example of Pauli Murray—and many other Yale graduates—when you leave this campus.

First, make sure your circles are truly large.

In today’s world, where you can have 700 followers on Twitter and a thousand friends on Facebook, it may seem easy to have a large circle. But if you’re bombarded with the same stories, memes, and opinions from all your so-called friends, then your world may in fact be quite narrow. A conversation with six friends in real life actually may lead to a greater variety of ideas and perspectives.

In my years at Yale, I have been privileged to know some of the most brilliant minds in the world. I have learned that the greatest scholars draw large circles. They read widely and are interested in ideas well beyond the scope of their own research and beliefs.

Robert Dahl, who was a Sterling Professor of Political Science, taught at Yale for forty years. One of the most respected political scientists of his generation, Professor Dahl was an authority on democracy and democratic institutions. And he was a beloved teacher and mentor.

After his death in 2014 at the age of 98, tributes from his former students poured in. One of his graduate students, Jeffrey Isaac, recalled how he vehemently disagreed with some of Dahl’s arguments, even though he loved taking his classes. For his dissertation, Isaac proposed writing a critique of Dahl’s theories. Much to his surprise, the most enthusiastic and supportive faculty member in the department was Dahl himself! He agreed to supervise the dissertation.

Isaac wrote, “Bob Dahl spent countless hours in his office talking with me about my principal theoretical antagonist—him! We would discuss this guy ‘Dahl’ in the third person, considering the limits of his arguments, speculating about how he might respond to my arguments.”[2]

Professor Dahl embraced his critics, listened to them, and conversed with them, a model of open and engaged scholarship and teaching—the best we can aspire to at Yale.

The lesson extends beyond our campus. Our greatest challenges as a society—climate change, poverty, insecurity, and violence—demand innovative and creative solutions. Yet political polarization is making it more difficult than ever to solve these problems. We must be able to talk with our opponents even though we disagree with them.

We might start by emulating Professor Dahl—and so many other wise and generous thinkers who have drawn large circles and so added to the sum of human understanding.

My second piece of advice—and here I am taking some liberties with the metaphor—is to draw as many circles as you can.

One circle will be your work. Make sure you enjoy it, but make sure you have other circles as well.

We know one of the keys to happiness is developing a passion—even an expertise—outside of work. Sharing that passion with others gives us great joy, and it connects us to other circles of friends and associates who might be very different from the ones we would meet otherwise.

As many of you are aware, I am quite passionate about music from the Appalachian Mountain region. My love of traditional country and bluegrass music has allowed me to visit places such as southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, to chair the board of the International Bluegrass Music Museum, and to play bass—for thirty years now—with the Professors of Bluegrass. It enables me to share stories and songs with perfect strangers at summertime bluegrass festivals. Most significantly, though, it has led to circles of friendship beyond the towns in which I grew up, beyond the universities I attended, and beyond my profession of psychology.

I am proud, of course, to be a psychologist, and my discipline does in fact provide some empirical evidence to support my personal experience.

Patricia Linville is a social psychologist who studies how people think of themselves and how these self-perceptions influence well-being. She is now at Duke, but she was my teacher here at Yale when she completed several studies of what she terms “self-complexity.”

Greater “self-complexity,” according to Linville, means a person has a variety of aspects to his or her self. In other words, he or she draws many circles. For example, a woman who thinks of herself as a student, a marathon runner, a theater-goer, a reader of the New Yorker magazine, and—let’s say—a bass player in a bluegrass band would demonstrate greater self-complexity than someone who thinks of himself only as a lawyer.

Professor Linville, in her research, found that greater self-complexity acts as a “buffer” against negative experiences. For example, if you define yourself almost entirely in terms of your job, getting passed over for a promotion might be devastating for your sense of self-worth. Linville calls this “putting all your eggs in one cognitive basket.” People such as our marathon-running bass player, on the other hand, bounce back more quickly after a setback. Linville even found that college students with greater self-complexity were less likely to get sick or experience depression or stress.[3]

Third and finally, let me suggest one important way we can expand our circles—by reaching out and engaging with others.

Here I would like to turn again to Pauli Murray and one of her more surprising relationships.

Murray’s papers contain thousands of letters—a reflection of a full life, animated by many interests, commitments, and relationships. A life of many circles.

During her time at Yale Law School, Murray received a letter from William S. Beinecke, a member of the Yale College Class of 1936. Now the name will sound familiar to everyone here. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is named for William’s father and two uncles, and many other programs and places at Yale have benefited from the family’s remarkable philanthropy.

Bill Beinecke passed away just last month; he was nearly 104 years old. In 1963 when he wrote Murray, he was chairman of the Sperry and Hutchison Company, a venerable American company founded by his grandfather. (Your parents and grandparents probably remember S&H Green Stamps.) Beinecke was a leader in corporate America and a wealthy and powerful man.

He had met Murray at an event at Yale, and not long after that meeting, he wrote her a letter. He enclosed a clipping from Time magazine about race relations in the United States and asked what she thought.

Murray responded. A few weeks later he sent her another article and asked her opinion again, this time about school integration. She wrote back. At one point, Murray wrote Beinecke a four-page, single-spaced, typed letter on what she called the “imponderables on the issue of race.” Their correspondence continued for several weeks, with interesting and frank letters on both sides.

Beinecke and Murray—both exemplars of the Yale tradition—were able to sustain a conversation despite differences in gender, family background, race, class, and more. We don’t know whether or not they entirely agreed with one another, but we can imagine they learned a lot from the exchange. All because two individuals decided to reach beyond their normal circles.[4]

Beinecke’s decision to write Murray did not take place in a vacuum. In the 1950s, he attended a discussion at Yale Law School on the topic of American race relations. Not long after, he decided to look into Sperry and Hutchinson’s hiring practices. He learned that the employment agency vetting applicants for his company was screening out African Americans, removing them from the pool before their applications ever reached Sperry & Hutchinson. Beinecke ended the practice.

He also supported scholarships for underprivileged high school students and established a fellowship for students of color at Yale Law School. It was in the course of this work that he met Murray and initiated their correspondence, hoping to bridge the gulf that separated his experience from hers.[5]

Bill Beinecke’s life was made up of many different circles. He led efforts to improve New York’s Central Park, he supported environmental causes, he was dedicated to the game of golf, and he remained an ardent champion of Yale and its students, among other interests.

And what about Pauli Murray, who as a young person promised to “draw a larger circle” in her life? One month after writing her last letter to Bill Beinecke, she participated in the historic March on Washington, which she helped organize. While finishing her doctor of jurisprudence degree here at Yale, she drafted an influential legal memo, helping to ensure that “sex” was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Murray’s other circles included writing poetry and teaching. At the age of 67, she became the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, continuing her lifelong commitment to reconciliation and understanding.

Enlarging our circles is far from easy. It requires courage, surely, but also imagination and curiosity about our fellow human beings. It rejects fear and suspicion. It demands that we listen to one another. It measures the limits of our humanity.

Both Pauli Murray and Bill Beinecke drew such large circles—and so many circles—that their lives intersected. I urge you to do the same. Draw many circles; make them large in all kinds of ways. You will find life richer, fuller, and more meaningful, and you will bring to the world the empathy and understanding we so desperately need.

Members of the Class of 2018 (please rise):

As you go out on to a “world [that is] all before [you] . . . hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,”[6] bring to that world all that your Yale education has given you: the ability to engage critically even while listening respectfully, to respond creatively to challenges and obstacles; to embrace your responsibilities while finding happiness, and to draw ever wider the circle of belonging and understanding in this world.

We are delighted to salute your accomplishments, and we are proud of your achievements. Remember to give thanks for all that has brought you to this day. And go forth from this place with grateful hearts, paying back the gifts you have received here by using your minds, voices, and hands to strengthen your new communities and your world.

Congratulations, Class of 2018!


[1] Murray, P. (1945). An American Credo. Common Ground 5(2), 24.

[2] Isaac, J. (2014, February 11). Robert Dahl as mentor. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/02/11/robert-dahl-as-mentor/?utm_term=.e19c870c221c

[3] Linville, P.W. (1985).  Self-complexity and affective extremity: Don’t put all your eggs in one cognitive basket.  Social Cognition, 3, 94-120.

[4] Pauli Murray Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

[5] Beinecke, W. S., & Kabaservice, G. M. (2000). Through Mem’ry’s Haze: A Personal Memoir. New York: Prospect Hill Press, 417-421.

[6] This quotation is from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a favorite passage of mine to read on Commencement weekend at Yale: “Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide; They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.”