What are You For?

Speaker: 
Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
Date: 
Friday, May 17, 2019
Event: 
Baccalaureate Address, Yale College Class of 2019

Graduates of the Class of 2019, family members, and friends: It is a privilege to be here with you today. Commencement is a time of beginnings and endings; of looking to the future with hope while saying farewell with both joy and, perhaps, nostalgia. It is a jumble of emotions for all of us—and a field-day for a psychologist! Enjoy all those feelings: it is hard to imagine you’ll have an experience quite like this again. 

So, 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 2019?

And now, may I ask the Class of 2019 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?

Thank you!

***

In September 1974, Kingman Brewster, Jr., then president of Yale, spoke to members of the Class of 1978, seated right where you are now. He told them, “Many of us have just been on a ten-year trip of moral outrage: anti-Wallace, anti-War, anti-Watergate. We have been so sure about what we were against that we have almost forgotten how difficult it is to know what we are for and how to achieve it.”[1]

Does this sound familiar? Today, perhaps more than ever, it is easy to know what you’re against. Far more difficult to say what you’re for.

What we’re against is going to be different for each of us. Maybe you’re against border walls and I’m against guns; your neighbor is against trade wars and your cousin is against abortion. For some, capitalism is the problem, while others fear the specter of socialism. By this point, I bet all of you are against sitting in old buildings with no air conditioning, listening to a long speech! So, I’ll get to the point…

How many of you have seen a Marx Brothers movie? Although I’m not mistaken for Groucho Marx as often since I shaved my moustache, I still have a weakness for his humor.

One of Groucho’s best performances, of course, is when he plays a college president. (Now that is a funny role!) In the opening scene of the movie Horse Feathers, Groucho, the new president of Huxley College, is told that the trustees have “a few suggestions” for him. Then he breaks into this song:

“I don’t know what they have to say

It makes no difference anyway

Whatever it is, I’m against it

No matter what it is or who commenced it

I’m against it

Your proposition may be good

But let’s have one thing understood:

Whatever it is, I’m against it.”[2]

I encourage you to look up the scene on YouTube—not right now, please—because it’s still a very funny piece. It’s funny because it’s ridiculous, but also because it contains a kernel of truth. And the truth applies not only to college presidents, but to all of us.

How many times have we decided we’re against an idea before we’ve even heard it? How guilty are we of deciding “I’m against it” without even knowing what “it” is?

Many times we know what we’re against based on who is saying it. If an idea comes from a certain public figure, politician, or media outlet, we already know how we feel. Partly this is because our public discourse has become so predictable. We’ve lost the capacity for surprise, for revelation.

Speaking of predictable, here is the moment when an ambassador of an older generation—that’s me—tells millennials—most of you—about the evils of social media! But please hear me out…

Social media has transformed our lives and our relationships. It has many advantages, of course, allowing us to share news and information quickly with people around the world. But it also heightens our sense of outrage and speeds up arguments, depriving us of the time and space for careful reflection.

Bombarded with notifications, pressured to respond before the media cycle turns over, we tap out our position—our opposition—in seconds. It is easy to be against something in fewer than 280 characters. It is far more difficult to articulate what you are for—and to do it at warp speed.

Make no mistake: There are plenty of reasons to be outraged. My generation, your generation—we face not only grave moral challenges but existential threats: rising ocean levels globally and rising inequality in America; violence around the world and in our own backyards; the fraying of the social fabric. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” and we wonder if the center can hold.[3]

I understand the impulse toward negativity. Like many of you, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face, by the injustices that call out for our condemnation. Yet it is precisely because our challenges are so great that outrage is not enough. Pointing out what is wrong is merely the beginning, not the end, of our work.

The Czech author Ivan Klima wrote, “To destroy is easier than to create, and that is why so many people are ready to demonstrate against what they reject. But what would they say if one asked them what they wanted instead?”[4]

What would you say? What would I say? What are you for?

Klima’s life story is one of both criticism and creation. Born in Prague in 1931, he was sent to a Nazi concentration camp as a child. He survived and became an outspoken voice for democracy in Czechoslovakia.

But in 1968, with the Soviet invasion and crackdown, Klima’s ideas became dangerous. He could have fled, but he chose to return home and continue his work in defiance of the Communist regime. He organized an underground meeting of writers who circulated manuscripts in secret. Over the course of 18 years, those writers produced three hundred different works of art. They were critics, of course: critics of tyranny, critics of violence. But they were creators, too, of plays, novels, and poetry. They imagined, and helped create, a new and better world.

What will you imagine? A better business, a smarter school, a stronger community? Whatever you are against, it is time to create something you are for.

At Yale you have learned to do both: to imagine and create. You have studied and explored new ideas; made art and music; excelled in athletics; launched companies; and served your neighbors and the world. You have created a vibrant, diverse, and exciting community.

Take these experiences with you and draw on them when you need encouragement. Remember a class that surprised you; a conversation that inspired you; a professor who believed in you. And take care to avoid what Toni Morrison calls “second-rate goals and secondhand ideas.”

“Our past is bleak. Our future dim,” Morrison writes. “But if we see the world as one long brutal game, then we bump into another mystery, the mystery of beauty, of light, of the canary that sings on the skulls.”[5]

Being for something is a search for those mysteries, for that light: it is an act of radical optimism, a belief that a more perfect world is within reach and that we can help build it.

What are you for?

You may well turn that question back to me. What are you for, Peter Salovey?

I am for the transformative power of a liberal education—one that asks you to think broadly, question everything, and embrace the joy of learning.

I am for the American Dream in all its rich promise—the idea that opportunities are shared widely and that access to education is within reach for the many, not the few.

I am for the robust and free exchange of ideas, as essential to the mission of a great university as it is to the health of our democracy.

I am for a world where we welcome the immigrant, the poor, and the forgotten; we do not shut them out or silence them; a world where showing empathy and understanding is considered the true hallmark of success, of a life well-lived.

That is what I am for.

Yale’s mission says, in part, that we are “committed to improving the world today and for future generations.” That commitment does not end at graduation.

Soon you will leave Yale and, as Robert Penn Warren, who studied and taught at Yale, wrote, “Go into the convulsion of the world, out of history and into history.”[6]

Indeed, you will go into history and make history.

Looking around me today, I think of the generations of Yale graduates who have come before you. Individuals who have been for something.

There are many names we know and others that would be less familiar—presidents and world leaders, artists and business executives, scholars and scientists.

I know that, like them,  you will heed the call to leadership and service and leave your mark on every realm of human endeavor.

That is Yale’s mission—that is what Yale is for.

As members of the Yale community, what do we believe?

We believe that facts and expertise, applied with creativity and wisdom, can transform the world.

We believe that education and research save lives and make life more meaningful.

We believe that diversity of thought and diversity in deed are essential to human progress.

We believe, most of all, in the boundless potential of human ingenuity; that together, we can solve great challenges and bring light and truth to a world in great need of it.

On Monday during your commencement ceremonies, I will confer on you all the “rights and responsibilities” of a Yale degree. Yours is a great responsibility. You will have to know what you are for.

What are you for?

“Surely in the light of history,” Eleanor Roosevelt said, “it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try.”[7]

Yale has prepared you, as a scholar and a human being, to try; to face challenges with courage and determination. And I trust you are leaving Yale with a sense of your own responsibilities to one another, to the planet, and to our shared future.

By serving others and our communities with the many gifts you have been given, you will live a life that is for something, a life of meaning and purpose.

There is no time to waste; there are no words to waste: As a young Bob Dylan sang in 1965, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”[8] We must give life to new ideas, imagine new ways of being in the world, new answers to the problems that vex us and our neighbors.

Now is the time.

Members of the Class of 2019 (please rise):

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 imagine and create the new worlds you wish to see.

What are you for?

Congratulations, Class of 2019!


[1] Kingman Brewster, Jr., “Address at the Freshman Assembly, for the Class of 1978,” Yale University, September 3, 1974.

[2] Horse Feathers. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Studios, 1932.

[3] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats, ed. M. L. Rosenthal, 4th ed. (New York: Scribner, 1996), 89.

[4] Ivan Klima, Love and Garbage, trans. Ewald Osers (New York: Knopf, 1991), 117.

[5] Toni Morrison, “Moral Inhabitants,” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), 47-48.

[6] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), 438.

[7] Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (New York, Harper Bros., 1960), 168. Quoted in Jon Meacham, The Soul of America:  The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Random House, 2018).

[8] Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” 1965, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/its-alright-ma-im-only-bleeding.