Membership in a Community: Speaking, Listening, Finding Common Ground: President's Baccalaureate Address

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President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway lead the procession into Woolsey Hall. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The following is the address presented by President Peter Salovey at the 2016 Baccalaureate ceremonies.

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. 

I have noted over the years a delightful Yale tradition. Could you help me carry it out?

Might I ask all of the families and friends here today to rise and recognize the outstanding—and graduating—members of the Class of 2016? 

And now, might I ask the Class of 2016 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?

Thank you! 

See more Commencement 2016 stories, photos, videos, and more.

So, graduating seniors, like the other seniors in Yale College before you, most of you have experienced this year certain freedoms relative to the prior three years: freedom from distribution requirements, freedom to explore a particular topic in your major, freedom from the demands of leadership positions in student organizations, perhaps the freedom to enjoy more fully the breadth and depth of the friendships you have made at Yale.

After Monday, of course, you will also experience the freedom that comes with moving on, which is really the freedom to decide how you are going to put your Yale education to work in the world. I hope you are exhilarated about the choices ahead, though I expect that most of you face them with some anxiety as well. In any case, as the fates would have it, you must now leave behind the Yale College community and choose other communities to join, just as you once chose this one.

When you arrived here, you entered a community founded well over three centuries ago. It does not take much of a historian to understand that over such a long period of time, vast changes have taken place, both at Yale and in the society in which Yale is embedded. Very few of the important changes in Yale’s history were easy to navigate, or even to perceive clearly while they were taking place, however inevitable or obvious they may seem to us now. We generally converge far more in our perspectives on issues of the past, especially the distant past, than we do in our perspectives on those of the present. This will be true of any community you decide to join in the future—particularly any as closely knitted and highly engaged as Yale’s. 

As you consider your move from Yale, I want to focus today on three responsibilities that I believe members of a community must share if they wish to strengthen their interconnections and provide for the common good. First, we must be prepared to speak fully our own minds. Second, we must be willing to listen carefully to what others say of their own minds. Third, we must search for common ground that provides us a basis for moving forward.

Students enjoy a moment of relaxation at the Baccalaureate ceremony. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

No one of these obligations, it seems to me, can be successfully fulfilled without attending to the other two. As I consider each in turn, I want to shift our focus, at least for the moment, away from talk about rights. Having the right to say or do things is a very different matter from deciding what it would be wise and best to say or do. So I would like to consider something that lies beyond the assertion of a right, and that something is the hard work it takes to be a vital and active member of a community.

The first shared obligation of community citizenship sounds straightforward: that we have the shared responsibility, especially on matters of importance to the entire community, to speak fully our own minds. But what does it mean to “speak fully”? Does it mean to speak at the greatest length? In the loudest voice? Or does it mean something more like speaking with the care and the intent to move a community toward a better and deeper understanding of the matter at hand?

I propose to you that the strongest and most effective advocates of a position resist the temptation to demonize or mock their opponents, to inflame their friends, or to simplify complex matters. Without surrendering their convictions, they look instead to expand our sensibilities and awareness, to consider and to respect opposing concerns, and to present us with new options for how we might move forward together. 

Our faith in the progress of the Yale community, or any community we join, absolutely depends on our mutual commitment to just these practices, however much we might differ in our perspectives or experiences. Over my years as at Yale, I have invariably encountered many individuals who represented quite different views, but who approached me with considered, thorough, and broadly informed reasons to support a strongly held position.

And what about not just speaking “fully,” but also speaking “one’s own mind”? The courage to speak your own mind cannot be limited to joining a group of like-minded people or supporting a particular party position or “liking” an online comment. In the heat of battle, our natural impulse is to circle the wagons, close ranks, and show party loyalty. It can sometimes take significantly more courage to express a disagreement or concern among those we take to be our friends than to disagree with those we take to be our opponents.

As you go out in the world, joining and creating communities, it can also be immensely difficult to hear in full a differing view, which brings me to the second shared obligation of members in a community: the responsibility to listen fully to what others are saying, especially when we find their views disturbing or irrelevant to our own concerns.

We know from much research in social psychology, and you know from your own lives, that people are powerfully subject to confirmation bias. We gravitate strongly toward like-minded people, and we attend to sources of information that resonate with our existing beliefs. Social media only serve to reinforce these psychological tendencies: people have increasingly narrowed their listening to channels expressing and reinforcing opinions they already hold. Beyond even that, it takes unusual will power and commitment to listen fully not only for what someone is saying, but for why he or she is saying it, to understand the personal experience that motivates interest, as well as the intellectual experience that informs argument.

Let me personalize the dynamic I have been describing just a bit. I have a close friend; let’s call him Allan. Allan’s view of the world differs from my own as much as any friend I have. He is opposed to considering race, ethnicity, or economic class in any way when admitting students to Yale. He does not think the law should establish a minimum wage. He believes in a free society you should have the right to sell your kidney. Or for that matter, your vote. These are opinions I find strange, even in some cases simply wrong.

Students and their guests gathered on Beinecke Plaza after the Baccalaureate ceremony. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

And yet we are friends. We talk a lot, and we listen carefully. Neither of us dismisses the other’s suggestions or passes judgments on motivations. Generally we don’t succeed in changing each other’s beliefs, though sometimes we do. But we both leave our discussions, and yes, even our most difficult arguments, better informed and more able to appreciate a divergent perspective. We are also able to value and sustain our friendship while differing, sometimes sharply, in our views. 

I am certain that Yale has done its usual excellent job in educating each and every one of you. But I am equally certain that with time and change, some of the ideas that will stick with you most are ones you found hardest to grasp or accept the first time you heard them from a fellow student. Just as important as anything that you have learned in a seminar or in a lab, I hope that Yale has been a place that encouraged you to find friendships—like mine and Allan’s—with individuals whose ideas may be in some critical ways opposed to your own.

In older academic writings, you can find reference to something called the principle of charity in interpretation. This is the principle of treating an opposing view in what you take to be its strongest and most viable form, something you can only achieve by actively seeking out and listening carefully to its ablest proponent. Doing so increases your capacity to enter into a productive dialogue, first because it will strengthen your grasp of what actually differentiates your own view, and second because it will open you to the real possibility of changing your own mind.

I think of the student who once told her professor that this teacher had finally persuaded her of a point about which they had disputed. “You win,” said the student. “No,” said the professor, “You win. You have learned one of the most difficult things: how to change your mind.”  

Let me close by saying something that I know just scratches the surface of the third shared obligation of citizenship in any community worthy of the name: the responsibility to seek common ground for the sake of the community as a whole. You have, just as we all have, much to learn from others in every community you join. Yet, you will predictably confront the tension between what you perceive to be your own individual or group interests and what you perceive to be the common ground you share with others. You will be tempted to think that the search for common ground is simply equivalent to a demand that you concede ground, your own ground at that. Not to pursue common ground, however, is fatal to a community and to progress. I hope you share my anxiety about the degree to which we are seeing this tendency coming to the fore nationally and internationally.

To find common ground does not mean surrendering principles, but it does mean seeking creative compromise. To find common ground, we must give up calls to judgment and demands for instantaneous results, while instead undertaking the hard, painstaking, sometimes plodding task of designing and implementing workable solutions in which all members of the community have a stake. Finding common ground will never be free of confrontation, but it will never stay stuck in confrontation. It will look for the best in others, not imagine the worst.

***

I hope that, as a member of the Yale community, you have learned to speak fully, listen intensely, and seek common ground in many aspects of your lives. These skills will serve you well in your coming ventures, especially as you carry out our university’s mission to improve the world today and for future generations. 

Members of the Class of 2016 (please rise):

As you go out on to a “world [that is] all before [you] … hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,”[1] bring to that world all that your Yale education has given you: the ability to appreciate complexity even while seeking simplicity, to engage critically even while listening respectfully, and to recognize your responsibilities even while finding pleasure in your new communities. 

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 2016!


[1] These quotations are from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and are from a favorite passage for deans and presidents 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.”

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