May 22, 2000
by Diana DeGette
Thank you, President (Kathryn) Morhman. I am moved by that wonderful introduction. I've never regretted that decision the Board of Trustees made in 1992. I think Colorado College's history will show Kathryn to be maybe the best president we've ever had, and I think we're all honored to have her. I especially want to thank the class of 2000 for inviting me back today as your commencement speaker even after you had to suffer through my opening convocation speech several years ago. I am deeply honored by this, and I'm also pleased to see all of you here today. I want to congratulate each of you on all of the accomplishments that you have had through your college careers and I know that you will have as you move on after today.
Today, we also celebrate the importance of a liberal arts education. Oxford's Alan Ryan has said that a liberal education is "political; it looks to the education of good citizens...it looks to the education of autonomous, argumentative, and tough-minded individuals...I agree that a liberal education does create good citizens, not narrowminded, parochial, or selfish citizens. A liberal arts education makes us citizens of the world. And I believe that these "autonomous, argumentative, and tough-minded" citizens are responsible, thoughtful, and unwilling to live life without questioning our place and without questioning our purpose.
We embrace the liberal arts because their study opens our minds, exposes our mutual commonality with others, and demonstrates a need for greater understanding and compassion. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Seneca wrote that, "While we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity." Such a process of cultivation, I believe, occurs with a liberal arts education.
Today I ask you, as liberal arts graduates of Colorado College, to cultivate your humanity. These last four years, you have been given a precious gift -- a time to study, a time that political philosopher Michael Oakshott has called "an interval, a break from the tyrannical course of irreparable events." During this time you have had the opportunity to wonder, to search, to test solutions, and to speculate anew. But knowledge must lead to action, and today I ask you to dedicate your lives to service and life-long learning.
There are some who believe that a liberal arts education is a luxury, rather than a necessity. I strongly disagree. Professor Oakshott, speaking on our campus 25 years ago, warned, "The world has but one language, soon learned: the language of appetite. The idiom may be that of the exploitation of resources of the earth, or it may be that of seeking something for nothing, but this is a distinction without a difference...it affords no seclusion, it offers no release."
We live in a world that is often cynical, selfish, and hateful. Faced with this, many people seek the security of a narrow corner, regardless of the consequences to others. Greed and avarice often win over the public good. Some live a life ruled by appetite, by having more, consuming more, buying more. They become trapped by their own desires, their own fears, and their own successes.
Such lives are often cut off from others, becoming disengaged from community. This is how we lose our civility, our commonality, and our humanity.
There has never been a greater need, my friends, for cultivating our humanity. The United States is experiencing an economic boom that is simply unprecedented. But the gap between the those who are well off in this country and those who are not is expanding. All boats are not rising with this tide. Many of our citizens have been left behind by this economic growth. While many are doing well, there are millions of Americans confronting poverty, disease, health care disparities, discrimination, crime, and gun violence. Overseas, the gap between developed and under-developed countries is rapidly widening. The technology gap alone has left billions of people without the information, means, or opportunities for economic prosperity. Given this, I am frankly outraged by those who smugly, brazenly ignore the needs of others. And I an angered by those who believe these problems are of no concern.
We cannot, we must not, isolate ourselves from those in need. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that if one person was hungry, he was hungry; if one person was lonely, he was lonely. We must recognize what Dr. King called an "inherent network of mutuality." We cannot leave anyone behind. We must cultivate our humanity by affirmatively, aggressively, and alertly working to assist those less fortunate. We must seek out those living under bridges, in huts, and in refugee camps. We must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. We must demand the full range of rights for all people, everywhere. And we must become better stewards of our air, water, and land. We must use available economic resources to create jobs and security. We have a moral duty to share technology and vital medicines with people in under-developed countries.
If we hope to prosper as people, as human beings, we must respond to our duty to others. Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's greatest writer, has warned, "If we do not recognize our humanity in others, we shall surely not recognize it in ourselves."
Each of you is needed, and now. Some of you have already made vast contributions to environmental protection, business development, scientific advancement, or academic scholarship. Some of you have been to Asia, South America or Africa to teach, build homes, and assist in sustainable development. And even as many of you will move on to graduate school, you will find there is less time for reflection and study, as the demands of our world become your immediate concerns.
Kathryn told you that I sat where you sat 21 years ago today. Let me offer a brief perspective from my own graduation. In 1979, stunned and shocked that we had actually completed our studies, we sat where you are now, a bit rumpled, some a little worse for wear. Some of us were a bit hung over (I know no one here today is). But, you know, we felt about like you do. We quickly moved from the classroom to the boardroom, and beyond. You will do the same. Sitting in my own class in 1979 were two future members of the CC Board of Trustees (one who has joined you in the front row today, Ed Goldstein), two White House staffers, a state solicitor general, several college professors, many artists, lawyers, doctors and social workers, and other classmates who became advocates for public interest organizations.
And, by the way, our children are our greatest accomplishments. I am sure that every proud parent and grandparent here would agree with me. Our children surpass anything else that we have done in life.
After graduation, you will find a world of infinite possibilities, and infinite challenges, awaits you. The real test of your character and courage will be this: Can you take the lessons learned at Colorado College and make that positive difference in our world? Do you have the will and the commitment to serve others, to live for others, to give to others?
I know that you can make a difference every day of your life. In Harlem, Mother Hale cared for abandoned babies confronting HIV infection. Rachel Carson gave voice and vision to generations of environmentalists. Caesar Chavez made us aware of the needs of migrant workers. Mitch Snyder made us remember the homeless.
These are notable examples. But millions of people whom you don't know, who haven't made it to CNN, who aren't giving Regis their final answer, are working to make life easier for an older family member, a friend with cancer, or a neighbor who is alone. There are numerous, unrecorded acts of kindness and responsibility that make our world more livable and human. These people make a difference, too. So will you.
I recall an argument made by one of my graduate professors, Ronald Dworkin. He said, "If true democracy is government by the people, then true democracy is based on moral membership." He meant that our common humanity and our individual rationality make it a moral necessity that we treat each person with dignity, equality, justice, and fairness.
When I am asked about the importance of a liberal arts education, I respond that the bottom line is this: We learn that our sometimes fallible thinking, our fragile humanity, and conflicting experiences are all we have to offer a complex, inter-connected, and challenging world. A liberal arts education gives us the time to sharpen our thinking, understand our humanity, and gain a mature understanding of ourselves and of our world. We know that we must serve others, even if we have doubts, even if we make mistakes, and even if we sometimes fail. We learn to recognize our undeniable responsibility to others, our imperative duty to others.
A liberal arts education prepares us for this mission. It gives us the intellectual and personal growth, wisdom, tolerance, compassion, and activism. As citizens of the world, a liberal arts education is the first and critically important way that we can cultivate our humanity.
Thank you and good luck.