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Undergraduate Commencement 2002

Address by President David E. Maxwell
May 19, 2002

In the early colleges of colonial and 19th century America, the president-usually an ordained minister-gave the commencement address, in which he (it was always a he) attempted to place the students' collegiate education in a moral and ethical context. To put it more bluntly, it was a chance to provide the students with a set of instructions on how they should lead their lives if they wanted to meet with the president's approval. The president also usually taught the senior capstone seminar-a year-long examination of critical moral and ethical issues.

I have not taught a University course in some time now; one of the very few negative aspects of the modern university presidency-at least from my perspective. But I was a professor of Russian literature for almost 20 years, and I never got over the fact that my job was to sit in a classroom and talk with smart young people about books that I loved to read and about things that I thought were important to think about. So this morning, just when you thought you'd escaped from Drake without being subjected to moral and ethical instruction from the president (all those e-mails I sent you don't count...), I'm going to simultaneously invoke the privilege of the Colonial president and indulge my pedagogical instincts. That's the bad news. The good news is that I'm only going to do it for about 5 minutes.

Last fall, we as a community shared the horror, the sadness, and the fear of the events of 9/11, and I-like most of you, I'm sure-have been trying to make sense of what happened ever since. From one perspective, of course, it will never make sense-violence shouldn't make sense; killing shouldn't make sense; hatred shouldn't make sense. But if we do not try to make sense of it, if we do not persist in trying to understand how and why such things can happen, if we do not try to comprehend what enables people to believe such acts are right and justified-even necessary-we will never be able to resolve the fundamental issues that facilitate such violence. To do that takes a powerful exertion of intellect and application of knowledge. To make sense-to make- the incomprehensible into something we understand, I would argue, requires that we step out of who we are, out of what we believe, and out of what we experience into the minds, hearts, and experience of others. We must come to understand that people who are not us, who are other, see the world differently than we do, understand things differently than we do, and often act upon an entirely different set of assumptions than our own. That ability, of course, is not intrinsically human-we humans tend to be afraid of people who look different than we do, who speak a different language, who behave differently, eat different foods, worship different gods, and so on. Unfortunately, when we're afraid of those others, we have a tendency to become violently, tragically, and profoundly dumb.

What we need to learn-and by "we" I mean every human being on the face of the earth-is that when we encounter someone who is not "us," it is likely that they have a worldview that is different than ours, assumptions about the ways in which the world works that are different from ours, and it is very likely that they are making assumptions about who we are, what we think and believe, and what we will do that are not accurate. And when we talk with them, if we indeed do that, it is therefore likely that they are hearing things somewhat differently than we meant them to be heard. It is a matter of recognizing that there is a gap between our assumptions and their assumptions-and when we recognize that, we are faced with a critical choice: we can write them off as wrong, as ignorant, naïve, and misguided because they are not us,(and of course, they may be making the same mistake in our direction) or we can recognize that the richness of humanity lies precisely in its multiplicity of worldviews, beliefs, and values, and its vast variety of languages, customs, and colors. We can acknowledge that different is not a marker for "wrong". We can acknowledge that difference is something to be cherished, from which we can learn and enrich our own lives. But to do that, we have to learn how to negotiate that difference, how to communicate effectively across the chasm that separates our assumptions from others'. It's not something humans do naturally-it's a learned behavior and we have to work at it.

But let me bring this back to 9/11, in case the connection hasn't been clear all along. I'm willing to accept, at one level, that the attacks on America last September were the work of fanatics, whose religious fervor and ignorance were exploited for political purposes by a megalomaniacal psychotic. But that doesn't explain the millions of people around the world who seemed to rejoice in our tragedy, or the millions more who fear or distrust us as a nation.

In the context of what I've been talking about for the past few minutes, what we face as a nation in responding to those events is one of the biggest cross-cultural communications challenges in our nation's history. We are dealing with cultures that have profoundly different assumptions from our own about their historical (and divine) mandate, political and social organization, conflict resolution, and the meaning of death. As ignorant as most Americans are of these cultures, there are many around the world who are equally ignorant of the cultural, political, and spiritual values that inform our behavior as a society and as a nation.

Our collective lack of knowledge and our lack of meaningful and sustained interaction in one another's contexts allow us to fall victim to stereotypes, propaganda and misinformation, prejudice, hatred, and unspeakable violence. It is ignorance-both ours and theirs (along with poverty and famine)-that enables people in some societies to respond to the demonizing of America by fanatical demagogues, and it is ignorance-both our and theirs-that drives America's frequent failure to understand the ways in which our policies and behaviors are viewed abroad.

I'd like to head towards the end of my remarks by telling you a brief, personal story. Madeleine and I spent the 1970-71 academic year living in Moscow, in the then-Soviet Union-in the middle of the Vietnam War and the height of the Cold War; not a great time to be an American in Moscow. There was a first-year student at Moscow State University, where we lived, named Marina. She was from a regional center, the Russian equivalent of Omaha, perhaps, and she'd never seen an American in her life before she met us. She would show up in our little suite of two small rooms late in the afternoon every day to have tea and talk. One day, I returned from the library to find her sullen, tear-swollen, and uncommunicative. Madeleine couldn't figure out what was bothering Marina. When I finally got her to talk, what she said was this: "I just came from Scientific Communism class (sort of Civics I for university students in the Soviet period), and they showed us films of whites throwing rocks at black people in Selma Alabama, and American B-52's bombing civilians in Viet Nam-and I kept thinking, ‘but that's not Maddy and David.' It just doesn't make any sense." The presence of two Americans in her life undermined the effectiveness of the whole Soviet propaganda machine-she knew that they couldn't paint all Americans with the same brush.

So my point, the "the moral instruction from the president," is very simple: the most powerful thing that you can do to prevent hatred, to prevent violence, is to unleash an arsenal of very potent weapons: knowledge, curiosity, communication, and empathy-both on yourselves and on others. We must seek out every opportunity to engage the "other" in meaningful communication that bridges our assumptions. It is vitally important that others acquire an accurate and nuanced understanding of the United States, that they understand who we are as a nation, and as a collection of diverse peoples. It is equally important that we work to understand their cultures, to understand what we look like from their perspective-that we comprehend fully and accurately America's role and impact in the global arena, and learn to look back at ourselves, our culture, and our country with the eyes of the "other." Our failure to engage in a vital, interactive global process of cultural engagement will only prolong our collective inability to bridge the yawning chasms that separate us. I think that your Drake education has given you the intellectual tools and the knowledge to respond to that mandate-but you must have the will yourself to make it happen.

We are very glad that you have been part of the Drake community for the past several years, and thank you for being among us. In response to the horrors of September 11th, we came together again and again as a community of mutual support and mutual concern, united in our common desire to make sense of the senseless. We will always be here for you to come together in times of senselessness-you will always be part of the Drake family-and we are very, very proud that you are.

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