Commencement 2005: A Simple Reflection of Virtue
I now want to address a few final thoughts to the members of the Skidmore College
class of 2005—before we catapult you out into an unsuspecting world.
Let me begin where Dr. Kuroda left off: with the thought that what you do from this point forward—both how you construct your personal lives and how you make your mark upon the world—will represent the ultimate determinations of the value of your Skidmore education. Indeed, the best way to honor the professors who have done so much to assist you in reaching this point is to surpass them—in knowledge, in achievement, and in virtue.
Virtue is rather an old-fashioned concept, isn't it? Something that we don't often talk about these days. And yet the idea of moral excellence combined with courage—and that is a serviceable definition of virtue—is surely important today, perhaps more important than ever in the history of humankind because we have reached a point where your generation's individual and collective effects upon the world will far eclipse those of preceding generations.
Consider the issue of global climate change. In her three-part New Yorker article on this topic, writer Elizabeth Kolbert notes that:
A few years ago ... the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen coined a term. No longer, he wrote, should we think of ourselves in the Holocene, as the period since the last glaciation is known. Instead, an epoch unlike any of those which preceded it had begun. This new age was defined by one creature—man—who had become so dominant that he was capable of altering the planet on a geological scale. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winner, dubbed this age the Anthropocene. He proposed as its starting date the seventeen-eighties, the decade in which James Watt perfected his steam engine and, inadvertently, changed the history of the earth.(1)
Crutzen's point is that with the invention of the steam engine, human beings began pumping carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere in heretofore unprecedented ways: a process that began altering ratios of CO2 to other gases that had remained essentially stable for thousands of years of human history and that has accelerated alarmingly over the past century.
There is no question that through this process we human beings are altering our climate. The only question that matters is how we will deal with this reality. Will we work collectively to find a way to lead this process of change? Or will we abdicate leadership by acting as though this social process is somehow beyond our control?
The answer to this question will provide a good measure of your generation's virtue—your capacity to combine moral excellence with courage. I assume that you know the meaning of the term "courage," and I'm not going to attempt a definition of "moral excellence" here. But I will suggest that any serviceable notion of moral excellence includes a concern for others, a concern that extends ultimately to the future in which those others will live.
Well why should you care enough about the future that you might be willing to act courageously to make that future a better one? Let me suggest a reason for caring that does not pertain to most of you at this point in your lives—a biological reason that is hard-wired into our species: children.
Well why should you care enough about the future that you might be willing to act courageously to make that future a better one? Let me suggest a reason for caring that does not pertain to most of you at this point in your lives—a biological reason that is hard-wired into our species: children. In a very real sense, to hold in one's arms a child that one loves is to hold a part of the future. Your parents had that experience, and part of the meaning of this day for them is that this moment symbolizes your entry into the adult world—a moment they hoped and planned for over so many years (for some of them, wondering if it would ever come!). My point is that to love a child is to worry about the kind of world that child will inhabit. It is to be connected to the future in a concrete and experiential way that transcends any abstract intellectual awareness. This experience is surely one of the psychological foundations of human morality—of moral excellence and hence of virtue.
The conclusion to this line of reasoning is not that you should go forth and multiply—at least not immediately. Some of you will never experience parenthood at all, and yet we expect you to be virtuous even so. Rather, the conclusion I would like you to draw is twofold:
First, you still have a great deal to learn, and part of that learning concerns the existential meaning of children in the human community. Since we have spent the last few days praising your academic accomplishments, a small dose of humility at this point is surely not a bad idea.
Second, the sooner you begin paying attention to children, getting connected to them caring about them and the world they will in habit, the sooner you will be on the path to a mature understanding of moral excellence and hence, virtue. One way to forge that connection is by spending time with children in your extended family. A second way is to continue developing your moral imagination through literature, plays, and films that include children as meaningful characters. Along this lone, I recommend the book The Kite Runner, this year's Saratoga Reads selection, and a book that many of you already know.
Above all I urge you, as you begin the wonderful project of constructing an adult life, to pause from time to time and give some thought to the important concept of virtue. In doing so, always remember that you carry with you—into your future—the hopes and dreams of those who have nurtured you from the days of your own childhood as well as all of us at your alma mater, Skidmore College.
1Elizabeth Kolbert, "The Climate of Man-III: What Can Be Done?" the New Yorker (May 9, 2005), p. 54.