Barbara Jordan, Honorary Doctor of Laws '87

Values in Common,
by Barbara Jordan


May 1987

Shortly you will be dubbed the "Class of '87, Middlebury College." That designation and your degree are your ticket of admission to a class of elite Americans. You will probably object to being called elite. You will say to yourself and others that America is a classless society; that here all people are equal; that we have written into our constitution that class, hereditary privilege, and titles of nobility are disallowed-rejected-as requirements for holding public office. That is perhaps what you feel and believe and provides the basis for your resentment of my statement that today you become an elite American.

I make that statement because reality is at variance with those long­held, traditional and historical beliefs. There is a democratic elitism which honors those with brains and degrees and expects that those with those attributes and credentials will become the active participants and decision makers in the governments and communities all across America. The words 'democratic elitism' do not contain an inherent contradiction. Democracy is kept intact because participation in the electoral process is not restricted. The franchise is almost universal and is limited only by mental incapacity or imprisonment. In regards to the right to vote, democracy is alive and well. However, voting is a passive act. Formulating policy and implementing it are acts of governing which require an informed and engaged intellect. Those qualities are not universal. However, those with a college education are likely to be the ones chosen to govern

You are elite because there are not many of you. You constitute less than a quarter of the adult population of this country-that is, around 19 percent. You are challenged to bear democracy's burden and participate in the governance of this nation to the end that the majority of the people benefit. That is, you are expected to act in the public interest for the common good. That is an expectation which is not easy to actualize.

My generation which has preceded you should have left a legacy which preserved the highest principles and the most treasured values. Instead, we present you with the hot debate over whether values should be taught. On the left we have the negative. That position may be stated that values should not be taught because the opportunity to proselytize is too great and freedom of conscience and liberty of thought could be endangered. The affirmative argument states that values should be taught but only those I (the proponent) approve and sanction. While the debate goes on, the public is treated to the spectacle of the Attorney General of the United States requesting that an independent counsel investigate him to determine whether he has acted improperly and/or illegally in securing a government contract for friends and investing in the friends' enterprise for his (the Attorney General's) personal benefit. We have seen a President deny that he knew about certain covert activities carried out in his name and then decide that he did know after Congressional investigations revealed that he knew. We saw a candidate for President of the United States abandon his pursuit of that office when it was revealed that he was morally obtuse to such an extent that he probably shouldn't be President. And then there were Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the television evangelists, telling us to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's as well as the things that are God's. We could go on with a litany of moral blind spots revealed to the public. The point is that this is no time to debate whether to teach values or the proper forum for such instruction. This is the time to identify those values we have in common and incorporate them into our rules for daily living. It is by this that the quality of our civilization is measured.

Any identification of values in common should include the following:

Truth: John Rawls, a political philosopher, says of truth that it is "the first virtue of all human institutions." We expect to be told the truth in the myriad interactions of social intercourse. Lying is always wrong. If it is ever to be excused, the circumstances must be a crisis in which life or death is at stake. Those who govern must and should have an unbreachable attachment to the truth.

Tolerance: This is a minimum, entry level value for the society. We celebrate the pluralism which so identifies America. We are a diverse people with differing ideas, beliefs, habits, and customs. And we tolerate diversity as long as it does not threaten public order and safety. Tolerance is a value we have in common.

A higher level or plane of this value is Respect: The individual is entitled to have his selfhood respected and his dignity protected from violation by others. The movement from mere tolerance to respect represents a change from passive response to engaged feeling and belief. Tolerance and respect are in the public interest and for the common good.

The imperative of Community is a shared value. We are human, social, and political and are naturally inclined to organize ourselves into a community. We associate with each other in society for mutual benefit. Such political philosophers as John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, and others have written much about the Social Contract which governed once we were no longer in a state of nature. That contract gave us laws and regulated our conduct in ways which made sense.

The antithesis to community is isolation. There is a danger which surrounds anyone who chooses isolation over community. Isolation, underscored and reinforced, leads to a kind of hyper­individualism. Such, carried to an extreme, leads inexorably to anarchy, a non­state which is in no one's interest. (Whenever I hear the President and other policy makers speak of privatization, I get an uneasy feeling about the stability of community.)

The resolution of disputes by peaceful means rather than violent means is a preferred view widely shared. The rhetoric of Peace proliferates as we prepare for the last war. The Constitution grants the Congress the authority to declare war. The last such declaration authorized our entry into World War II. We are not now in a state of war, but flag­draped coffins carrying battlefield casualties keep arriving. One must ask, how serious is our commitment to peace?

I have not begun to exhaust the values we humans hold in common. What is the quality which makes and keeps these values so widely held and believed? Are they a matter of law, the violation of which is punished? Is there a great scorekeeper in the sky waiting to call us in for a final accounting? If we don't keep these values will we be blackballed from the neighborhood? The answer to each of these questions is No.

We hold these values because they conform to the universal fitness of things. They are rational, natural, and conform to common sense.

The French moralist, Michel de Montaigne, once wrote: "The laws of conscience, which we say are born of nature, are born of custom; each man, holding in inward veneration the opinions and the morals approved and accepted around him, cannot break himself loose from them without remorse, or apply himself to them without self­satisfaction."

Class of '87, Middlebury College, you have been taught well and you have learned well. Hopefully, you are now ready to do battle on whichever front you choose to occupy. I leave you with this essay by Robert Fulghum, "All I ever really needed to know I learned in Kindergarten" (Reprinted from Kansas City Star Times, September 17, 1986.)

Most of what I really need to know about how to live, what to do, and how to be; I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.

These are the things I learned: Share every thing. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours.

Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm milk and cookies are good for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup-they all die. So do we.

And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all-LOOK. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and sane living.

Think of what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk about 3 o'clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation, and other nations, to always put things back where we found them and clean up your own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.