CHRISTOPHER REEVE and DANA MOROSINI REEVE
May 23, 2004
DANA MOROSINI REEVE
Middlebury Class of 1984
Doctor of Humane Letters
Thank you everyone-The Class of 2004, parents, faculty and President McCardell. I am very excited to be here and truly honored to receive this degree. I have to say though, it was much easier to get this one than the first one.
Chris and I were asked several months ago to speak at this commencement, and from the moment we received the request from President McCardell, I've been turning over in my mind what I could possibly say to a graduating class of seniors from my alma mater that would be meaningful, inspiring, instructive, wise, and, most important, brilliantly witty. I took a few stabs at writing down my thoughts, crystallizing some of the lessons I've learned in the twenty years since I've graduated Middlebury. I knew I was being given 10 minutes. Better make them good.
When I finally sat down to work, I made a few trips to the kitchen. I thoroughly cleaned my desk. I caught up on e-mails and phone calls. I basically did everything I could do to avoid coming up with the perfect, insightful ten minutes. Actually the process was not unlike that of writing a final paper. It's amazing how clean your room can get when you have an assignment due. I considered the possibility of just telling a bunch of jokes and leaving the inspiring to my husband, because he's very good at that. But, I'm not going to do that.
Eventually, what I realized is that it would be impossible to create 10 perfectly inspiring minutes full of instruction and wisdom about what to expect after you drive Route 30 South for the last time as a student. My job here today, our job, is to tell you the one thing you can count on. The one thing I can guarantee you can expect in life is that you will experience the thoroughly unexpected.
John Lennon-he was a Beatle. Please tell me you know the Beatles! He was sort of like the Eminem and 50 Cent [of those days], but very much not. At any rate, John Lennon wrote a line that I'm sure has been used in many commencement addresses. "Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."
The night John Lennon's life ended, I was in my second semester as a February freshman residing in Voter Hall, and as the bells tolled in Mead Chapel for a full hour, the irony and prescience of this lyric was palpable to my suitemates and me.
There is really no way of knowing where your life's journey will take you. I never would have predicted the fabric of my life would have evolved into the rich, complex design I enjoy and am challenged by daily. My work, the achievements for which I am receiving such a great honor here today, my purpose in life, have been born out of a set of unplanned circumstances, in large part, but not completely, circumstances beyond my control. I never anticipated being a caregiver for my spouse at the age of 34. I don't think I ever dreamt I would help run a foundation that raises money for biomedical research and people with disabilities. I didn't get a B.A. in English in preparation to become a lobbyist in Washington, although the next time I'm there I think I'll go into some senator's office and say
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...
and see what happens. (That was for Dr. Bertolini and all the English majors here today.)
I was trained as an actress, but as much as I love that work when I can get it, it is not my acting work for which I'm generally known. It is not my chosen career path that ultimately defines me, but rather an unfamiliar, unexpected path that has presented itself. To quote another group from my youth, "what a long, strange trip it's been," and I won't have it any other way.
Life continues to surprise and delight me, even when I think I know what I want from it. I knew I wanted to be a mother, for example, but, and I'm sure your parents can relate to this, I had no idea how much fun I would have nor how much I would learn about life and myself from my child and stepchildren.
So, prepare yourselves fully. Four years at Middlebury have certainly been a great beginning. And then, get ready for a wild ride. There will be many choices before you, some of which you'll welcome and celebrate, and then there will be some over which you will anguish. Some choices will choose you. How you face these choices, these turns in the road, with what kind of attitude, more than the choices themselves, is what will define the context of your life.
Be brave. Be open-minded. Be kind. Be forgiving. Be generous. Be optimistic. Be grateful for the many unexpected lessons you will learn. Find the joy inside the hardship. It's there. I assure you. And, too, be open to inspiration from unlikely sources. I recently came across an article in The New York Times about Phil Jackson, the current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Now I'm not a basketball fan, per se, but I was intrigued by the fact that this accomplished coach of a successful and flashy team tries to live his life and do his work within the precepts of Buddhism. In this article, Coach Jackson cites a Buddhist saying, which I think captures perfectly-the idea that life is a series of opportunities arising out of unforeseen circumstances. Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms.
Now for those of you who have stayed up all night in advance of today's activities, it may take a while for the deep wisdom of that idea to fully resonate, but once it creeps into your consciousness, and, as you continue your life's journey from this day forth, I think the remarkable truth of this statement will surprise and amaze you and possibly even serve as a source of comfort at some point.
Change is good, but it can also be scary. Today's particular anthropological rite of passage marks a significant change upcoming in all of your lives, whatever you've chosen to do next year or whatever may have chosen you. As you embark on this very exciting part of your journey, I want to offer up a few more pieces of advice from a fellow Middlebury graduate-and, apparently, now a doctor as well-she's just a little further along the road than you, and, yes, believe me, I know that you've heard this before ad nauseam, but twenty years do go by at lightning speed, and that is my first pearl of wisdom. And, now, the others in this pocket pack of precepts to live by (That was also for my English teachers):
Take care of yourself and be caring with others. Nurture a sense of gratitude, and be grateful for a sense of humor. Be sure to thank your parents and mentors for all they've given you, but give love to your future children and mentees freely without any expectation of thanks in return. Look for ways to let your light shine, but don't be afraid occasionally to be in the dark. Strive to make your behavior above reproach, but be careful not to cast judgment on others whose behavior may reflect a different form of reality. The more you give, the richer you will become. Let your life be enhanced by the company you keep. And, related to that concept, in the words of Phil Jackson from his book "Sacred Hoops:"
If you meet the Buddha in the lane, pass him the ball.
And with that, I would like to again congratulate you, fix my mortarboard for the last time, and wish you well, and introduce you to the fine company I keep, my inspiration and certainly one of the best choices that I have made in my life, my husband, Christopher Reeve.
Doctor or Humane Letters
Thank you so much. President McCardell, trustees, faculty, staff, ladies and gentlemen, students. I'm extremely honored to receive a-become a Doctor of Humane Letters. If I could just torture the meaning of the phrase for a second: most of the letters I write are not very humane. Usually they're sharply critical of somebody, or else I'm asking them for money.
But many of you graduating today are probably apprehensive about your entry into the quote "real world." That's completely understandable. In fact, sometimes I harbor a secret desire to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to a planet more sensible than this one. But time and again, hope is renewed by the actions of ordinary people, and a couple of examples come to mind.
The formation of the 9/11 Commission was largely due to the activities and the courage of members of the families and friends of the victims. And, in a television interview, a family member said that, in 2001, all she knew about the federal government was that there was a House and a Senate-but she wasn't sure what they did. I think many Americans would like the answer to that one, too. But she literally didn't know how her government works, and yet she and others like her got together, they educated themselves, and they've had a significant impact on the investigation of one of the most critical moments in our history.
And, in the early '80s, the public discourse about AIDS was divisive and ugly. Some elected officials said the disease was God's revenge on people who lived a certain lifestyle. The federal government wouldn't fund research for a cure. But, today, the NIH spends $1.8 billion on AIDS research annually, and the virus is no longer an epidemic in this country.
So, how did we get from that climate of fear and animosity in the early '80s to where we are today? Well, it's by the extraordinary efforts of ordinary individuals, then change occurred, as it has time and time again throughout our history. So, all of you who are leaving Middlebury today are uniquely qualified to affect change and movement in our society. Never underestimate the difference you can make.
I've learned by being literally paralyzed that, to a large extent, paralysis is a choice. We can either watch from the sidelines or actively participate. We can rationalize inaction by deciding that one voice or one vote doesn't matter, or we can make the choice that inaction is unacceptable; either let self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy prevent us for realizing our potential, or embrace the fact that when we turn our attention away from ourselves, our potential is limitless.
Some people have to be pushed to the edge or confront their own mortality in order to gain that perspective, to learn to live a more conscious and fearless life. But, you don't have to do that. You don't have to go to the edge, and you can choose not to be paralyzed.
Whether or not you realize it right now, the education you've received here has prepared you to pursue your own ambitions without losing sight of the invaluable difference that you can make in this world.
And, as you go forward, I really hope you won't forget that. It may be difficult because you'll encounter corruption and chaos. You'll have to bring your personal integrity with you on this journey, because you may not find anyone to guide you. But, don't be afraid, and never give up. Just listen to the voice inside you. The voice of honesty that we all have within us that will tell you, if you let it, that you're heading in the right direction.
Congratulations to all of you for everything that you've achieved so far. I wish you the best of luck, and thank you very, very much.
The Use and Abuse of a Liberal Arts Education
By Siddartha Rao '04
I want to speak to you today about why it is that every year some of the brightest young minds in the world come to Middlebury College to spend four years getting a liberal arts education. I'll start by relating a recent conversation I had with my friend Sam Rodriguez. Those of you who know Sam at all know that he has a penchant for coming up with bizarre hypothetical situations. Today he was in rare form.
It was a nice spring day, and we were walking leisurely (as one often does when one walks with Sam) to Ross to get some lunch. He turned to me and said,
"Sid, you have a choice: Either you go to Middlebury or some other liberal arts college, spend four years of your life and a lot of money, work towards getting a degree, get whatever GPA you merit within that work, and graduate. Or, for half the cost and a tenth of the time, you can get that big machine from the Matrix and upload knowledge almost instantaneously to your brain. Which would you do?"
While I too would like to learn Kung Fu and gain the ability to operate specialized aircraft all in under a minute, I still opted for the first option, a plan of four-year study at a liberal arts college. This was not merely because I fear the discomfort of having a plug in the back of my head, but because I believe that this whimsical proposition gets to the heart of a very deep question: What is true learning and how is it obtained?
If I had this machine and uploaded, for example, all the Shakespearean sonnets into my head so that I could recite them on demand, would I really understand Shakespeare? Even if I uploaded all of the literary criticism that surrounds these sonnets, I would be, at best, a parrot of the learning of others. But would I have gained anything of value?
It is clear to me, at least, that I would not have gained anything worthwhile. Because before we can learn, we must feel and experience-we must be able to feel and experience with our souls. Romeo and Juliet, for all its beauty, will contain nothing of use to one who has never been in love. It is by itself dead and useless: the soul of the student, of the reader, of the audience member at the theater-that is what brings it to life. True knowledge cannot be got by a "force feeding to the soul" but must arise from the soul through the hard work of living and experiencing. Then knowledge is truly our own, in our own authentic voices. Then there is harmony between what we think, what we feel, what we say, and what we do. Then, and only then, are we full human beings. And then, and only then, can we look forward to a future of new ideas, new art, and new discovery.
There is a danger in every institution of higher learning that it produces a mere recycling of old ideas, a class of students who enter upon their education like a membership at a country club, the better to judge the zeitgeist of society's elite, to have all the right stories to tell, and to be able to make intelligent conversation with all the right people. It is easy to identify with one monolithic group, perhaps to model oneself after those chic and fashionable sketches that litter the pages of the Hipster Handbook, or to wear the right suit and necktie, to find the correct fashion for the correct time in everything: clothes, tastes, speech, even thought. The work of finding one's own truths, is a work of patience and dedication, and is unfortunately not to be found in the circuits of a machine.
There is a passage by Friedrich Nietzsche that I first heard in Paul Nelson's Politics, Philosophy, and Education class last semester. It is the end of the prologue to Nietzsche's book, Daybreak. This small paragraph very beautifully describes the value of patient contemplation, the value of a place like Middlebury College (secluded as it is from the parade of the outside world) where students can come to spend time to learn. Nietzsche says:
But, after all, why must we proclaim so loudly and with such intensity what we are, what we want, and what we do not want? Let us look at this more calmly and wisely; from a higher and more distant point of view. Let us proclaim it, as if among ourselves, in so low a tone that all the world fails to hear it and us! Above all, however, let us say it slowly ...This preface comes late, but not too late: What, after all, do five or six years matter? Such a book, and such a problem, are in no hurry; besides, we are friends of the lento, I and my book. I have not been a philologist in vain-perhaps I am one yet: a teacher of slow reading. I even come to write slowly. At present it is not only my habit, but even my taste-a perverted taste, maybe-to write nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is "in a hurry." For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all-to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow-the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of "work": that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is intent upon "getting things done "at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not "get things done" so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes ... my patient friends, this book appeals only to perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!
I believe that the purpose of a liberal arts education is not primarily to produce "educated people," but rather "self-educating" people. The great works of the past, the music, the literature, the science the poetry, the history, art, film, philosophy, in short, the whole landscape of a liberal arts education, are nothing but Socratic "midwives." They are useless to the barren soul. We students go to them because we are humans first and then artists-humans and only then laborers, humans, and then thinkers, athletes, and scientists. It is for this reason that every semester during exam period you can see students working for days on end-needing so badly that redeeming day of sleep, and showering which signals the close of a semester-still come back to Middlebury at the start of a new semester and do it all over again. It is because we affirm our humanity that we study the liberal arts. It is to be full authentic people in an age of rampant specialization that we study the liberal arts. It is to connect with the greatness of the past so that we may fashion out of it a worthy future that we study the liberal arts.
The great Indian philosopher Sankaracarya once said, "Unless the disciple can roar like a lion against what the guru is saying, his experience is not complete." I urge the class of 2004 on this day, when we graduate and begin a new chapter of our lives, let us not follow the dictates of any teacher-be it the media, our friends and family, even the great minds of the past-who does not speak first to our soul. Let us not be afraid to roar like lions. Thank you.
Commencement Address by
Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian
Middlebury College Language Schools Commencement
August 13, 2004
Mead Memorial Chapel
Thank you very much, Dean Katz, President Liebowitz, distinguished deans, faculty and students and graduates. I've learned a lot about Middlebury in my brief stay here, and especially about the language pledge, and to the surprise, I'm sure, of the president and the dean-since the language pledge says, "I'm signing this language pledge. I agree to use Armenian as my only language of communication while attending Middlebury"-I'm going to give my remarks in Armenian. All of you who do not understand Armenian are welcome to leave, if you wish.
I am really impressed by that pledge.
But more so, I can't tell you how much I am impressed with the mandate and the mission of the school of languages at Middlebury, especially the sentence "We are dedicated to the premise that without real competency in language, there can be little true cultural understanding, and that to be truly effective, language teaching must provide meaningful insight and access into other cultures." That is, indeed, the substance of my remarks tonight. I would like to be as brief as I can-but not that brief-and talk to how the world out there is so relevant to your mission statement and how your mission statement is so relevant to the world that you are going into. And, I will make some remarks about your special role in this whole phenomena a little later on.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, required America to pursue a long-term, comprehensive war on terrorism. Extending military power abroad, practicing vigorous state-to-state diplomacy, choking off financial resources to our adversaries, and improving the defense of the homeland-these are all necessary steps, without doubt, but they are not sufficient to the task at hand.
Over two years ago, President George W. Bush made a statement that I attach a great deal of importance to because it is a presidential statement, and we have to follow up on it, no matter if it's a Democratic or a Republican administration that comes into power after November. He said, "Just as our diplomatic institutions must adapt so that we can reach out to others, we also need a different and more comprehensive approach to public information efforts that can help people around the world learn about and understand America. The war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations. It does, however, reveal the clash inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world. This is a struggle of ideas, and this is an area where America must excel."
Indeed, I am convinced that the seminal challenge that we face as a nation, and globally, is the struggle for ideas between the forces of moderation and extremism, whether it be secular extremism or religious extremism of no matter what religion, no matter what culture. This is the world that you are going into. We have to be honest with ourselves. America [unintelligible] in the struggle of ideas in the Arab and Muslim world.
As Dean Katz said, I was asked by Secretary of State Colin Powell to chair a public diplomacy advisory group, a commission on our communications with the Muslim world. It was a congressionally mandated commission, and the congressmen were basically asking the question: why do they hate us? Why have we reached this level of disfavor in this very important part of the world? And it's true, hostility toward America has reached shocking levels. For example, shortly before the war against Saddam Hussein, by greater than a two-to-one margin, Muslims surveyed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan said the United States was a more serious threat than Iraq. And the polls have even gotten worse since that time. But often we are simply not present to explain the content and the context of our values and our policies as Americans.
As the advisory group was told in Morocco by one of our interlocutors there, if you do not start defining yourself in this part of the world, the extremists will define you for you. And they have defined us, for example, as ruthless occupiers in Iraq, as bigots intolerant of Muslims in our own country, as being biased in the Arab/Israeli equation, as not being true to our values for political and economic reforms. Many of these depictions are dead wrong, but they stick because it is rare that governments or individuals in the region are prepared to take up our side of the story, and because the United States has deprived itself of the means to respond effectively or even to be a significant part of the conversation.
When our group went from Indonesia through Central Asia, the Arab world to Senegal, visiting Muslim majority countries in the summer of 2003 to prepare our report, I watched a program in Cairo, obviously in Arabic. It was from Abu Dhabi, one of the major satellite T.V. stations in the Arab world which has performed a phenomenal task of bringing what we called "electronic Perestroika" into the Arab world by bursting into the living rooms of Arabs who for years have only been able to watch state-run, propagandistic television programs from the regimes in power. But this was a talk show, a two-hour talk show, and the title was "The Americanization of Islam." Think of that title, "The Americanization of Islam"-as if there's a conspiracy for us to highjack the Islamic religion.
There wasn't one person that appeared on that program that knew anything about America, that we do have freedom of religion, that we are basically a very religious country, that there is, yes, a separation of church and state, temple, mosque and state, but that fundamentally we have seven to eight million Muslims that live in our country who can express themselves. But the conspiracy theory was there. What struck me is that no one was at least explaining our position. It's what I call the Woody Allen syndrome-90 percent of life is just showing up. But we are not showing up, and our public diplomacy is highly deficient.
This is where what you are about comes in in a very major way, because one of the first aspects of learning and communicating with others is to learn their language, and through learning their language, to learn their culture, and to be able to express yourself and to do certain things that define public diplomacy.
The official Washington definition of public diplomacy is to inform, engage and influence. We added two precedents-listen, understand, then begin to inform, engage and influence. But to do all of these, you need language. To do all of these, you need to understand the cultures with which you are dealing. This is where we as a country are remarkably deficient, because the overwhelming majority of Americans don't speak anything but English.
So, we have failed to listen. We have failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We simply can no longer afford such shortcomings.
One of the major conclusions we came back with is that, in the Muslim world, the good news was that Muslims from Indonesia to Africa perceive American values as being similar to their own values. One Iranian woman said to us, "For God's sake, who can be against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" Others told us we're all for equality or opportunity-equality before the law, human rights, women's rights is quite differentiated, especially in the Arab world depending on what countries you're dealing with-but that was the good news. They respect American education, especially our university system. They respect our achievements in science and technology. They love many of our products.
But the problem, and where all the public opinion polls in the last three years have shown such disturbingly low opinion and negative ratings of America, is based on their perception of our policies. We determined that there are basically three prisms through which they form the major part of their opinion of us: the Arab/Israeli conflict, Iraq, and the issues of political and economic governance.
On Arab/Israeli, they consider us biased towards Israel. On Iraq, they consider us to be occupiers, not liberators. And, on the issues of economic and political governance, almost all of these countries live under some form of modified dictatorship or autocratic rule with the façade of elections, and people don't have the real right for political participation, nor do they have the right to express themselves economically by getting jobs. Job creation is very low, and they're frustrated.
Where do we fit in on that? We support many of these regimes which they are hostile to. So, it's what I call "the triple whammy." What we have to do is to do a much better job in terms of putting into place policies that really resolve conflicts like the Arab/Israeli conflict, and the Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India where there could be a nuclear exchange. Perhaps the first nuclear exchange between two countries was India and Pakistan on nuclear powers, over this piece of property called Kashmir, and that's a Hindu/Muslim confrontation.
Beyond that, we have to get Iraq right and leave behind a country intact with some form of political participation representing the people, and we've got to act on political and economic reforms in the Muslim world. Those are essential policy requirements.
But, ever since the collapse of communism and the Cold War, we unilaterally disarmed many of the instruments of persuasion that we have. We dismantled the U.S. Information Agency, USIA. We thought the ideological struggles were over, only to find out, as represented by 9/11, that there is a huge struggle for ideas between Islamic radical extremists who are trying to dominate the whole world of Islam. This is where I put the Casey Stengle management principle-what is our goal in public diplomacy? What you have to do is, you walk into a room. In one corner there are six people who are plotting to kill you, and they hate you. In the other corner of the room there are 60 people who haven't made up their minds yet. Your job is to get to the 60 people before the six do. And that is really, in a nutshell, why public diplomacy is so important.
One of the key things in public diplomacy is human resources and languages. The ability to write and read a foreign language is one of the recognized prerequisites of effective communications. Effective public diplomacy does require sufficient cadres of officers trained in the language and dialect spoken in the Arab and Muslim world-however, there are far too few officers able and willing to communicate publicly in the languages of the region, whether it's in Arabic in its many dialects, Turkish, [inaudible], Indonesian or others.
The latest statistic shows-we delved into this-that only 54 state department employees have tested at the fully professional or bilingual level of competence, level four, in Arabic. Of these, some were tested years ago and may no longer maintain a tested level of competence. Only a handful could hold their own on television.
When they gave me the figure of 54, I went back and said, "Get from the bureaucracy how many professional American diplomats, USIA offices we have who have an ambassador, an assistant secretary of state who can be put on Al-Jazeera television station tonight to debate a critical issue that has come up."
Five. There are only five officers in the American government who are capable of carrying on a full-scale debate on television in Arabic.
There's something radically wrong with what we are doing, and that's why we recommended a program of training 600 fluent Arabic speakers immediately. At least half should be willing and able to speak and debate publicly, and we have several specific recommendations on that.
We also have many recommendations on how we have to get better access to American education and where Americans have to get better access to Arabs in forming centers, using American University of Beirut, American University of Cairo. These educational institutions, student exchanges, this is a critical component. And I'm very pleased to see the program in Middlebury where centers of language training are going on in various parts in the world of the nine languages that are taught here.
Another key thing is English language training. We found that English language training is one of the most underfunded things we do, but putting out American teachers in this part of the world to teach English, you're not only teaching English, you're teaching a culture. You're teaching principles of democracy. You're teaching principles of economic markets. You're changing ideas toward curriculum, and that also is a very important element that has to be addressed.
So much has to be done, but at the end of the day, this struggle of ideas is going to mark your future, the future of our country and, indeed, the future of the globe. Everybody has a stake in it because the struggles within the Muslim world, between extremism and the forces of moderation, affect everyone.
I was in China recently and I told our Chinese interlocutors that you may think that the Middle East is distant, but you are the emerging global giant in the 21st century. You import. Fifteen percent of your energy is imported mostly from the Middle East. As you grow industrially, much more is going to be imported, and you're going to be dependent more and more on Middle East energy like the rest of the world. And you have a population in the west of China that is Islamic, and that poses, through some extremists, a threat to the integrity of the Chinese mainland. So these are, indeed, the challenges that we all face globally.
You, in my eyes, by what I've seen here, may very well be the foot soldiers in the struggle for ideas, perhaps the central challenge of your generation, as I stated. We need you who have been trained at Middlebury, who have done the difficult tasks and made the effort to learn foreign languages and other people's cultures, to understand the other, and we welcome you to take up this challenge, and wish you the best success. I think the future of our country, in many ways, is in the hands of people like you. God speed and best success in the future.