Commencement 2002

President's Welcome

Peter Steinberger
Reed College,
May 13, 2002

At Reed, we begin with the anger of Achilleus, and with a war between west and east, between the forces of Mycenae and Athens and Corinth and the other cities of Europe, on the one hand, and the Asian city of Troy, on the other – a war that some people, including some of the Greeks themselves such as Herodotus, viewed as a kind of clash of civilizations. We also begin, or nearly begin, with the invention, perhaps in Sparta, of the hoplite phalanx – an extraordinary revolution in military tactics that lead to the creation of an organized killing machine of previously unknown and unmatched efficiency, the result of human ingenuity, of technological advancements that changed not only the balance of military power but also the character – the internal psychological or cultural make-up – of entire societies. Soon thereafter, we encounter, of course, the flourishing – here and there – of democracy. But we also encounter at least the possibility that, at its best, this was the democracy of a relative few, that most persons were systematically excluded from the democratic process, and that the freedoms and prosperity of the Athenian citizen depended, in part, on slave labor. Shortly thereafter, we come across, in Plato's Republic, new ideas about how to create humans themselves, ideas about eugenics, along with some fairly explicit notions about the particular kinds of persons that we might like to create, if only we could do so. At the same time, we come across fanciful conceptions of the world itself – a world filled with gods; or a world composed exclusively of earth, fire, water and air; or a world, to the contrary, in which all variety, all difference, all complexity is mere illusion and everything is really one single thing – conceptions that may now seem to us at best quaint, at worst pathetic and desperate attempts to make sense of things.

And of course at Reed, we end with a commencement. And this new beginning brings all of us face to face, today, with the real world out there – a world characterized by what some have called, controversially, a clash of civilizations; a world of amazing, user-friendly technological developments that, among other things, have made it comparatively easy for nations, or groups, or even single individuals to cause unspeakable mayhem, perhaps even to end human existence itself; a world in which we have, now, the triumph of democracy, but a democracy in which the vast majority of people are unable to participate, and in which the well-being of a relative few is enjoyed – and can only be enjoyed – at the expense of a great many; a world seemingly poised on the precipice of a revolution in biological engineering that promises to undermine our most basic notions of what it means to be a person; and a world, more generally, in which we firmly, adamantly believe, and cannot help but believe, that every cause must have an effect, and every effect a cause, hence that something must have caused the world itself... but then what was that thing? and what caused it? and what was the thing that caused the thing that caused the thing that caused the world? and so on and infinitum, leaving us with what might well seem like a bunch quaint or even pathetic and desperate attempts to make sense of a world that resists making sense.

Now that I've cheered you up, let's also remember that at the beginning we have, finally, in Book 24 of the Iliad, Achilleus and Priam, the anger stilled, the clash of cultures set in abeyance, embracing one another in a spirit of humanity and mutual awe, as conveyed in the stately hexameter of an ageless poet; and we have a building, made of stone, that embodies a kind of beauty, a kind of perfection, that far transcends most of what we find in nature – it is, indeed, an overcoming of nature; and we have countless examples, real and imagined, of genuine human excellence, of extraordinary and inspired wisdom and self-sacrifice in the interest of the larger good, a Nestor or a Nicias, an Antigone or a Socrates, people of principle, of character, people who are, above all, self-reflective, self-critical, thoughtful; and we have the discovery, elaboration and celebration of absolute, immutable truths ? the truths of logic and geometry and mathematics, the truths of history, the truths of virtue and of mutual aid.

Let's not sugar-coat things: the world out there is a pretty tough place. Always been, always will be. But I think the world is, if I may say so, like the game of squash: if it was easy, it wouldn't be fun. We ennoble ourselves, we elevate ourselves, when we tackle the world on our own terms, when we devote ourselves to the kind of systematic, rigorous, self-reflective, self-critical thinking that liberates us from mindless prejudice, that frees us from obsession and from a kind of thoughtless moral nihilism, and that allows us both to accept the world as it is and to create for ourselves a place in the world of which we can be proud. This is a kind of thinking – what might be called a habit of scholarly engagement – to which a Reed education is devoted; and I suspect that your life will be more interesting and rewarding – you will have more fun – if, whatever you do, whatever your vocation or avocation, you do it in that way – if, in a word, you do it thoughtfully.

I want to welcome everyone here today – graduating students and continuing students; faculty, staff, and trustees; parents and grandparents and siblings and friends. All of you are valued members of the Reed community. The graduates of the Class of 2002 have successfully completed one of the most demanding academic programs anywhere. It's a tremendous accomplishment, and you are to be congratulated. We are all tremendously proud of each and every one of you, without exception. It's been an honor for us to teach you and to work with you, and today's celebration is, in part, an expression of our most sincere thanks to you for being a part of our lives.