Opportunity and responsibility

My suggestion that you stretch yourselves is not limited to the classroom. It applies to both the friends and extracurricular activities you choose as well. If the friends you make here are exclusively those who come from backgrounds just like your own and went to high schools just like your own, you will have forfeited half the value of a Yale education. You come from all 50 states and 58 nations, from a wide range of racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Each of your residential colleges reflects within itself that rich diversity. Seek out friends with different histories and different interests; you will find that you learn the most from the people least like you.

No doubt you will participate in one or more of the 300 student organizations on campus, as well as varsity, club, and intramural athletic teams. You may find your consuming passion, the passion that shapes your life after Yale, in one of these pursuits. I can think of scores of journalists, public servants, teachers, start-up entrepreneurs, performers, and filmmakers whose career choices were shaped by their extracurricular activities here at Yale. Again, my advice is to move beyond the familiar; try at least one extracurricular activity that is brand new to you. And, by all means, do not spend all your time with your varsity teammates, or your fellow singing group members, or the others who write for the Yale Daily News. Make the most of the extraordinary variety of opportunities available to you.

So far, my advice to you is focused entirely on how you might get the most out of your Yale education. You might be wondering: am I here just to exploit all of Yale's treasures for myself alone? The answer is no. We have confidence, based on the evidence of history and knowledge of the culture of this place, that your journey toward self-discovery, your progress toward finding your passion, will yield more than self-gratification and personal advancement. We believe that because you are intelligent and reflective members of a community of scholars, you will come to recognize that with the abundant opportunities for self-enrichment that Yale provides, there also come responsibilities.

And what are these responsibilities? They begin with responsibility for the well-being of the institution you are joining today. Let me remind you that even for those of you whose parents are paying the full tuition, room, and board charges, more than half of the total cost of your Yale education is supported by the gifts of those who came before you. More than half of you hold scholarships. And most of our buildings, athletic facilities, and museum and library collections trace to gifts from graduates of Yale College.

Your responsibilities also include good citizenship in its many varieties. At Yale's founding this took the form of supporting New Haven Colony and the Congregational Church. Today, while volunteer service to local community organizations, secular and religious, remains a distinguishing characteristic of Yale graduates, our horizons have broadened. Some of you will undoubtedly carry on Yale's great tradition of producing national leaders, and for all of you who spend most of your adult lives in the United States, there is an emerging burden of citizenship that will be yours to bear. And that is the powerfully important burden of helping to raise the level of public discourse. One has only to compare the rhetoric of today's leaders with the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, given 150 years ago, or the transcripts of the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 50 years ago, to see how oversimplified ideology and appeal to narrow interest groups have triumphed over intelligence and moderation in civic discussion. By insisting, as citizens, on serious discussion instead of slogans that mask narrow partisan interests, you can help to make our democracy more effective.

Today, because the world is so highly interconnected and interdependent, you will have the added responsibility of acting as global citizens. Your generation, more than any that has gone before, will need deep knowledge of and intimate engagement with cultures and societies very different from your own. Those of you who come from abroad will of course experience immersion in another culture right here in New Haven. The rest of you may do so by taking advantage of one of our many programs of work or study abroad. Such an experience will stretch you in just the way that I am recommending more generally; it will force you to see yourself from a different perspective, and to see others free from preconceptions. Since so many of the issues confronting us—from poverty and disease to the proliferation of nuclear weapons—require cooperative solutions, a cross-cultural perspective is invaluable. Even before you travel overseas, you might start preparing yourselves for global citizenship by sampling some of the courses in international studies offered by the recently established Jackson Institute, such as the new multidisciplinary gateway course on global affairs.

In addition to the burdens of local, national, and international citizenship, your generation will need to rise as well to the challenge of planetary stewardship. Without a radical reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases during your lifetimes, much of humanity will suffer dislocation and famine on an unprecedented scale. We have both the current means to slow down the accumulation of atmospheric carbon and the imagination to develop the technologies needed to prevent catastrophe. We seem to lack only conviction and collective will. You will need to scrutinize the evidence for yourselves, with all the critical intelligence that you can muster. But, if you do, I am confident that you will assume this last responsibility as well. And you will have the opportunity to practice planetary stewardship right here at Yale, as we try to model what it means to become a sustainable campus.

Women and men of the Class of 2014, we take great pleasure in welcoming you to Yale College, and we delight in the anticipation of opportunities that you will seize and the responsibilities that you will come to bear as citizens of your communities, the nation, the world, and the planet.

The comment period has expired.