by Brian Rosenberg
This is the seventh time I’ve had the honor of presiding over Commencement at Macalester College, and with each passing year, I feel a stronger sense of pride—in the quality of education provided by our faculty and staff, in the distinctive mission of the college, and especially in the extraordinary students with whom we are privileged to work. It is probably difficult for you at this moment in your lives, when your dominant feeling may be some combination of exhaustion, excitement, and anxiety, to realize how remarkable you are. But the rest of us know, and we expect great things from you.
Once you leave this place, the differences among you will become more pronounced. You will pursue different careers, live in different places around the country and around the world, even—believe it or not—come to hold a wider range of political and intellectual views. Your lives will follow different trajectories and you will seek success and happiness in different ways.
But my hope is that even as these differences evolve, you will continue to share certain traits that I like to think are hallmarks of a Macalester education. It is because of these traits that—to quote a bumper sticker we’ve given to alumni—the world needs Macalester. Indeed I would contend that it has never needed Macalester more.
Among these traits I would like to highlight three in particular. The first of these is civility. Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale University, has repeatedly made the point that civility is not merely politeness and some desirable accoutrement of public discourse but rather the very foundation of citizenship in a democracy. “Civility,” he has written, “has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.” I want to underscore that point: generosity and trust, even at a potential cost. “Civility,” he continues, “requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others….It creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.” Think about the nature of civic discourse today and set yourself the challenge of modeling and reinforcing these essential dimensions of civility.
The second trait is empathy, defined most simply as “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” It is in part to develop empathy in our students that we strive to create a diverse community at Macalester and that we emphasize internationalism and multiculturalism in our work. Empathy is the counterweight to parochialism and self-interest. It is a prerequisite for communication across social, cultural, economic, and religious boundaries. It is in short supply in today’s world and thus very important for you to demonstrate as Macalester graduates.
And the third trait, finally, is a spirit of service, which I believe is a natural outgrowth of civility and empathy. What you are being given this afternoon is a gift made possible by your families and this college, and with such a gift comes the responsibility to give back in meaningful service to the society that has made it possible. Service can take many forms; it can be public and visible or private and subtle; it can stretch across all professions and all communities. But make it a part of your lives. As graduates of Macalester College, as representatives of Macalester College, it is what you are called upon to do.
As President of Macalester, I have the opportunity to interact regularly with alumni whose experiences here stretch back many decades. Of course they are not perfect, and of course not every one of them embodies the traits of civility and empathy or the spirit of service that I have highlighted. But these traits are far more in evidence among them than they are among the populace in general. Of course they, like most of you, brought with them an inclination toward these qualities when they arrived on this campus; otherwise I suspect they, like you, would not have elected to be here. But I choose to believe that your experience at Macalester has deepened and reinforced these traits in you and has prepared you to carry them into your lives beyond the college—helping, influencing, and setting the highest example for others. That you will do this I have no doubt.
So congratulations to all of you. May your lives bring you success and fulfillment and may you never forget that you always have a home on this campus.
Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester, writes a regular column for Macalester Today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.