When I was only about three years older than you I was up in the great granite state knocking on doors and making phone calls for a little known presidential candidate. There is a fine line—when you are running for president at 1% nationally—between delusion and imagination. But I felt passionately about my candidate who was a person of substance and ideas for the future of our country. And now I’m here in front of you and speaking with you today. As a former big city mayor and a former Governors candidate, and as a candidate for President, I’ve spoken with a lot of teachers and educators all across the country in the course of this last year and a half, but I can tell you that what you have here at the Advanced Studies program is truly unique in the country. Perhaps many of you know that and that’s why you work so hard to apply and be admitted. You should be very proud of making it through the gauntlet of this very challenging program.
Your tradition of outstanding alumni is impressive: Congressmen and women, my friend Alan Khazei, a U.S. Senator, not one but two astronauts went to this larger institution and then set up civic work. And I understand until last year you even had three judges on your Board of Overseers.
My wife Katie is a judge, so I know how very intimidating it must be to be overseen everyday by a judge.
Now for many of you, this is probably the first time that you’ve lived away from home for this long period of time, and probably the first time you’ve forged a community with your peers in the dorms. You’ve had a taste of what the next chapter of your life might be like and your education and perhaps a career beyond that.
Being in the company of the most promising students from Pittsburg down to Pelham, it would not surprise me one bit if one of you were standing up here in the not too distant future giving this address perhaps as a candidate yourself one day for President of the United States. Civic engagement is in the blood of so many who pass through these walls and halls.
And Civic Engagement is what I would like to speak with you about today.
What you did here this summer was not only learning to be good learners. What you did here this summer was also learning to be good listeners, which is one of the most important and sometimes apparently missing skills in our republic and in our democracy today. It is one of the most important skills in good citizenship.
Anyone could shout over an opponent.
But that is not debate.
Any one can shutdown a conversation.
But that is not how we forge a new consensus for progress, is it?
Democracy challenges us to listen to one another.
If there is no disagreement, then there can be no understanding.
And if there is no disagreement, then there is no democracy.
Speaking of disagreement…
I understand that there’s been something of a cell phone controversy in the program this summer. You can nod or otherwise give us a hand signal to tell me whether or not that’s true.
I even heard Mr. Ricard here has confiscated some of your phones during hours when it was inappropriate and they were supposed to have been put them away. I know that some of you were deeply unhappy about this. I myself like to stay plugged in. I was the first Presidential candidate to use SnapChat. How about that?
So I get it, I get it. I have one foot in the baby-boomer era and one foot in the era of my children. So I, too, like to be connected.
I understand some of you felt so strongly about the cell phone rule that you had a petition started – challenging the rule for being too harsh, and trying to make the rule better. In a word, you protested because you felt your opinion was not being heard or considered.
So on the cell phone debate, I say, good for you. Education without internet connection is tyranny.
Although I may actually agree with Mr. Ricard here, in the special summer programs there is something to having something to pass the time, some opportunity for reflection and solitude where you can be truthfully present and engage with your teachers and one another. A space where you can hop off of Facebook. But at the same time, I believe we should respect and understand the importance of this agreement and challenge. This is a life lesson that we have learned in the advanced studies program, and you will apply that to other things not merely on parking spaces on college campuses, but to other more waking questions – like the debate over whether or not college education is a common good or whether it’s a toll road that only student going through it should have to pay for.
Perhaps a discussion about why it is that we are the only advanced nation on the planet that saddles our graduating college generation with a mountain of debt. We can turn to heavier issues, darker more challenging issues like: how do we balance civil liberties in a world of asymmetrical warfare where terrorism seems to be on the rise? How do we keep our streets safe while healing the wounds of a racial legacy of injustice and violence that has been so painfully intertwined throughout our history with drug policy? With public safety? With law enforcement? And the interactions of law enforcement in America?
These last few issues are something I know a little bit about. When I ran for Mayor of Baltimore in 1999 it was not because things were going well. It was because we had allowed ourselves to become the most violent, most addicted, and the most abandoned city in America. Against two far, far better known opponents I ran as a minority white mayor in a majority African-American city. And that through a long summer where the only issue was fighting crime, and drugs, and law enforcement, and race. That I won the votes of every single council district in our city, including my two African American opponents in their own districts.
Then we set about taking the actions that come from a deeper understanding of listening to one another about our own feelings and perceptions about justice and injustice in our neighborhoods and we took actions. I was very, very close as circuit leader to a lot of pain, and a lot of grief, and a lot of loss on the days ahead. I buried along with our neighbors ten police officers killed in the line of duty – five of them black. I once filed with my neighbors in front of seven caskets, including five little children who with their parents where fire bombed by a sweep by drug dealers for calling the police for protection in their neighborhood.
We put Baltimore a path to achieving the greatest reduction of part one crime of any major city in America over the next 10 years. And over the longer arc of 15 years we saved upwards of around a thousand lives that otherwise would have been lost had we not made a change. So you can imagine the broken parts across Baltimore when in a couple of our neighborhoods, after the tragic custodial death of Freddie Gray, two of our poorest and hardest hit neighborhoods erupted in anger.
I was in Europe at the time, I was supposed to be there for three days. Did I immediately cut it short to come home because I was a Mayor? No, I was a former Mayor. Because I was Governor? No, by then I was a former Governor. I came home because I hold that same title that you hold – citizen. And I wanted to be present with my neighbors.
I came across this quote this morning and I felt like sharing it with you.
It was written some 40 years ago by a great American mystic named Thomas Merton, in different times, or perhaps not so distant. He wrote “the population of the affluent world is nourished on a steady diet of brutal mythology and hallucination. Kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable. The problem of violence then is not the problem of a few rioters and rebels. But the problem of the whole structure, which is outwardly ordered and respectable and inwardly written by psychopathic obsessions and delusions.”
These are not easy issues. If they were easy issues, they would not be important issues.
My parents and teachers taught me—as I believe your teachers here have taught you—not to run away from them. To force yourself out of a place of comfort and into the place of pain and loss and suffering where those things are most intensely felt.
As a servant of the public good, I have chosen to meet with those who protest, instead of running away, to listen and to learn. To strive, always, to understand more deeply so that I might act more intelligently and with more compassion.
This is what all of us—as good citizens—must do as well. This is what are to do if we are to form, in our own day, a more perfect union.
If we are to overcome the great challenge to our humanity of climate change.
If we, and our children’s children, are to live with one another in peace and justice. And yes, economic justice.
I believe in the lesson you are learning here at ASP – whether it’s cell phones or other issues of the day, are important lessons. Protest is a healthy and a necessary part of our democracy.
Progress is often born out of great protest as those of you in the course ‘Changing the World’ learned this Summer. But also understand this: that lasting progress can only be secured by the deeper understanding that comes from listening to one another as human beings; from seeing ourselves and feeling ourselves in the perspective and position of another.
What DeTocqueville called, “the strength of soft ties.”
This is a time of great challenge in our country and you are at the heart of it. I understand one of your housemasters, Bowman Dixon, did an exercise in Chapel with you, sort of a human graph, since Bowman is a math teacher.
Rows of you gradually stood up in your seats as a visual demonstration of progress year-by-year on marriage equality in our country. You started with Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maryland and beyond.
Many of you exulted and cheered as this progress and movement spread across the whole country. Everyone in Chapel stood up to show that marriage is a universal right in America.
But then Bowman took you back through the same exercise in reverse…
He showed you by sitting down in those states where you could still be fired for being gay – or states where your transgender brother and sisters do not yet have equal protection of law.
You are the generation that will have us, I believe, on our feet quicker and quicker for progress—and the Advanced Studies Program has been a place to be with other visionaries. Whether your service will be as teachers, as engineers or as artists, in law, government or other areas.
I have drawn my great inspiration for where our country’s headed from talking to our young people. And at the age of 52 I now describe that as people under 40. I rarely meet young people under 40 in America who believe that climate change isn’t real or think that government shouldn’t do something about it. I rarely meet people under 40 who want to bash immigrants or want to discriminate against gay couples.
We are headed to a much more connected and compassionate place, and you are going to lead us there. A more just, and connected future.
Never lose sight of your intense desire to see over that horizon.
Protest, challenge and engage.
Never lose your zeal for the way that things ought to be.
It is what makes New Hampshire and America great.
But just as importantly: listen, learn, feel, and understand the perspective of other persons with whom you share your life, your country, and this small planet of ours.
Teilhard deChardin once wrote: ‘There is an absolute direction to growth, and life moves in that direction, and life is never mistaken about its road or its destination. It tells us towards what point on the horizon we must steer if we are to see the dawn’s light grow more intense.’
ASP has been a part of your remarkable path, I’m proud to congratulate you on your achievement and wish you every success in your senior year and beyond.
So thank you, good luck until we meet again.
And if Mr. Ricard has given you your phone back..feel free to follow me on Twitter!