Video: President Cornwell’s 2017 Commencement Address

Rollins President Grant Cornwell addresses the 2017 graduating class at the College’s 127th commencement ceremony.

Liberal Education as Preparation

Seniors, you go forth today into a world that is being remade. It may seem a little rugged out there right now. It may seem scary, your future uncertain, but I will tell you that I think it is an exceptionally exciting time to be 21 and a graduate of Rollins College.

A new paradigm is taking shape in global civil society. You will make your way in a world unfamiliar to your parents. It will be your era and it is filled with opportunities for leadership, innovation, and important work to be done.

Some of you know your path into this new world, or at least your first steps. Some of you have discovered a passion for inquiry and will launch into graduate study at a host of the nation’s finest universities. Some of you are going to medical school or law school. Many of you have great job offers in companies and nonprofits.

But this I say to all of you: You could not have a better preparation than your Rollins education for the changing world you will lead.

This is why these graduation ceremonies are called Commencement: they signal not an end but a beginning. Your path may not open for you immediately. For some it might be winding, for others bumpy. But you are ready to walk it, and the value of your Rollins education will be revealed to you many, many times along the way.

But you are not just exceptionally well prepared to launch into a career trajectory that will unfold in a series of chapters, all of which will make reference back to the work you have done here. No, there is something more—a deeper sense in which your Rollins education has prepared you for leadership.

The World You Will Now Lead

I am now going to spend some time talking about politics. But this is not partisan. Politics is the public negotiation over how we should live together. If you read Aristotle you know that politics is the study of how to live well, how to thrive as human beings, how to organize society so as to enable human flourishing. It is the study of justice.

Politics is embedded in the very mission of Rollins when we say that ours is an education for global citizenship and responsible leadership. Leadership for what? Leadership to advance knowledge, solve problems, and figure out how we should live. Leadership to create a more just global civil society. And you, graduates, have serious work to do on this front. Now is the time to put your education to work in the world; now more than ever, we need you.

We are a nation divided that needs critical and analytic understanding of the root causes, not shallow and strident partisanship. We need serious and intelligent minds working together, not slogans and tweets and partisan ranting. We need to listen carefully to those who think differently than we do, not just listen in an echo chamber of the like-minded. We need answers as complex and nuanced as the problems themselves, not reductive simplicities. And we need bridges built between people who see the world differently, not walls.

This much I believe. If you zoom out, taking a world historical view of where we find ourselves, I think you will see this. We are in the mature stages of a particular era of globalization fueled by the growth of market economies, liberal democracies, and information technology. It has produced wealth and well-being. Global poverty is down: “The share of the global population defined as “poor”—those making less than $2/day—has fallen since 2001 by nearly half, to 15 percent,” (Source: http://inequality.org/global-inequality/) though millions and millions still eke out a living with very little. And longevity is up, though the distribution of longevity is arrayed along a spectrum correlated with race, wealth, and geography.

The demonstrable progress of this era of globalization has advantaged some and profoundly disadvantaged others. The very economic and political engines of progress have also enabled the concentration of wealth and power—nationally and globally—in the hands of fewer and fewer. To cut to the chase, Oxfam International reports that the richest eight men in the world—and they are all men—have as much combined wealth as the bottom half of humanity (Source: https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world). If we look only at the United States, the wealthiest one percent of the population has 35.6 percent of all private wealth. I do not think it is a stretch to say that this concentration of wealth, and all of the attendant change brought about by rapid globalization, have been destabilizing to global civil society.

Here I offer a hypothesis for your consideration. The speed of change and the distribution of power has been existentially threatening for many. I think it is fair and plausible to see the rise of fundamentalisms and nationalisms to be forms of resistance to these changes. Fundamentalisms—whether Hindu, Islamic, or Christian—are essentially nostalgic, referring to some imagined past when identity was less contested and the ethics of how one should live are imagined to have been less complicated. Similarly, nationalism—whether in France or India or the U.S.—are nostalgic, visions of a fictive past when nations were imagined to be more monocultural.

The anxiety over change and the fact that the dynamics of globalization have advantaged some and greatly disadvantaged others have made this a dark time for the motivations that fuel politics. It is hard to find sentiments of positive aspiration, justice, fairness, democratic idealism, or simple hope for a better world motivating politics today. In their place we find the most base and basic human emotion of anger, or its evil twin, unfettered rage.

As far as I can tell, anger is never a motivator for positive change, since there is no positive vision in anger. It is simple-minded and absolutist; it lacks nuance, it closes minds rather than opening them, and it simply is not good for civil society.

Actually, I think there is a better term than ‘anger’ for what we see in our nation, in the France of Marie Le Pen, in the Britain of Brexit; it is resentment. Resentment is an emotion of bitterness, indignation that one has been treated unfairly. It is extremely difficult to assuage this emotion and it is the quickest route to hatred. For these reasons, I would call resentment the most caustic or toxic motivation for change. I would go further: a politics of resentment will never lead to positive, sustainable change, never move us towards justice. For these reasons, be wary of resentment in your own motivations, try to recognize it in politics and steer clear of it, and most of all, try to be a counterforce, working for change motivated by compassion, motivated by a love of human dignity, a respect for human rights, and a disposition of gentleness towards others and the earth.

You are my source of hope. What I believe is that you, graduates of Rollins, do not resonate with worldviews of fundamentalisms and nationalisms. These frameworks do not correspond to your lived experience nor your own imagination of the future. Your generation gives me great hope for the future, unbounded optimism not only for our nation but for global civil society.

I came of age in an era following the 60s when my generation held out lofty social aspirations, but in retrospect they were comparatively naïve, idealistic, and abstract. In contrast, you are a generation of problem-solvers, with a kind of pragmatic idealism. You want to solve problems because you understand all too keenly that they are your problems to solve, and that failure to create change will result in very real and felt consequences for you and your future children.

If my generation wanted to hug trees and argue that they have rights, you want to prevent their destruction because the air you are breathing is becoming more toxic. If my generation struggled for racial equality within a social landscape of comparatively discrete racial identities and segregation, your generation has the lived experience of living, working, and playing with peers whose identities are manifold. You have a comfortable sophistication with diversity, and consequently are not the least attracted to the idea of identifying race or religion with national identity. You are an existentially cosmopolitan generation, so much better suited to lead the world that is becoming than those currently struggling with that mantle.

The good news is that your Rollins education has prepared you for leadership in this world, your world. You want lives and livelihoods of well-being but you also want your work to matter. You want to create change, but your motivation is pragmatic; you have real, grounded anxiety over the social and environmental problems you are inheriting and you want to contribute to their resolution, both because of your concerns for basic ideals of justice and fairness but also for the quality of your life and that of your future children.

This is one of the most important and enduring values of a Rollins education. You know better. You think better.

In just moments, you will be graduates of Rollins College. That, seniors, is a credential of substance that will contribute to the quality of your life over your whole lifetime. More importantly, it is a credential that will empower you as a changemaker.

It is an honor to share this day with you.

Congratulations.

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