|FEATURES Fall 2002|
Speaking on the importance of enhancing our humanity in the world, Ruth J. Simmons addressed this year's more than 2,600 graduates.
Her message was not lost on them, or the other 11,000+ people who gathered in Brookings Quadrangle on May 10th for the 141st Commencement.
And the guest speaker had more than one lesson to impart. Simmons, the first female president of Brown University and the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, delivered an eloquent message, "Design for Living: Digital Truth and Technicolor Dreams." Mixing serious messages with humor, she said that "receiving a degree is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility to give back to the people and places that have provided support for the past several years.
"Of course, you are leaving college in debt," Simmons continued. "No, I don't mean the obligation to repay the loans that helped finance your education, though, keep in mind, you need to repay those as well. I mean the debt you owe to the world that has nurtured you, to the family and friends who have supported you, to the generations to come who will falter or thrive, depending on how well you make good on your duty to the general good."
Her words also stressed the importance of making ethical decisions in everyday life.
"The newspapers today are replete with prominent people who have failed to make ethical choices," she said. "We see these tales of woe and we think, 'What is wrong with them? How could they have been so sightless?' At the same time, the media are also replete with everyday people who rise to extraordinary heights in the exercise of extraordinary judgment. We ask, 'How could such a person rise to the pinnacle of courage, truth, and honesty when they are uneducated, when they are such humble folk?'
"The truth is, one gets better at making ethical choices if one practices making such choices on a daily basis. ... If you are to avoid being a victim of your education, you must practice this art of discernment on an ongoing basis."
Simmons' poignant words also emphasized the importance of preserving humanity.
"Go into your communities and fight for the things we will need to preserve, to enhance our humanity," she said. "Civility, even when others are undeserving of it. Love, even when that sentiment is not returned. Forgiveness, even when cruel history brings us painful reminders of the many wrongs that have been done. Start today. ... Never let pride and self-interest delude you into thinking that you are better than human beings who have not had your advantages."
Concluding her inspiring speech, Simmons said, "I salute you for all that you've done. If you practice the human arts, reaching out to people, standing up for justice and fair play, showing kindness and forgiveness, you will enjoy more success than any good lyricist could ever put in a popular song. ..."