Posted in Speeches
Remarks for Ronald J. Daniels
Johns Hopkins University Commencement
To our honorary degree recipients, alumni, and trustees, to our faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends; and most especially to our graduates, welcome to the Johns Hopkins University commencement for the great Class of 2018!
I’ll confess, I look forward to graduation every year as a moment to celebrate the many successes of our students.
Your transformation from timid first-years sneaking Chipotle into Brody to proud seniors striding in, burritos aloft, mid-bite.
Your persistence in offloading your Iggy tickets to this day!
And your domination of meme wars with an unnamed Midwestern university.
Yes, your tremendous personal achievements are on full display today.
But today, as you know, is not just about you.
I also look forward to this moment because it is an opportunity to celebrate the people who helped you arrive here–the people who are here in person or here in spirit.
Graduations are one of the great milestones in the life of a family, however you define it.
For me, our commencement–and this is my 10th commencement at Johns Hopkins–always evokes an awareness of what higher education has meant in my own family, and in particular, the quite extraordinary circumstances that enabled my father–and later me and now my children–to access higher education’s manifold gifts.
Like some of yours, my family’s path to a university education was not straightforward, nor was it assured.
You see, my father came to Canada as a 7-year-old boy with his parents and two older siblings. They arrived from Warsaw, Poland, as Jewish refugees in March 1939, just months before Hitler invaded the country.
As was true of so many Jewish families, including my wife Joanne’s, by the end of the Second World War, the entirety of my father’s extended family had perished, alongside six million European Jews.
For my father, the motivating force in his life was trying to make sense of this good fortune in escaping to Canada on the eve of the Holocaust, becoming educated, and having such a full and meaningful life.
Indeed, in the hours before he passed away at the age of 78, he told me that when he learned he had a terminal illness, his first reaction was, not surprisingly, one of disappointment. He told me he had hoped to live to 83.
Dad, I asked, what’s the magic of 83? Seems kinda random. Why not go for 80, 85, something divisible by five. What’s 83?
Dad replied that 83 was his target because he started to see his friends that age fail. For my dad, the dream was that if he made it to 83, he would go out at the top of his game.
But then he paused and he reflected and said though he wished he had those five more years, he never lost sight of the 71 years he gained by having been spared at the age of 7.
All told, he felt he had won the lottery of life.
This is, of course, an intensely personal story. It is one that I come back to with some regularity–not only because of its centrality to my own life, but also because, like any good story, it holds new meaning in new moments.
And at this moment, I think of my father’s narrow odds not only in terms of its personal implications, but also as a stark illustration of the callous and inhumane response of the civilized world to clear and known threats. Something that recent public surveys show is being all too quickly forgotten.
As historian Irving Abella has documented, during the time in which the Nazis governed Germany, from the early 1930s to 1945, the United States admitted only 200,000 Jewish refugees. The United Kingdom, 70,000 refugees. Australia, 15,000.
And Canada, inexplicably, fewer than 5,000 refugees, my dad and his immediate family among the lucky few.
Indeed, when a senior Canadian government official was asked by the press in early 1945 how many Jewish refugees would Canada admit, he famously replied, “None is too many.”
None is too many.
This jarring response reveals that the Canadian government was not simply misinformed about the plight of the Jews. They were at best disinterested, at worst active in turning away those in desperate need of refuge.
There was no ambiguity about what was happening in Europe. Newspaper coverage, radio broadcasts, public opinion polls, and international conferences on the refugee crisis, and protests everywhere from Los Angeles to Bulgaria had all shone a light on the violence, discrimination, and persecution unleashed against Jews in Europe.
Yet deep-seated fears of foreign and of communist influence, anxieties over job competition from people who were considered “other” or less human because of their race or religion, tendencies toward isolationism, and the very real, mundane struggles of day-to-day life all conspired to mute the gravity of the atrocities being committed abroad and blinded people to the human tragedy hidden in plain sight.
In doing so, ugly prejudice and parochial tribalism were openly espoused and allowed to prevail.
And of course, parts of this sound vaguely, hauntingly familiar.
Around the world, examples of such prejudices are legion. And they are not consigned to history, but very much, tragically, part of our present. The rise of nativism in elections across Europe. The sectarian violence that is rending the Middle East. The increase in vicious activity among hate groups targeting people of color here in America.
How does this continue to happen?
In the early 1950s, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues conducted the iconic “Robber’s Cave Study” to answer this very question. Some of you may have studied it here at Hopkins. And as you may know, they began by recruiting 22 11- and 12-year old American boys from similar backgrounds–same level of income, same educational backgrounds, same religious backgrounds–a and took them to a secluded summer camp.
In classic color-war fashion, they were split into two groups–the Eagles and the Rattlers–and were thrown into a series of contests with one another.
In a matter of days, these groups of boys began to dislike each other, intensely. Name-calling and vandalism quickly escalated to physical aggression and violence.
Now, as soon-to-be Hopkins graduates you will discern that the ethics and methods of bringing unsuspecting boys to a fake camp for psychological experimentation do not quite hold up to modern research standards. But this study’s findings are nevertheless striking, arresting.
How quickly the boys in this study–boys who were so similar in so many ways–came to cling to their relatively brief identification with a totally arbitrary group and turn on one another.
Imagine what happens when instead of being pulled from an essentially homogenous group, people are separated and defined on the basis of race, religion, gender, or geography and pitted against one another? How quickly does the potential for immediate distrust and conflict then rise?
Sadly, despite the technologies that promise to close the distances and misunderstandings between us, we live in a world today where unbridgeable divides seem to be growing. A world in which distinctions, like the racial and economic inequities that have long plagued this nation, are being further exacerbated.
And our ability to discern the forces exacerbating these rifts, and then counter them, is ever more compromised and complicated.
Mental fences are erected that limit our capacity to see others as fellow human beings deserving of recognition, respect, and compassion. Mental fences that allow people to tell themselves the stories they want to hear instead of grappling with the difficult, unnerving truths that are right in front of them.
So here, graduates, this is where you come in.
In your time at Johns Hopkins, you have gained skills, understanding, and perspectives that cross disciplines and schools of thought. You have learned to live with and learn from people who hold different views than your own, who come from very different backgrounds and have had different experiences. You have wrestled with complex ideas and brought to bear the tools of reason, evidence, principle, and debate.
Quidditch players and lacrosse players; HopHackers and All-Nighters; members of the Society of Physics Students, ¡Baila!, and Blue Jay Bhangra–no matter what group you affiliate with, you have all found your place here, in Baltimore and at Hopkins, and each of you–and all of you as a collective–has in your own way, made this place better.
So today, I am calling on you.
To use all that you have learned here to recognize and confront your own biases and to help others do the same. To champion the idea–it’s a simple one, but a compelling one–of the equal worth and dignity of all humans. To create and support institutions that share your values, and challenge those leaders who do not. And indeed when they do not, vote. Please vote. Vote them out. You must vote.
Be the kinds of citizens who will identify the mental fences that hold us back from extending opportunity to people who seek only the fair chance to build lives of decency and meaning. Be among those–like your commencement speaker today–who are determined, committed, resolute about tearing those fences down.
I–indeed, we–are counting on you.
In whatever way you heed this call, you will vindicate the work of those generations who built the civic, educational, and political institutions that have shaped good, sound, flourishing liberal democracies like the one we have in this country and have allowed us all to thrive and excel.
And you will, with your words and deeds, imagine and construct even better ones. Of that I am sure.
Class of 2018, we are so very, very proud of you.
Godspeed, and congratulations.