The Global Commencement

By Norman Boucher / July / August 1999
November 12th, 2007
On the morning of Commencement, seniors gather on the Green at 7 a.m. to prepare for the procession down College Hill; instructed, in effect, to hurry up and wait, some of them lie about on the grass, sleeping off the celebration from the night before, and the night before that. In fact, much of the weekend has a busy, cacophonous air to it, but hidden behind the glitz of campus dance, alumni field day, and a class of seniors chafing to take that last walk out the Van Wickle gates are quieter moments of reflection and conversation. It takes a three-day weekend to contain the whole affair.

This year the moments of reflection were particularly sober. Even an upbeat lecturer such as astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn struggled to understand the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, which had occurred just over a month before. On Saturday, U.S. Congresswoman Diana DeGette and her fellow forum panelists tried to make sense of crimes motivated by hate. At other Saturday forums, Professor of Political Science P. Terrence Hopmann offered his tragic analysis of the war in Kosovo, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft struggled with the question of what to do with all the refugees the war had created. Nobel Prize laureate and Irish peacemaker John Hume, who gave Sunday's baccalaureate address, noted that Belfast contains thirteen walls whose chief purpose is to protect Catholics and Protestants from each other. And earlier that day, in a Stephen A. Ogden Jr. lecture, Jordan's Queen Noor remembered her late husband, King Hussein, who, she said, abhorred the exploitation of religion for political or financial ends. "He was," she recalled, "a member of the global family."

It was Queen Noor who best expressed the grace that sometimes emerges from darkness. Although King Hussein could have easily gone along with the violent, bitter enmity between Arabs and Jews, he chose a different way. "He believed in mediation and reconciliation," she said, "and practiced what he preached." Like Hume and Noor, Hussein repudiated an impasse of hate in favor of belief in a larger community based on the value of every human being. It is a vision of harmony that Queen Noor has, in her own way, attempted to carry on, a vision that facile skeptics call quixotic at best and dangerously naďve at worst.

Or is it? In his Ogden lecture on Saturday, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, presented a glimpse of the actual work that goes into creating unity - in his case, among the disparate nations of Europe. "It took forty-eight years," he said, "to agree to a common currency for Europe," and it is likely to take at least as long to create a common political framework. But, he urged, look at what the common currency means: "Never before," he argued, "have we brought together eleven countries like this without a war."

Nowhere was this emphasis on a higher purpose more explicit than during the Saturday forum kicking off the Stephen Robert Initiative for the Study of Values, a curriculum reform that had been front-page news in the Boston Globe the day before. "I know the word values is provocative," explained Professor of Political Science Nancy Rosenblum at the forum, which was held in Sayles Hall. "Isn't the study of values an invitation to a fight?" Nevertheless, President E. Gordon Gee, in introducing Rosenblum, said that the goal of the initiative will be "to incorporate the study of values in every part of a Brown education." Rosenblum then described a three-year initiative, at the core of which will be two new courses: the Quality of Life, which will be offered for first-year students and sophomores, and Justice and Responsibility.

In retrospect, the 231st may go down as the global Commencement: global both in its geographic scope and its moral view. The spirit of the weekend may have been captured best of all by Queen Noor, when she addressed the class of 1999 as the last graduates before Y2K.

"You are on the threshold, a critical threshold, in your lives," she said from the stage on the Green. "So is the world itself....We must foster a culture of peace and justice in the next century out of the complex legacy of this one - the paradoxical legacy of unprecedented violence and suffering alongside historical consensus on global norms and human values....Individuals have power, whether prophet or refugee, whether Jordanian or American or any of 200 other nationalities. The first and most effective way to make a difference is to work together, which is the essence of democracy, and the essence of peace."

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July / August 1999