Remarks by President John J. DeGioia
Phi Betta Kappa Initiation
May 16, 2002
Thank you, Andy (Steigman). I am deeply honored to be invited here this afternoon and to have the pleasure of congratulating this year's initiates. Thank you for the privilege of membership in Phi Beta Kappa; I am pleased to join such distinguished company.
While we acknowledge the degree of commitment and engagement necessary to election to this eminent society, no one achieves this distinction alone. You stand on the shoulders of many-- friends, faculty, but probably none so important as your parents here today, whose support and encouragement and belief in the importance of education have made this achievement possible. Will all the parents and family members of today's initiates please stand?
Now to those we honor today: through hard work, you've earned a small gold key that will help to open some important doors in your lives. With the advantages of a liberal education, you have awakened the powers of your own mind, and with those powers, your education will never end.
For the graduating seniors among us, expect a seemingly endless procession of advice this week-- it is the fate of every graduating senior, one last hurdle to clear before you finally clutch your diploma and walk out of Healy Gates. This afternoon, I'll do my part by sharing some thoughts about a defining characteristic of the Jesuit tradition of liberal education, the Jesuit ideal of 'contemplatives in action,' and consider what these dual ideas-- this apparent contradiction-- mean in our lives.
I certainly don't plan to repeat the guidance offered by columnist Art Buchwald, who admonished my graduating class that, "You've inherited a perfect world. Now don't screw it up."
I'm afraid it has been all too evident this year that the class of 2002 does not inherit a perfect world. Together, we have endured a time of heart-breaking grief and shock at the inhumanity and hatred that stalk our globe.
The 21st century isn't supposed to be this way. The scientific achievements of humankind are nothing short of breathtaking. The human hand has stretched to the stars. The latest photos by the Hubble space telescope reveal a cosmos of unimaginable beauty and mystery. We have similarly probed deep into our own species, unraveling the incredible complexity of the human genome. We have taken the first steps in the eradication of disease on this planet.
Yet for all the glory of our scientific prowess, our record as a human society is tragically bleak. Ours is a world of need, of injustice, of exploitation. 46% of the people on our planet live on less than $2 a day. 33% of women and girls in the world have been beaten or sexually assaulted. 145 million children are not in school.
My generation will not bequeath to you a perfect world. But we do have great hopes for you. The young women and men here today-- the holders of the golden key-- have proven their exceptional capability, and the world needs your gifts.
St. Ignatius' vision for the Society of Jesus as an order of contemplatives in action is integral to Georgetown's Catholic and Jesuit heritage. He did not create a monastery-- an order cloistered behind walls set apart from the world. These are men of the city-- placed amidst the complexity, the bustle, the chaos, the confusion of the world. Ignatius imagined a new kind of religious order-- active in the world yet aware of a deeper reality, the transcendent reality, right here in our day-to-day lives. Ignatius offers an illuminating choice of words, revealing two different and contrasting ideas-- "contemplatives in action." We see the contemplative in action as a thoughtful, reflective intellectual who is moved to action in the vigorous implementation of those thoughts and ideas.
The contemplative-- especially a contemplative with a Georgetown education-- is singularly well equipped to bring intellectual weight into public decisions and discussions. The world needs such original thinkers who define situations, fearlessly grapple with conflicting ideas, and discern the possibilities for action.
At Georgetown, you have immersed yourselves in the realm of ideas, exploring and evaluating competing and conflicting points of view. You have explored the deeper logic, the unspoken assumptions, that which is hidden. You have searched for the moral meaning of ideas, the ethical consequences, the implications of an idea, a policy, a program has to extend and expand justice in the world. Hopefully, you have been able to see the world from the eyes of those less fortunate.
Now, you will continue such exploration on your own. One might expect members of Phi Beta Kappa to have a disproportionate responsibility to employ that skill and talent. Wherever you exercise leadership in your lives, I trust it will entail more than the simple exercise of power -- but that your leadership will be informed by the very best in critical thinking, that you will approach problems and issues with an open mind, not allowing ideas to go unacknowledged, untested or unchallenged. That you will evaluate an idea, issue or problem from the perspective of justice.
At this University, ideas matter. Why do they matter? Because they shape the way we orient ourselves in social space. Ideas are not static, unchanging objects that are somehow outside of our ability to influence. They animate action; they inform our decisions and actions. And they are shaped by our engagement with them.
For example, a dominant idea that has influenced each of our lives in the past decade is the idea of globalization. For a good part of the 1990s, many of us felt that the idea of the hegemony and objectivity of a "free market" had achieved status as a deep part of the structure of reality. It existed independently of any of us and it was necessary that we conform ourselves to its logic. But as we have learned over the past three years with the bursting of the tech bubble and the collapse of some very powerful institutions, the market is a social construction, built around certain ideas about value and how value is created, about interdependency among peoples.
These are competing ideas here, and they need to be engaged, invested in, confronted. Some subscribe to an unfettered market; others reject the logic of globalization as ignoring the demands of justice. To unreflectively adopt one position or another inevitably misses key elements that can only be identified by living with the tensions, living with the ideas, even in their tension.
If we seek to teach anything here, it is to recognize that we live in ambiguity; that we must learn to function within that ambiguity. The university campus is a forum for competing and conflicting ideas. In our conversations when we are in dialogue, dialogue that inevitably reveals ambiguity, conflict, and a thousand shades of gray, we come to grasp the truth. The more comfortable you can be in that ambiguity, the deeper your grasp of truth, and the greater contribution you can make. The poet John Keats not only acknowledged that conflict in the world, he embraced it. Keats created the term 'negative capability' to describe "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties?" He found that ideas in conflict created the moment and opportunity for creativity.
'Negative capability'-- engaging the conflict of ideas-- captures this uncertainty, and it is in the nature of contemplation. Ignatius viewed contemplation as necessarily leading to action, defined as engagement in the world and service to others.
Your success at Georgetown testifies to your intellectual credentials, but the example of your lives is as important as the vigor of your mind. An orientation to action demands that you speak the truth with your lives. In doing so, make the most of your capacity for originality, and never fear being a dissenting voice, despite the risk of ideas that don't have the weight of public opinion behind them.
Every so often a moment arrives, where the truth demands action. A moment where with all of your wrestling you are confronted with a moral imperative to act. Before you is an opportunity to make a difference. Pedro Arrupe put it this way:
Let each one examine himself, to see what he has done up to now, and what he ought to do. It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustices, and utter prophetic denunciations; these words lack real weight unless the are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action.
It was this livelier awareness that has characterized the most inspiring leadership of our time.
1. I'm thinking of Elie Wiesel's courageous decision to tell the story of the Holocaust so that it will never happen again.
2. I'm thinking of Nelson Mandela's visionary commitment to a peaceful transition of power, despite having lived for decades under the systemized oppression of black South Africans called Apartheid.
3. I'm thinking of Dr. King in the U.S. and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma-- people of principle who put their convictions into action.
4. And, I'm thinking of the still unfolding American response to the terrorism of September 11-- a response that demands action from each of us and which this community so movingly displayed this year.
As you will hear many times this week, you lead lives of great promise. You are the beneficiaries of privilege. You are one-300th of one percent (.003%) of the world's population with the opportunity to attend a major American research university. What you will do with this privilege matters. With your new key and with the doors you can open, I urge you to continue your engagement in the realm of ideas and translate into action the truth that emerges from this engagement.