This weekend — which included the fifth anniversary of the needless tragedy of Katrina, a presidential visit to New Orleans, and Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington — found me in the middle of my own family’s transition, dropping my daughter off for her freshman year of college and listening to the welcome speech delivered by Yale President Rick Levin.
His words were aimed primarily at the incoming students, but as he spoke about wrestling “with the deepest questions of how one should live,” “discovering an unsuspected passion,” and learning “to understand how meaning is extracted from experience,” it struck me how useful his advice is for everyone — including the millions of Americans who’ve lost jobs and homes, and are re-evaluating their lives.
Levin pointed out how the students “come from all 50 states and 58 nations” and urged them (and their parents) to go “entirely outside the range of your past experience,” and “stretch yourself.” “If the friends you make here are exclusively those who come from backgrounds just like your own and went to high schools just like your own,” he said, “you will have forfeited half the value of a Yale education. Seek out friends with different histories and different interests; you will find that you learn the most from the people least like you.”
He really struck a chord in me when he spoke of the “emerging burden of citizenship,” and of responsibilities beyond “self-gratification and personal advancement.” He urged the next generation to “raise the level of public discourse.” And, lamenting how “oversimplified ideology and appeal to narrow interest groups have triumphed over intelligence and moderation in civic discussion,” Levin said that by demanding “serious discussion instead of slogans that mask narrow partisan interests,” the new students — and, by extension, the rest of us — will be able to “help to make our democracy more effective.”