Responsible Idealism PDF Print E-mail
Graduation Dinner Address, June 2004

This past weekend two events occurred linking us to events and persons of enormous significance in the history of the United States.  On Saturday, former President Ronald Reagan passed away, and then yesterday we marked the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Looking at together, these summon to mind an especially important element of the American tradition:  our idealistic and unwavering belief we can and will make the world a better place.   Ever since John Winthrop proclaimed the colonial village of Boston would stand as a shining “city on a hill” demonstrating how a society should be organized,  this American idealism has continued and flourished.  We have never  allowed things to stand just because that is how things always have been.    When exactly sixty years ago, the men of the “Greatest Generation” struggled through the pounding surf of Normandy Beach to establish against enormous obstacles a beachhead for the eventual liberation of Europe, they did so, and they gave their lives, to make the world a better place.

Ronald Reagan surely will be remembered for many generations as a President of unwavering determination to advance the ideals of freedom in the world.  Far be it for me to defend or celebrate every aspect of the Reagan legacy, but this is a fitting moment to recognize and acknowledge that the greatness of Ronald Reagan was in the deep resonance his words carried connecting him to the tradition of American exceptionalism and American idealism.   It is our responsibility, he believed, to carry forward to the world a commitment to make the world a truly better place, a place free from political totalitarianism, (“Mr. Gorbachev,” he said in Berlin, “Tear down this wall!”)  and a place free from nuclear warheads (“Mr. Gorbachev,” he said in Reykjavik, “let’s abolish all these terrible weapons .”)

Our mission at Saklan calls upon us to instill in our students a sense of responsibility for their community and their world, and we have seen this graduating class exemplify this, in the outstanding work they have done for the student council and in family groups.  Staging a terrific carnival, raising several thousand dollars to donate for the school’s improvement, guiding the family groups to help others: they have done so much!

Graduates, I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about idealism and responsibility, particularly since re-connecting with a thinker that especially fascinated me in graduate school: Reinhold Niebuhr.  I read this past winter a new book authored by the Reverend Dr. Niebuhr’s daughter memorializing the mid-twentieth century theologian and philosopher.  She explores the meaning and implications of his most famous saying, something known as the Serenity Prayer.    Many of you have heard it, perhaps for some of you in the audience it is so familiar to you as to almost be a cliché.  “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can;  and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The genius of Niebuhr is that he masterfully reconciles idealistic and realistic worldviews, perhaps more so than any other thinker since the philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke or even the ancient Greeks.   The Greeks, idealistic as they were in pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty, also taught us to “Know our Limits” and to “Seek the Golden Mean. ”

Neibuhr, as a member of a generation that confronted first Nazi fascism and then Stalinist communism, preached that we must vigorously articulate and promote our ideals, while nevertheless maintaining a sense of discretion and a recognition of our limits.

Niebuhr taught us that the there are two great sins: the first being to not strive for justice, or in other words to abdicate responsibility altogether by maintaining there is no way to know what is the right thing to do, and the second sin being to be so very sure that we know the right thing to do that we do it without limitation, without hesitation, without the humility and modesty that we might be mistaken.  Instead, it is for us to take responsibility to make the world a better place all the while realizing how easily we may overstep or be mistaken about what that right course is.   We must promote our ideals assertively yet responsibly, with a sense of our realistic limits.

President Reagan called upon President Gorbachev to tear down that wall, but he didn’t do it himself.  He had the courage to call for that advance of freedom, and the serenity to accept that it was not for him to do, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Graduates: in the complex world of the twenty first century, you too must have those qualities.  You must turn a critical eye to rampant and unchecked idealism, you must be wary of those who “know” what is best for others.  You must practice a certain humility, knowing that that as deeply as you hold a particular belief, it may not be the correct one, and it may not be appropriate to impose it on others.

But that modesty should not, should never, hold you back from trying with wisdom to determine what is the right thing to do, and the courage to do it to the utmost appropriate extent.   The heroes of D-Day did what they did exactly 60 years ago because in the final analysis, wisdom called upon them to act with courage to change what they could change, to end the evil of Nazism.

The genius of Dr. Niehbuhr was matched in the 1950’s and 60’s by a few other “Doctors:” Dr. King, Dr. Spock, and one I am sure you all are familiar with, Dr. Seuss. Last week I read to my sons a favorite of theirs and mine, “The Lorax.”

Upon departing the region ruined by the Once-ler, the poem reads, “the Lorax left here in this mess only a small pile of rocks, with just one puzzling word “UNLESS.”

As Dr. Seuss tells it, it is upon “you”  (point to graduates) that the resolution of this story depends.  “Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.  UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

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