Advice

Madeleine Albright: ‘Leave Room in Your Brain for Ideas That You Have Not Thought About Before’

May 16, 2016

Watch Madeleine Albright's Scripps College commencement speech

President Marcus-Newhall, distinguished faculty and trustees, parents, alumni, friends and members of the class of 2016, good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to be here.

I have delivered a few commencement addresses before, and I can tell you my biggest fear is being upstaged by the student speaker. This year, those fears were justified.

But Catherine, I want to commend you for your openness, your willingness to confront tough issues and your commitment to helping this community grow together.

And rest assured, there is a special place in heaven for anyone who speaks truth to power.

From what I can tell, Scripps College today is full of such people, and I want to say loudly and clearly that it is a pleasure to be among the “magical, radical, and change-making” members of the Class of 2016.

Graduation ceremonies serve two purposes—to look back at what has been accomplished and to look forward to the journey ahead.

To the parents who are here, if you are like I was with my daughters, your emotions this graduation day are mixed.

You feel both incredibly proud and a little bit sad; excited that this day has finally arrived and yet astonished at how short the interval can be between diapers and diplomas.

To the Class of 2016, I say congratulations. You have finally made it.

Follow Motto on Facebook.

All the late nights, research papers and examinations were worth it. And so were the candlelight dinners, afternoon teas and many hours spent at The Motley.

This afternoon, as you sit there in your caps and gowns, hardly anything stands between you and your degree—except for my speech.

But beginning tomorrow, you will embark on a new stage in your lives—meeting different people, traveling far and wide, and experiencing life as you never have before.

You will be able to face the future with confidence because the skills and values you developed here at Scripps will go along with you.

This means you are as well-equipped as any young people could be to continue your search for truth in an uncertain and often confusing world.

And it is that search that I would like to discuss with you this morning.

In so doing, I realize that truth has many dimensions and that even talking about it can be tricky.

For example, when I was in grade school, I was eager to please my teachers and so was entrusted at one point with the responsibility for conducting morning inspections.

I took the job very seriously; in fact, whenever my classmates didn’t have clean enough fingernails or hands, I told the truth and reported them.

This demonstration of honesty did wonders for school hygiene and cost me all of my friends.

Truth can be a blunt instrument and, at times, a dangerous one.

In some countries, even in our era, bearing witness to the abuse of authority can put truth-tellers in prison—or worse.

It is also possible to be completely convinced that something is true and at the same time, completely wrong.

There are people in our world today who are ready to die—or kill—for alleged truths that are grounded less on the validity of their insights than on the false certainty generated by their resentments and fears.

We have also learned through history that supposedly eternal truths can, in fact, go out of fashion.

The Earth is flat; the Sun is a golden chariot; there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Pluto is a planet and women are the weaker sex.

So truth is a complex topic, but for an educated person, it is an inescapable quest.

Subscribe to the Motto newsletter for advice worth sharing.

Here at Scripps, the alma mater talks about “searching and exploring the life of the mind.”

You cannot do that without trying to separate what is true from what is not.

But this mission begins with an important premise—that we do not already know everything there is to know.

That can be hard for many of us to admit.

I mentioned earlier that, as difficult as it may be for some of you to believe, I was once of college age myself; this was about halfway between the invention of the iPhone and the discovery of fire.

At the time, I knew that I had much to gain from the words of my professors and from the books that they would assign, but I neither questioned nor doubted the fundamental values with which I had grown up.

This is the way it is for most of us; after all, the only completely open mind is an empty one—we all have our opinions and prejudices based on who we are, where we come from, what we have experienced and how we have been taught.

The key to further education is not to put aside what we think we know, but to employ that knowledge as a platform for learning more.

This means that we should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them.

It means that we should always leave a little room in our brains for ideas that we have not thought about before.

And it means that we should never be fully satisfied.

In that spirit, I met this morning with members of the Scripps community who were concerned their views were not being represented at this ceremony.

What I told them was that the purpose of my speech was not to defend a particular policy, but to talk about the importance of hearing from—and actually listening to—all perspectives.

Because if we are not learning, we are not living—and the years during and after college are an ideal time to explore new aspects of life.

What is so exciting is that—in our era—the opportunities for exploration have multiplied.

When I was a student, we had to look up information in real books, which we located by rummaging through the library stacks; after which we copied down whole paragraphs of text in longhand, using in my case, a set of color-coded pens.

If we wanted an article from a newspaper, we had to find the actual newspaper, years of which the library kept in yellowing piles, separated by month, going back years.

Research was laborious, but it was not the only factor that slowed our pursuit of knowledge.

In my class, almost everyone was American, Caucasian and Christian.

Despite some differences, we were similar in most respects and the pressure to conform was powerful.

Here at Scripps, even as you agitate to make the environment here more inclusive, you have students from a diversity of backgrounds.

You attend class with students from every continent and many of you spend time overseas.

I encourage you to continue taking advantage of those opportunities because, in the 21st century, the pursuit of truth will surely be a global one.

Read more: Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation is Key to Resilience’

Consider for a moment some of the questions that the rising generation—both here and abroad—will have no choice but to confront.

How can our leaders build a future of peace when so many nations and rival groups are still angry about the past?

How can we prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists or aggressors?

How can we fix our global system of institutions and laws so that we can shape events instead of being forced constantly to cope with burst economic bubbles, financial meltdowns, humanitarian crises and genocide?

How can we penetrate the thick wall of our own denial and recognize that human actions are a leading cause of climate change—and that if we don’t stop it, it will stop us.

And how can we create a future of prosperity for the many when technology does more and more of what people were once hired to do?

In years past, wealth was generated methodically, from the daily labor of countless workers; but wealth tomorrow is more likely to come from a hand full of breakthrough ideas.

So where does that leave people whose education and skills are only average?

And how can we retain strong incentives for innovation and excellence without further widening the gap between rich and poor?

Even from this partial list, we can see that the principal challenges of the future are not going to be surmounted solely by any one country or small group—a new era of collaboration is required that will extend to every corner of the globe.

And the responsibility for forging such a network does not belong to governments alone.

Everyone must participate in solving shared problems, including corporations, academic institutions, religious leaders, civil society and individual citizens.

A summons of this nature is easy enough to proclaim, but it cannot be answered without a healthy approach to truth.

Because we are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality.

To me, this is the great divide in the world today—not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between any one race or creed and all the others—it is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.

One of the great advantages of serving as Secretary of State was the perspective it brought.

It was my responsibility to defend U.S. positions, but also to listen.

And I can tell you that the way the world looks depends almost entirely on your vantage point.

For example, a resident of Claremont, California, will ordinarily have a far more favorable view of the police than a democratic activist who is trying to avoid arrest in Cuba or an African American teenager in Cleveland.

A child growing up in Pakistan will have a perception of history that varies widely from that of a boy or girl whose home is across the border in India.

One’s sense of urgency about world hunger will be affected by whether one lives in a nation whose families can’t afford to buy bread or where diet books are best sellers.

The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of these perspectives—for that is not possible.

The challenge is to manage them—and when necessary, moderate them—so that we are not defined primarily by what keeps us apart.

Read more: Why You Should Display Your Diploma

Those of you who are graduating today are generally a little more than 20 years old.

For perspective, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison.

As a victim of racism and persecution, Mandela could have used that time to nurture his bitterness and to allow his anger to grow.

Instead, he used it to learn about the people who had put him in jail—the Afrikaaners.

He studied their language, their history, their grievances and their fears.

By the time he was released, he was not only able to understand those who had imprisoned him; he was able to communicate with them, find common ground with them, forgive them and—most astonishingly—to lead them.

Nelson Mandela knew that the surest way to defeat his enemies was not to make them do what he wanted; it was to persuade them to want what he wanted.

He led his jailers to a new understanding of their own best interests.

In other words, he taught those who were blind to see.

And in so doing, he reminded us all that we are—each and every one of us—at least partly blind.

This morning, I am not suggesting that any of you—graduates, students, alumni or friends—cast aside your own opinions or downgrade the value of your perspectives on life.

I ask only that you make a real effort to keep learning more.

And learning, by definition, means exploring areas of existence and opinion with which you are not already familiar.

Instead of choosing to read or to listen only to the people whose views make you the most comfortable—which is becoming easier and easier to do—choose instead to study those who make you the most upset.

Instead of surrounding yourself with friends whose experiences are similar to yours, reach out to people whose life stories are unknown.

Instead of repeating over and over again the opinions you have expressed in the past, stop venting for a while, ask yourself why you believe as you do and submit your own conceptions of truth to the rigorous standards of critical thinking.

Above all, I ask you to understand that there is an enormous difference between entering into an argument for the purpose of proving how smart you already are and engaging in research and discussion for the purpose of stretching your mind and giving free rein to your conscience.

One path may earn you a reputation for brilliance, but the other will lead you toward wisdom.

In saying all this, I am not conceding that all truth is relative or that every point of view is equal in merit.

On the contrary, I am proposing that we place our greatest faith in principles that have proven themselves through decades of testing and struggle.

These are principles that bring people together, instead of driving us apart; principles that challenge us to think not once but continually; principles that demand the best from each of us while honoring the rights of all.

These principles include a commitment to justice, a belief in freedom, respect for the dignity of every human being, the capacity for forgiveness and a desire to pursue the truth wherever that journey might lead.

Tonight, the Class of 2016 begins its journey into the future. As the Scripps College motto says, “Here begins new life.”

My closing advice to you is to make your new life an adventure. Don’t settle for an old or well-worn path—and you may be surprised by the miracles you can achieve.

Congratulations once again—and thank you once again for the opportunity to share with you this perfect day.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’