Commencement Address 2012

Julie Yates
“…what are we free to do because it fulfills our personal goals, and what are we obligated to do as human beings living alongside billions and billions of other living beings?”
Kenneth Klothen, Esq., P ’02 and honorary trustee delivered the Commencement Address at The White Mountain School on Saturday, May 26, 2012.  Tim Breen, head of school, had the following to say about Ken: 

Many of us here know Ken as father to Becky, a graduate of the class of 2002. We also know Ken as a trustee, and honorary trustee, who has always challenged us to clarify our thinking, and to do the right thing.
Ken earned his bachelors degree from Swarthmore College, and his Juris Doctor from Georgetown. He also has a Masters in history from Princeton. He has served as, among other things,
• President of TADD International, a consulting firm specializing in international development matters, law reform and the fostering of civil society in developing countries.
• General Counsel to the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that administers domestic national service programs including AmeriCorps.
• Executive Director of Defense for Children International-USA, an organization engaged in monitoring and advocacy on behalf of children’s rights.
• Executive Director of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States
He has also served on the executive boards of the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Philadelphia Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and Americans for Peace Now.
Ken has also taught Law at the University of Pennsylvania, Case Western Reserve, and Widener Law School. He is that rare combination: a deep thinker who is also fully engaged in the hands-on work of trying to make the world a better place.
 
Below you will find Kenneth Klothen’s, Esq., P’02, honorary trustee, remarks to the Class of 2012.

Commencement Address 2012 
As delivered by Kenneth Klothen, Esq., P ’02, honorary trustee on May 26, 2012

After I was invited to be the commencement speaker today, I did what any White Mountain School student would do in approaching a difficult assignment – I Googled it. Seven million results – plenty of advice on what a good commencement address should contain. So here’s what I learned:

First, thank the head honchos for inviting you. OK: Members of the Board of Trustees and administration, formerly my colleagues and forever my friends, thank you for honoring me with your invitation to speak here today.
Second, recognize the faculty. So: Members of the faculty, I stand in awe of your knowledge, your creativity, and your ability to serve as mentors to the wonderful young people who come through these doors each year.
Third, give a shout out to the parents. OK: Proud parents of these fine graduating seniors, congratulations for raising such talented, smart, responsible young citizens. And before you leave today, could you please make sure that all their overdue library books are returned and the dirty gym clothes that have been stashed in the corners of their dorm rooms for the past six months are removed?
Fourth, tell a joke to loosen everybody up. How’s this: I know you are all asking yourself an important question at this point in the ceremony, so let me answer it: About 15 more minutes.
Fifth, take a deep breath and try to say something meaningful to the graduating class. OK, this is the hard part:
Graduating seniors of the Class of 2012 at The White Mountain School – I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!!
And I don’t even know you. So how can I say that I’m proud of you? What do I know about what you’ve achieved here at White Mountain, what you’ve struggled with, what has made you want to get out of here and never come back, and what has made you want to stay here and never leave?
As it turns out, a lot. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today (for just a few more minutes, I promise). But to do that, I have to tell you a little bit about the work I do in bioethics.
 
Bioethicists end up working on many different and difficult problems: When can medical care be withdrawn or withheld? What enhancements to our brain function should be approved? Do we have a right to die? And many more, each more fascinating, and often heartbreaking, than the last. My work focuses on a theme that I find running through each and every one of these mind-bending and gut-wrenching questions: how do I figure out what I can choose to do (or not do) just because it meets my needs, and what I must do (or not do) because of obligations I have to someone or some thing other than myself?
 
Philosophers talk about this issue as the “tension between autonomy and duty.” Politicians talk about balancing individual freedom and collective welfare. Lawyers discuss the boundary between rights and responsibilities. But all of us face this issue every day, in hundreds of ways, and we’ve developed many vocabularies for talking about it.
 
When your coach tells you “there’s no I in Team”, she’s talking about this issue. When you want to dye your hair pink or pierce some body part and your parents “forbid” it, and you answer “hey, it’s a free country, isn’t it, I’ve got a right to do what I want with my own body” – you’re taking a position on this issue. When Reverend Paul encourages you to participate in the local religious services of your own faith tradition and you reply “I have my own spirituality, I don’t believe in organized religion” –well, welcome to this discussion.
 
Let me tip my hand a little here by disclosing to you that the more I think about this issue, the more I think we’ve drifted as a culture ever more toward one end of the spectrum – the end that values individual choice over obligation, rights over responsibilities, expanding the range of choices over the experiences that our choices give us – without even having intended to do so. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (actually, I think it is a bad thing, but that’s another talk). But it is something that has become built in to the ways we view many of the enormous challenges that confront us. And it does limit our problem-solving abilities by blinding us to solutions that might place us somewhere else along the spectrum where we feel a little less comfortable.
Now, as I’m sure you graduates know, your elders have screwed up this world pretty badly and will soon be dumping it into your generation’s laps to fix. Happens every time. But here’s where I have hope, and here’s why I get to say I’m so very proud of you – even though I don’t know you.
 
Because I happen to know that you at The White Mountain School have grappled with just this critical freedom vs. obligation issue. You’re way ahead of most of us already. You’re able to expand your vision to consider new starting and ending places on this spectrum.
 
How do I know that? Because St. Mary’s and the White Mountain School have been educating students for 125 years to wrestle with this fundamental question. Sure, a century ago it might have been posed differently, as “What does your God demand of you?” Today at WMS it’s more likely to be posed as “What does the evidence that humans are having a disastrous effect on the environment demand of you?” or “What does the fact that you are linked to seven billion other human inhabitants of this planet through a vast and complex ecosystem demand of you?” But it’s really the same question: what are we free to do because it fulfills our personal goals, and what are we obligated to do as human beings living alongside billions and billions of other living beings?
 
And it’s the open inquiry into that question, informed by rigorous study, and seasoned with a reverence for the natural bounty of the Earth, that has thrived at this little jewel box of a school for all of those 125 years.
You know, in preparing this talk I looked back at some histories of the school. As many such histories are, they are mostly filled with fond memories of warm fires on cold winter nights, of pranks played on teachers and fellow students, and of great ski runs made and soccer goals scored long ago. But listen to this paragraph I found in a history written 50 years ago:

“World War II made the pre-college generation acutely conscious of the fact that national service was demanded of Americans of every race, but that all were not given equal opportunity for advancement. Long before the Supreme Court got around to a decision, preparatory school students… were expressing strong disapproval of school admissions policies which included…discrimination based on race. . .

Whether Miss Jencks or the girls [of St. Mary’s] deserve the major credit for influencing the trustees to support an admissions policy in which there was no discrimination, each was backing up the other. When the first Negro girl [remember this was written in 1962] was enrolled at St. Mary’s in 1949, her welcome had long been prepared…Precedent had not only been broken but established.”
 
Wow. Think about that. Sixty-five years ago, before even I was born, the students and the head of St. Mary’s were asking not only what their country demanded of them, but what their vision of their country’s future demanded of them. And before the Congress did, before the Supreme Court did, before many, many of their fellow citizens did (including, I would bet, most of their parents), they got the answer right, and they persuaded the Board of the institution to put their school – this school – on the right side of morality, and the right side of history. They made their school, and their country, a better place.
 
And here you are, sixty five years later, having done local organizing for 350.org events, or participated in the Green Cup Challenge, or done community service in the Dominican Republic, or raised funds for Relay for Life, and much more. Admit it, weren’t there times when you would rather have done an extra run on the mountain, or hopped on your bike, or just read a magazine? Guess what? You grappled with this great freedom vs. obligation issue, and you made a decision on what the balance should be, and you sought to persuade others that you were right. In doing that, you made the world a better place. And you learned how to keep on making the world a better place. Just like the students at St. Mary’s, and previous classes at WMS, have done before you. You stepped into the tradition and carried it forward.
 
THAT’S why I’m so proud of you. And of this wonderful school that you’ve been so lucky to attend and which has been so lucky to have you here.
 
Now, before we get too carried away with the feel-good stuff, let me say one more thing about this obligation business. We haven’t drifted away from a sense of obligation in our society for no reason. We’ve done it because the choices that recognize obligations are often the tougher ones, the ones that are harder to stick to, that don’t feel so good, that cost more of our hard-earned money or our precious time or our valued independence. We’ve done it because, whenever our friends or neighbors or colleagues or family members or political leaders make choices that favor freedom over obligation, it becomes harder for us to make a choice that weighs in the opposite direction. So it won’t be easy, as you go forth into college and the world of work, to keep up the kind of grappling with this issue that you’ve done here.
 
But folks, you’ve got to. Why? Well, for one reason because you’ve been nurtured by this great St. Mary’s and White Mountain School tradition, and – guess what? – now you’ve got an obligation to sustain it. And for an even more important reason – because the world is crying out desperately for new perspectives on, and new solutions for, the problems that beset us. And for that reason you have a duty to apply the perspectives you’ve learned here as you go forward into your chosen fields of study and work.
 
The texts of the Jewish tradition often speak to me in ways that make clear some of the major complexities of modern life. So, in closing, let me share with you some wisdom from the Talmud. For those of you who don’t know, the Talmud is an extremely long collection of the arguments that learned rabbis through the ages have had about all aspects of Jewish law – everything from when an oven became non-kosher to what punishments were appropriate for various crimes. One section is known as the Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – and it is there that I often find insights made ages ago that clarify today’s issues for me.
 
In one discussion, the rabbis were trying to figure out what role free will played in a world ruled by an all-knowing God. Here’s the conclusion they proposed: “All is foreseen, but choice is given.” In other words, even though God knows what will happen, God wants us to operate here on earth to make choices that move the world in ways we think are consistent with holiness. A great sage of our tradition from the time of the Romans, Rabbi Akiba, interpreted the phrase to mean: “All is beheld, but choice is given,” emphasizing that even God may not know how things will turn out, making what we humans do even more important. The point is this – we have a duty – and for the rabbis it’s a holy duty – to use our freedom in light of our obligation to make the world more and more holy. Put another way, our freedom to choose is made more precious by our freedom to make the right choice – that which will make the world more God-like, more holy.
 
And whether you want to substitute for the word “God” some other concept that is greater than your personal desires, or for the world “holy” something like “sustainable,” it doesn’t change the injunction. We all have an obligation to engage in what the Hebrew Scriptures call “tikkun olam,” the repair of the world.
 
But you’ve already done that. You’ve been schooled here in how to do it. It has become a part of how you see the world. You can do this. And I’m proud because I know you will keep on doing it.
 
And I also know you’ve got one last little trump card up your sleeve because you’ve learned all this here at The White Mountain School. So please indulge me one last observation and bit of advice, inspired by WMS’ school song taken from the beautiful opening words of the 121st Psalm. You know them: “I lift my eyes to the mountains…” When it gets hard to do what you know is right, think about the inspiration you’ve taken from these magnificent vistas. It’s no accident that this Psalm has inspired not only Christian liturgy but Jewish as well – “esa enai, el he-harim, me-ayin yavo ezri” – or that cultures throughout history have found divinity in the mountains, like the five sacred mountains of Chinese tradition.
 
So when the going gets tough, when doing what you know is the right thing seems like the hardest thing of all to do, think back on your days here and lift your mind’s eye to the mountains. I can almost guarantee doing so will make the hard choice just a little bit easier.
 
Graduates, let me say it one more time: I AM SO PROUD OF YOU. Thank you so, so much for allowing me to share this day with you and your families.
 

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