Commencement Address by Óscar Arias Sánchez: "The Test of Our Civilization"

May 27, 2016


Speak out, no matter what they tell you. Speak out for peace. Speak out for respect. Speak out for unity in diversity.

President Habuki, members of the faculty, distinguished graduates, honored guests, my friends:

Many of you here today are probably familiar with the most famous little cake in all of literature: Marcel Proust’s madeleine. In “Remembrance of Things Past,” the flavor of the madeleine, when dipped into his tea, filled Proust with memories of his youth, transporting him as if by magic through the years. For me, that is what attending a commencement ceremony is like. I am sure that many of the parents and grandparents here today know what I mean. Graduates: to witness your pride as you claim your diplomas is to remember our own academic achievements, with which we hoped to make our mark on the world. To watch you arm in arm with the friends you have made along the way, is to remember the conversations we shared during our days as students–those conversations where anything is possible. And at the end of this ceremony, as we watch you taking your first steps out into the world as college graduates, we will remember the days when we began our own paths.

You graduates are full of memories as well. You might be thinking about the many hours of study this day represents. The long nights at the library. Your desks crammed with books, papers, and cups of coffee. You might be thinking about all the tests you have taken to get to this point. Can you remember the first test you ever took? Was it a challenge set to you by a parent or grandparent? Was it a first-grade spelling test that earned you a sticker? Was it a timed run around the schoolyard that earned you a place on the track team? You have taken hundreds of tests over the years: some easy, some stressful, all of them necessary stepping stones to the leadership and influence to which you aspire.

You stand today at the end of a long line of tests–but without any doubt, your greatest challenge lies before you now. It is the test that Mahatma Gandhi famously described when he wrote: “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”

The beauty and the test of our civilization.

Nearly 70 years after Gandhi’s death, how have we advanced toward achieving the goal he laid out? How have we advanced in terms of coming together? How have we advanced in terms of respecting diversity? What is the state of our union as a human race?

I do not have to tell you that the state of our union is troubled indeed. You can already see that. Today, you join an exclusive club: the seven percent of people worldwide who hold a university degree. That makes you some of the most privileged and powerful people on Earth. You are like explorers who have reached a peak few people ever see–but reaching those heights is a double-edged sword. From up here, you can see a great deal of poverty. From up here, you can see a great deal of inequality. From up here, you can see a great deal of hunger. From up here, you can see a great deal of injustice.

For we live in a world where unity in diversity has not been a global priority. We do not honor the spirit of unity when we deny 663 million people in our world their access to clean water. We do not honor the spirit of unity when we allow 800 million people to live in substandard housing. We do not honor the spirit of unity when we leave 17,000 children to die each day from hunger-related causes. We do not honor the spirit of unity when 1% of the world population has the same wealth as the remaining 99%. We do not honor the spirit of unity when 2.8 billion people live on an income of less than two dollars per day.

I must mention, during this opportunity to visit the United States of America, that this extraordinary democracy does not honor the spirit of unity when xenophobia and prejudice reach the mainstream of political discourse–when hate speech approaches the very heart of presidential politics. I believe it is fair to say that of any country on the face of the Earth, the United States may be the country with the greatest potential to realize Gandhi’s vision of unity in diversity, simply because of the incredible mix of languages, ethnicities, religions, cultures, nationalities, and viewpoints it possesses. That diversity, from the very beginning, is what has defined this nation and earned it so many friends around the world. As one of those friends, I am deeply troubled by recent events on these shores. I look to you today, and to the great minds and hearts all over this country, to find ways to change the conversation and steady the ship.

For I believe the United States has everything it needs to improve this state of affairs, just as the global community has everything it needs to put an end to the human suffering that continues all over the world. The most pressing problems of our age require not more money, or more time, or more insight, but simply leaders who are willing to consider a new way of doing things. Today, more than ever before, we have the resources and the knowledge to feed the hungry, end preventable disease, and educate our children. We are simply making bad choices about how to spend time, money, and power. We are investing too much of our money in our militaries instead of in our schools. We are investing too much of our scientific genius in nuclear weapons instead of in vaccines. We are investing too many of our words in hateful bombast and racism instead of in reason and understanding. We look to you to help create a change.

We look to you to help civilization pass, at long last, its greatest test. We look to you to help us create unity in diversity.

How on Earth can we accomplish this? Well, how have you prepared for any test you have ever taken? First, you have studied–and while you are graduating today, your studies are just beginning, because the challenges we face as a human race require leaders who inform themselves every single day. You will struggle, not to find information, but to choose. Your excellence will be determined, in part, by your power of selection as you drink from the fire hose of the internet. You will need to work, each day, to find reliable information about the true roots of poverty, illness, and ignorance. I urge you to question, to dig deeper, in a world that is increasingly focused on the superficial.

The second thing you have done throughout your life to pass tests is to join forces with others–from the third grade, when your mother might have helped you with your spelling words, to your recent university years when you leaned on your classmates for inspiration and support. This will be more important now than ever. None of us can work alone. Look to your left, look to your right, look for people who share your commitment to a better world, and do not let them go.

The third thing you have done before most any test is to worry. You will continue to do that, too. In fact, your worries will increase exponentially as you have more and more at stake: the futures of the communities you will settle in and come to love. The futures of the home countries to which many of you will now return. The futures of your children and grandchildren. You will worry and fear–and that is okay. Know that I will be worrying with you. Know that everyone who cares about our planet shares your fears and concerns. Believe that together, we will make it through.

The last thing you have done when faced with tests throughout your academic career is to take the test–usually, before you were ready. One virtue of academic life is that you are forced, on a regular basis, to share your knowledge, even when you would much rather stay home in bed. You are forced to speak out, whether that is on an exam paper, or in front of a professor or committee. The world will not always give you such opportunities. The world will not check in with you with such regularity. The world will not often ask to hear your voice. Sometimes, it will seem that the world has forgotten you. So I am telling you today: take those moments for yourself. Never let anyone make you believe that youth is a liability. When I first completed my university studies, I was often told that I was too young to think about becoming a national legislator, or a cabinet minister, or a president. I quickly learned that one of the keys to success is understanding that youth is an advantage, not a liability. It provides a fresh perspective. It grants the power to see things differently.

My friends:

I began my remarks today by reflecting on the past, as did Proust. One day you, too, will find yourselves looking back on this moment through the mist of many years. And if I have one hope for you, and for the world, it is this: that when you remember your commencement, your beginning, you will be able to do so with satisfaction and pride. You will be able to reflect upon the choices your generation made for a better future. You will be able to look back on the poverty, injustice, cruelty, and divisions we accept today, and say: Ah, yes–I remember them well. But because of me, they are no more.

Class of 2016: You have inherited a planet full of problems, but you also carry within you the potential to find the solutions that escaped your parents and grandparents. You can teach us a new way forward. Teach us to see beyond the borders that divide one nation from another. Teach us to use our power to alleviate human suffering. Teach us that the ability to set a different course for humanity is no longer in the hands of a few. Teach us that the tools for change can be as simple as the smartphone in our pockets. Teach us to use these tools to make a difference. Teach us to, as we would say in Spanish, place our own granito de arena, our own “grain of sand,” to help build a better world. Speak out, no matter what they tell you. Speak out for peace. Speak out for respect. Speak out for unity in diversity. Never forget the words of your founder, a man I am so proud to call my friend, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda: “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a society and further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.” Congratulations, and Godspeed.