President Mark D. Gearan
Commencement Valedictory Remarks
May 18, 2014
You have heard Aaron’s good advice of the paper of external assessments in life, the coping skills of scissors and the self-knowledge of rock.
We have benefited from Kilby’s address quoting her late father’s sage counsel: never to let life pass you by and those who work most intelligently make the greatest accomplishment.
And indeed – Kilby, I am certain your Dad would be very proud of you today.
And we have heard from Hobart alumnus Brad Falchuck who spoke about failure and the power of overcoming it – end the directions in which it can lead you.
But before we close – allow me a brief word. And the word is empathy.
Empathy – a noun defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others”; “feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.”
Commonly – to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
And so today – I reflect on empathy - not sympathy. For empathy goes beyond sympathy. And, I believe, it is something our world needs so much more of today.
While the English word is just over 100 years old, its roots are ancient and scientists continue to study its organic dimensions in our brains.
There are now many significant studies of empathy exploring the cognitive neuroscience and implications for our moral and cultural lives.
Researchers differentiate between “affective empathy” – the feelings we get when we hear or see others’ emotions, and “cognitive empathy” or perspective taking where we identify and understand the emotions of others.
The good news seems to be that empathy may be biological. Indeed, its something we are born with.
The Washington Post reported on the University of Chicago studies on rats – of all things – that may prove this point. It may also give new ‘spin’ to what it means to be a rat.
The Post reported: “In a simple experiment researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.
The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive – which is a lot to expect of a rat. The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy – and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.”
The lead scientist was quoted as saying: “There is nothing in it for them except for whatever feeling they get from helping another individual. There is a common misconception that sharing and helping is a cultural occurrence. But this is not a cultural event. It is part of our biological inheritance.”
So much for being a dirty little rat. Who knew?
But back to humans.
The Infant Cognition Center at Yale studies babies looking at the earliest notions of morality and empathy. From a Scientific American article: “Morality is not just something that people learn. It is something we are all born with. At birth babies are endowed with compassion, with empathy with the beginnings of fairness.”
In Dorothy Wickenden’s New Yorker, Paul Bloom notes “two recent books “The Empathic Civilization” by Jeremy Rifin and “Humanity on a Tightrope” by Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein make the powerful argument that empathy has been the main driver of human progress and that we need more of it if our species is to survive.”
Bloom also cautions the paradox of empathy that may lead us to engage only the “identifiable victim’ at the expense of the importance of empathizing with distant strangers – whose ‘lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.’
So if empathy has early, biological roots in our brains and bodies – we must leverage it. Or as the writer Katherine Boo said: “Empathy is a muscle and training to see things as they are is one way to exercise it.” Or from Maya Angelou: “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
Our Honorary Degree recipients give testimony to the power and importance of empathy. In their lives by word and dead and talent – they have taken the perspective of others and as creators, leaders and patrons of the arts --- sought to bring the light, joy and transformative power of the arts to others.
We graduate you today – armed with a world class liberal arts education. We have seen your empathy over your four years on this campus, here in Geneva and around the world.
Our hope and expectation today – is that you never – ever - lose sight of your responsibility. For today you have what only 1 percent of the world enjoys: a college degree.
Use it well. Use it wisely. Use it with empathy – for other people and other perspectives. For as Theodore Roosevelt said “No one cares how much you know – until they know how much you care.”
So show this world how much you care about each other.
Show them how much you care about the poor, those without voice and power.
Show them how much you care about equity and fairness and justice.
Show them how much you care about the importance of global citizenship.
Show them how much you care about the environment and the importance of our collective stewardship.
And show them how much you care about the power of service and the ability of every person to make a difference.
In so doing – we will all be better off. And you will bring honor and pride to your alma mater.
Classes of 2014 – jump into this next chapter of your lives with the energy and conviction that you will exercise your muscle of empathy every day.
Good luck and Godspeed.