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Yale law professor Stephen Carter speaks at commencement
STANFORD -- Noting that his selection as commencement speaker had generated some controversy among Stanford students, Yale Law School professor and author Stephen Carter said he was pleased to learn that the university hasn't changed in the 18 years since he was a Stanford undergraduate
Carter, Stanford Class of 1976, spoke Sunday, June 12, at Stanford's 103rd commencement. The ceremonies, held in Stanford Stadium, also contained elements that have come to be traditionally associated with commencement.
The graduating seniors, marching into the stadium first, exhibited their exuberance by racing for their seats. Once there, they partied with their classmates - taking photos, flinging frisbees and squirting water pistols - while the rest of the procession made its way slowly into the stadium.
The students were prepared for the hot June morning, many wearing shorts or bathing suits under their academic gowns. One enterprising group carried in a plastic wading pool that they filled by seizing two of the large drinking water tanks that were scattered around the stadium.
The students settled down to hear Carter. After earning his bachelor's degree in history, with honors and distinction, from Stanford, Carter graduated from Yale Law School, where he is now the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law. He is the author of three widely reviewed books: Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby; The Culture of Disbelief: How Our Legal and Political Cultures Trivialize Religious Devotion; and The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process.
Being back at Stanford evoked many fond memories, Carter told the graduates.
In his introduction, President Gerhard Casper said that Carter had for three years as an undergraduate written a column for the Stanford Daily "in which, according to his own account, he took mostly 'contrarian' positions."
Carter said that at dinner the previous evening, he had met Richard Lyman, who was president of the university when Carter was a student. "I was very distressed to learn that he [Lyman] remembered none of my columns attacking him," Carter said. "He asked me what did I attack him about and I realized I couldn't remember. But, nevertheless, I am confident that I was right."
Carter also commented on the recent faculty discussion of grading policies, which has put Stanford in the news.
"I always knew that your generation was wiser than mine, but until this controversy, I didn't realize how much wiser," he said. "In my day, we also overused the rule allowing us to drop courses right up to the final exam, but we used it to avoid getting C's and D's. The idea of using it to avoid getting a B is a marvelous one that I wish had occurred to me."
Turning to more serious matters, Carter noted that 1994 marks several anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II; the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which struck down school segregation as unconstitutional; and the 30th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
When future commencement speakers look back and ask, "What war for the good was being fought at home or abroad by the American people in 1994?" there will be no easy or obvious answer, Carter said.
"If you look at American society today, you see a society that is at once deeply fractured and terribly smug," Carter said.
"We are far better at giving names to each other - the Religious Right, the Lifestyle Left - than we are at sitting down and looking for areas of consensus prior to the hard work of thrashing out our differences."
His "rather modest proposal," Carter said, would be for a war in 1994 "to restore, or perhaps for the first time bring, integrity to American life." This war, he said, must be fought on two fronts, "a war in which we commit ourselves to live with integrity, and a war in which we struggle to create a society that allows others to live with integrity as well."
To possess true integrity requires three steps, Carter said. "First, you must know what it is that you believe. Second, you must be willing to act on the basis of what you believe. And third, perhaps hardest of all, you must be willing to say openly that you are acting on the basis of what you believe."
Too many people falter on the first step, Carter said. "We do not know, and often we do not want to know, what it is that we most value. Often it's much easier to follow the crowd, to look the other way."
Too often, he said, "we find it easiest to go along with the latest trends, rather than risk the opprobrium of others by registering an objection."
Still, he said, "it's often far easier to know what one believes than to do something about it. I know many people who believe that the homeless are entitled to charity, but never dispense it."
To live with integrity, one has to get involved, he said. "I do not mean that a citizen living with integrity must be an activist with respect to all of his or her beliefs, but I worry deeply about the number of us who are willing to drift through life being activists on behalf of none of their beliefs."
It is not enough to act consistently with what one believes, Carter said. "One must also say that that is what one is doing. What made the civil rights movement great was precisely the willingness not only to state a belief and live it, but to be very open and public about the fact that that was what one was doing."
Those who would live with integrity must also struggle to see to it that the nation makes it possible for others to live with integrity, Carter said.
Recalling his time as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Carter said that he had heard Marshall more than once tell a story of his days traveling throughout the South handling criminal and civil rights cases.
In a small town, a black man took Marshall aside and asked if he knew about reincarnation. The man had a request to make. He wanted to return as a pig, a cow or a goat - "anything but a Negro."
That story illustrates more than anything else what the civil rights movement was about, Carter said. "It was about eliminating, doing what we could to eliminate, this oppressive force in American society, a force for self-hatred.
"If you want to live a life fighting for the integrity of others," he said, "then your responsibility is to search out other institutions in American society, other cultural traditions and norms, that may make it impossible, or at least tragically difficult, for others to live with integrity."
Two groups that face such pressures, Carter said, are the religiously devout, "pressured to act as though their faith doesn't matter to them," and gays and lesbians, "who even now are so often forced to pretend to be other than what they are, which means living a life without integrity, because many do not want to lose jobs, housing, friends."
He cited those two groups, Carter said, "because usually they're thought of as having very different champions, but it strikes me that if your guiding principle is integrity, you can listen thoughtfully to the concerns of each. If you're going to live with integrity yourself, you must live with a kind of integrity that also respects the integrity of others. The rest of your values won't matter if you fail to do that."
In his concluding remarks, Casper talked briefly about the undergraduate seminar on constitutions that he taught this spring. Leading the seminar, he said, "reminded me that at the best universities teaching, learning and research are all equally important elements of the all-embracing search to know. The students' search to know and the faculty's search to know are interdependent."
Stanford, Casper said, "is an institution with a continuous history, handed down from one generation of faculty and one generation of students to the next. It is the faculty, students, trustees, staff, alumni, our local, national and foreign friends whose active engagement and support have made Stanford a collective intellectual and moral effort - in short, an institution whose age is not so much expressed by the number of years of its formal existence, but by its link to a tradition characterized by a continuous commitment to the power of reason.
"There have been blots, like the recent act of vandalism or the violence of the late '60s. However, what has mattered in the long run is Stanford's motto, which stands for the proposition that beliefs need to be examined, not shouted at."
Casper quoted Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan: "It is said that Rome was not built in one day, nor Stanford in a century; but it is being built, quietly, honestly, steadfastly, stone after stone."
Addressing the graduates, Casper said that he hoped that as Stanford alumni, they will help to build the university in that manner. "And, as you continue to build your lives 'stone after stone,' with integrity, on behalf of the university, I wish you the very best."
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