McFaul’s Class Day lecture looks beyond 'the bubble' while calling for renewal
If Stanford is indeed a bubble, political science Professor Michael McFaul deftly pointed out its radiant lining while simultaneously bursting it with a needle—in the form of sobering statistics and descriptions that paint a dour portrait of America's international standing—during his Class Day lecture on Saturday in Maples Pavilion.
Sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association, the Class Day tradition gathers graduates and their families before a distinguished faculty member for a keynote address that is at once congratulatory and weighty. But McFaul, the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, began by describing his humble roots as a boy from Montana.
"When I came to Stanford as a 17-year-old freshman, I was raw and not ready for prime time," McFaul admitted. "I had never lived anywhere but Montana. I hadn't even set foot in California, let alone a foreign country."
In 1986, McFaul said he emerged from the Farm a dramatically different person—holding a bachelor's degree in international relations and Slavic languages and literatures, as well as a master's in Russian and East European studies. He had lived in the Soviet Union, Nigeria and Poland; and today, McFaul is regarded as one of the top scholars in terms of bringing together the theory and practice of democracy.
"I came here wanting to practice law and left here wanting to practice diplomacy," said McFaul, who in 2005 was appointed director of the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. "So, my time in the bubble changed me."
Then McFaul brought out the needle. He noted that, just as this year's graduates were first arriving on the Farm, President George W. Bush was outlining his "freedom agenda," a plan to transform the world. McFaul said the plan outlined Bush's strategy for promoting democracy around the world as a way of keeping Americans safe.
But so far, McFaul lamented, few of the plan's goals have been realized. "It hasn't been pretty out there," McFaul said. "While you have been living inside the bubble, a lot has been happening—much of it bad—outside of the bubble."
McFaul then reminded graduates of positive developments, such as the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. And, no one, he added, misses the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
"But overall, trends are disappointing," McFaul said. "In Afghanistan, democracy is barely holding on. In Iraq and Palestine, there's civil war."
Between 2003, when the departing undergraduates in the audience arrived as freshmen, and today, more than 3,000 American soldiers, roughly 60,000 Iraqis and more than 200,000 people in Darfur have died, McFaul said. He added that the number of al-Qaida's followers also has grown during the four years that the Class of 2007 was in "the bubble."
And yet, the graduates might have left Maples completely deflated were it not for the main message of McFaul's lecture, which was one of renewal. When he graduated from Stanford in 1986, McFaul gave a graduation speech at the ceremony for international relations majors in which he lamented the failing arms control treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States. He also expressed dismay that South Africa's apartheid regime had just declared emergency rule and that Washington seemed too confrontational or too indifferent to address either.
"However, after each of these periods, the United States had found a way to renew itself and become again a force for freedom and justice around the world," McFaul said. "So, my understanding of history gives me confidence in our capacity for renewal. But so does my sense of the future that comes from teaching here at Stanford University."
McFaul said he has taught enough of this year's graduates to know that they have the smarts, the drive and the convictions to turn things around—young men and women from throughout the United States but also from nations such as Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Nigeria.
"Someone sitting here right now will someday open the first U.S. Embassy in a democratic Iran," McFaul said. "Someone sitting here right now will inspire a third grader in the South Bronx to become the first kid in his neighborhood to win a Nobel Prize in physics."
But in the effort to renew the world, McFaul also told the graduates they should not forget to renew themselves. He urged them not to describe whatever occupation they take up simply as a job title, but as an action verb; to occasionally welcome idle time to refocus their energies; to embrace uncertainty; and to continue to learn and stay connected to Stanford.
McFaul's parting message echoed the welcome address by Howard Wolf, '80, vice president for alumni affairs and president of the Stanford Alumni Association. "Alumni are the only permanent stakeholders" of the university, Wolf said. "Get involved, stay connected."