Messages from the Dean

2009 Valedictory Celebration Speech

As dean and representative of the faculty and staff of the Steinhardt School, I am proud to offer formal and official congratulations to you, graduates and class of 2009.  Bravo!

I also congratulate and honor you, the parents, spouses, partners, family members and friends.  Your belief in these graduates, your steadfast ability to imagine this day and their successes, sustained the students we celebrate today.  We salute you. 

And you, dear graduates, as you leave the Steinhardt School, you carry with you our hope for the future.  It is a future you must imagine, a future you must create with your own two hands, your intellect, and all your good will.

Graduates, you have been educated at the Steinhardt School, and it is an education that will enable you to bring your imagination to bear on the critical challenges that face us at the intersection of human learning, culture, development and well being. 

You only have to log into the New York Times online to know that we live in challenging times.  Times that call for us to put our intellect, creativity, to use to create a new ‘world,’ a green world, an economically sound world, a world where there are healthcare resources and educational opportunities for all.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a lecture by Jonathan Miller -  -  British neurologist, theater and opera director, author, television presenter, humorist, sculptor and public intellectual.

Miller talked about what it means to be human, what separates us from animals, and he told the audience that there is a termite hill in the Amazon

One Thousand years ago, Miller said, the termite hill was 8 feet high.  Today in the exact same location there is a termite hill that is exactly 8 feet high.  Animals—termites at any rate-- don’t do things differently.  They repeat, repeat, repeat, patterns of behavior over centuries.

They don’t imagine; they don’t create.

We humans do that. 

Look at styles in clothing:  we change every five years.  Ten years ago, who would have thought anyone would watch a movie on a cell phone?  There was no high five in basketball 20 years ago; today it’s the knuckle bump -- or maybe, starting today, the wave. 

Miller’s point was that we, humans, are creatures of culture, and we create new culture all the time.

New York Magazine and all the magazines like People and US Weekly are popular because they give us a window into the amazingly varied and always changing culture we live in.

And we announce our creations all the time, too, on Facebook and Twitter….We are even reading and writing novels on email.

We are living in the time of the EVERY THING -- anything and everything is instantly available on the Web.

But what is it that is significant?  What of our vast and varied  culture is meaningful and lasting?  What of all that is available on the Web is significant?   What matters in all that we create? 

In these challenging times, as you leave NYU to make your mark on the world, I think that is a question worth thinking about. 

In this world where the NYU minute is a nanosecond, where the average teenage boy spends 8 hours-a-day in technology, and researchers get to that number by adding up all the time in multi-tasking—

So a kid has an avatar he is running on one screen; a game he is playing on another, and he instant messaging on his PDA….

We all have too much to do, and we have learned to multi-task too well…and I imagine that there are many people here today who came to graduate school after working full time, who rushed home to care for children…who ‘stole’ time from their lives to study, complete an internship, and to write.  Students who came to school and sat in classes, and checked emails on Blackberries and iPhones, and took phone calls while waiting in line for coffee.  

When so much is happening so fast  what can slow us down to make us consider what it is that is important?

I want to suggest to you today that it is not your professions for which you studied and worked so hard; not the skills or techniques you have perfected, not the vast knowledge of psychology, media, or nutrition you have amassed --but art. 

Dear graduates, this is my last lesson for you as you leave us. Spend time with the arts. 

Art is the way to help us consider what is important because the role of the artist is to make the insignificant considerable:  to bring our lives into focus.

Great art draws our attention to what we might feel is small and unimportant, and helps us remember what we have forgotten. 

Most people overlook the underestimated and the negligible.  Artists call attention back to the negligible so that we may reclaim aspects of our lives that we have forgotten.

In the poet, William Blake’s great words,  artists help us

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

And art provokes questions we may have failed to ask: 

You may be too young to remember when Francis Hines wrapped the Washington Square Arch monument in 8,000 yards of polyester netting.  The fabric sculpture remained in place for one spring week, 39 years ago, and its mere presence forced the community to look at the arch as an object of beauty (as well as one in need of restoration).

But you may have been here in February 2005 when the artists Christo and Jean-Claude installed 7,503 vinyl "gates" along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park.   You may have even taken time out of your hectic life to walk under the deep saffron-colored nylon fabric panels that hung over these gates.

“Look at your own building, you are the city,” wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser, and indeed art asks us to look at ourselves, to take stock of ourselves, to ask: 

What beauty do we bring to the city we live in? 

What gates have we created that invite others in?

What have we done to enhance and enlarge our community?

We do not know what will be noticed about our lives, but I urge you to imagine what that might be.   Look at more each day than your friends’ Facebook page.  Savor the small things in life, for those things will activate your imagination in different ways, and with your imagination, you have the power to imagine a better world for us all.

If we can imagine it, we can wish it, desire it, and when we want it, we can work to achieve it.

So I ask you as you leave us to take your strong and vivid imaginations into a world that needs you.

Imagine a way, out of urban poverty, out of a cycle of violence, out of a history of school failure, out of the horrors of torture in our US military camps.

Imagine a global media that unites rather than divides nationalities and political parties.

I ask you to imagine the artwork and the music that will inspire hope and social justice. 

You have seen the torch of this great university on publications and banners, but you carry an even more important torch within you now.

As you leave the Steinhardt School, make your passion a torch that ignites imagination wherever you take your talents and your education.

Congratulations, and thank you for all you have given your alma mater and all you will give our needy world.