First Days at Yale

Your time of opportunity

The freshman address

Richard C. Levin ’74PhD is president of Yale University. This address was delivered August 30, 2008, in Woolsey Hall to the Yale College Class of 2012.

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

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Members of the Class of 2012, I am delighted to join Dean Salovey in welcoming you to Yale College. And I want to extend a warm welcome also to the parents, relatives, and friends who have accompanied you here. To parents especially, I want to say thank you for entrusting your children to us. We are so pleased to have them with us, and we will do our best to provide them with abundant opportunities to learn and thrive in the four years ahead.

And to you, as entering students, I make the same pledge. For you, these next four years will be a time of opportunity unlike any other. Here you are surrounded by astonishing resources: fascinating and accomplished fellow students from all over the world, a learned and caring faculty, intimate residential college communities within the larger whole, a magnificent library, two extraordinary art museums, superb athletic facilities, and student organizations covering every conceivable interest -- the performing arts, politics, and community service among them. You will have complete freedom to explore, learn about new subjects, meet new people, and pursue new passions. I join Dean Salovey in urging you to be adventurous and dare to be different.

I want to say a word about how Yale has widened access to the opportunity that Dean Salovey and I describe. Compared to the first freshman class I welcomed in this hall, 15 years ago, you are more internationally diverse and much better supported. Only 60 members of the Class of 1997, less than 5 percent, came from outside the United States. By contrast, 132 members of your class, or 10 percent, are international. Thanks largely to the major improvements introduced last year, 56 percent of you are receiving financial aid, in contrast to 46 percent 15 years ago, and even five years ago. Fifteen years ago, the average financial aid award covered 61 percent of tuition, room, and board; today it covers 75 percent. The student self-help contribution, including expected summer earnings, was 25 percent of the term bill; today it is 8 percent. Even if you are receiving no financial aid, you should know that income from the invested gifts of prior generations of Yale College graduates is covering more than half the cost of your education.

This is all good news. But if you are plugged into current events, you might possibly be wondering: could this really be a time of opportunity? In a lead article last month, the editors of the Economist, that most pro-American of foreign publications, proclaimed that "the United States, normally the world's most self-confident place, is glum." The editors went on to note that home prices are falling faster than during the Great Depression, credit is scarce, gasoline is more expensive than in the 1970s, and the dollar is at a post-Cold War low. Popular support for free trade and open markets, the lifeblood of growing world prosperity, is lower in the United States than anywhere in the world. Our universities remain strong, but our system of K-12 education is underperforming. We lead the world in biomedical innovation, yet a large fraction of our population is medically uninsured or underinsured. Support for U.S. foreign policy has eroded around the world. And many Americans view China's emergence as a global power, so dramatically punctuated by the Beijing Olympics, as a threat rather than an opportunity. According to a recent poll, eight out of ten Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Amidst this mid-summer gloom, as I thought about what to say on this occasion, I turned for comfort and inspiration to one of my favorite authors, the greatest of American voices, Walt Whitman. Like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, but with greater artistry and eloquence, Whitman grasped and characterized America's historical distinctiveness and anticipated its destiny. If you want to understand in full the power and potential of this nation, take some time, lots of time, with Whitman's poetic magnum opus, Leaves of Grass.

But let me confine myself here to Whitman's brilliant prose essay, "Democratic Vistas," written in 1870. Like the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, but more ordered and more rigorous, "Democratic Vistas" is, on the surface, an argument about the need for a distinctive American literature. In Whitman's view, America's historical uniqueness comes, first, from its unprecedented foundation on the rights of the individual, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its political institutions, and, second, from its unprecedented actual and potential material prosperity. But, for Whitman, the achievements of America, like the deeds of the heroes of ancient Greece, would be incomplete were they not memorialized in song. He asserts that, to realize its full potential as a nation and a culture, America needs a poet, and a literature, to teach its lessons, to capture the essence of its achievements and make them permanent, and to create models of democratic heroes that inspire. From our perspective, it is clear that Whitman himself is the very poet he yearns for.

For now, I am less interested in Whitman's argument about the role of literature, and more interested in what the American song is about and what bearing this has on your next four years, whether you come from Delhi or Detroit. Whitman begins "Democratic Vistas" by observing that the greatest lessons of nature are variety and freedom, and that these are also the greatest lessons of politics and progress in the New World. What does he mean?

Let me oversimplify. Whitman's democratic vision is that in America, like nowhere else in history, every man and woman has the opportunity to be a hero. Like Tocqueville, Whitman understood that the absence of a feudal legacy not only makes individuals equal before the law, but also allows for the possibility that the contribution of a person could be measured without reference to aristocratic standards and ideals. Hence, a "democratic vista" in which excellence in all walks of life can be celebrated, and creativity of the most radical kind can flourish. In his poetry, Whitman extols, among many others, the factory worker, the farmer, and the common soldier no less than Abraham Lincoln, their great leader. In "Democratic Vistas," he sketches the lives of four women -- a housekeeper, a mechanic, a housewife, and an elderly woman who played the role of community peacemaker -- each with her unique dignity and excellence, each a contributor to the well-being of others. None of these heroic women bears the slightest resemblance to the aristocratic ideal of feminine virtue. Variety (or, to use today's word for it, diversity) and freedom are the lessons of the New World.

From the native peoples and the waves of immigrants that gave America its astonishing diversity, and from the political institutions that gave individuals unprecedented freedom, came the basis of unprecedented material prosperity. Like Tocqueville before him, Whitman foresaw that, unshackled by constraints of class or authoritarian government, America's democratic creativity would inevitably result in new institutions and technologies that would secure that prosperity.

If America is now at the end of the era of sole global leadership that Whitman envisioned, it is in part because of its success, because some or all of the institutions it created -- free and open markets, easy access to capital, an educational system and culture that support innovation and creativity, and a democratic polity -- are being emulated elsewhere. As Fareed Zakaria [’86], a Yale College alumnus and a trustee of the university, argues so persuasively in his new book, The Post-American World, the rise of the rest of the world should be seen as a great accomplishment, not a threat. The world economy is a positive-sum game. Twenty percent of the world's population has been lifted out of poverty in the past 30 years, largely in China and India. This is obviously a good in itself, one that creates opportunity for the entire world.

Let me now connect the Economist's lament and Whitman's lessons to the opportunities before you these next four years. It is true that your generation will face major challenges, but it is also true that you will find the spirit of Whitman's America -- the twin engines of variety and freedom -- very much alive here at Yale. You will take strength from the rich diversity of your classmates, and you will find in all of them the latent capacity to take their place among Whitman's democratic heroes. Every one of you has the potential not only to make your own lives personally and professionally fulfilling but also to make a contribution to the well-being of others, on scales both large and small. The freedom you have here will give you the opportunity to discover your intellectual passions, establish your personal goals, and define the standards you will live by.

Dean Salovey has encouraged you to be adventurous in making use of Yale's resources, to take risks, and not fear failure. I would also encourage each of you to be a leader. Yale College is a virtual laboratory for leadership. We have 35 varsity sports, 35 club sports, and more than 100 intramural teams, as well as 250 student organizations embracing almost every imaginable sphere of activity -- student government, music, film, theater, politics, journalism, and community service. So join in, learn how to work well with others, and learn how to lead.

It is important to remember that leadership takes many forms. In high school, many of you worked hard to get elected as a student government president, or a literary magazine editor, or a team captain. But from now on, leadership is not measured by a title and a line on your resume. True leadership means drawing the best out of others and inspiring them toward a worthy goal. You do not have to be a team captain or a club president to be a leader. But you do have to participate, make a contribution, and be ready to lead when the opportunity arises. You may find an opportunity to lead by inspiring third graders in a school tutorial program, or simply by taking initiative within an organization to inspire and motivate others to accomplish more than anyone else imagined was possible.

I summon you to lead because you come to us with proven talent, keen intellect, and a demonstrated capacity for hard work. You have the ability to do more in life than just go along for the ride. If America is to revive from its current malaise and bring its extraordinary assets to bear on a post-American world, if the wider world is to awaken to the challenges that confront us all -- global warming, poverty, and disease -- rather than fall prey to the ideologies and interests that divide us, you must step up and be leaders.

During the next four years, Yale will provide you with an unimaginably rich array of resources that will allow you to develop yourselves as individuals and as leaders. If you choose to engage, by the time you leave here you will be prepared to contribute meaningfully to the improvement of the world around you. These four years are your time of opportunity; your parents, your teachers, and I look forward to watching you make the most of them.

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