“Practice the Art of Listening”: 2012 Centre College Commencement Address
May 20, 2012 By Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates
Presidential Debates, receiving an honorary degree from
Centre President John A. Roush before delivering the 2012
Commencement Address on Sunday, May 20.
Thank you, Dr. Roush. This honorary degree is a tribute to the whole team at the Commission on Presidential Debates—it is on behalf of the team that I accept it with deep appreciation to the entire Centre community and a special note of affection to my first tie to Centre, your lifetime trustee Jim Evans.
Presidential debates define teamwork. So do colleges. Over our twenty-year friendship, Dr. Roush and I have experienced two debates’ worth of challenges, memories, Advil and Maalox. We also share the good fortune of working with superb teams every day. You seniors are the beneficiaries of the Centre team and others that preceded it. The diploma you will receive today names only you—it is the consequence of your diligence, commitment and perseverance, with a little last minute cramming and Red Bull. But you did not get here on your own. Innumerable people helped: your parents, grandparents, godparents, siblings, teachers, coaches, friends, orthopedic surgeons, orthodontists, babysitters, neighbors and whoever taught you how to ride a bike. Wherever they are, may they take a collective bow when you collect your sheepskin.
Even more, they deserve your heartfelt and expressed gratitude, which includes not only thanking them now but by doing for others what they have done for you, thus modeling their generosity and repaying their support, encouragement, patience and inspiration. For now, may I ask the graduating class to rise, face this audience of family, friends and faculty, and mindful of the many sleepless nights you have caused them for 21 years, give them a standing O.
It is presumptuous to address 280 people that you don’t know and wish you did, especially on a grand occasion. You are generous to accept three last-minute additions to the class, who are clearly too late to run the Flame. It’s even more daunting to speak to you with these two distinguished parents on the stage who have four years’ worth of insider information.
It’s a good time to remember the words of a dear friend who was a priest in Chicago. When he started officiating at weddings, Father Graham said that he would give the engaged couple his 24 rules for marriage. As time went on, he scaled back to 12 recommendations. After a couple of decades, he resorted to making one suggestion: try to be polite to each other.
Father Graham’s minimalism seems wise, and I would like to offer only a couple of suggestions. The first is this: practice the art of listening. While the reasons for being a good listener seem to be obvious, perhaps it’s appropriate to review them, for as a nation, we are arguably out of the habit.
First, it is difficult to learn without listening. In the few minutes that remain before you are declared officially higher educated, think of five moments when you became the owner of a useful bit of information. Perhaps it was what is seven plus four, or what was the first capital of Kentucky, or how to say “no-bake cookies” in Beijing, Bogota, Brussels, Hanoi or Sao Paolo. In all probability, you were listening, either to an author whose words you were reading or to someone who cared about helping you learn.
Second, we rarely learn from our own words. Modern inventions have given us better, faster, flashier tools to communicate anything at any time to anyone. We can phone, text, e-mail and photo-share each other at lightning speed. We can do all these tasks while doing four other tasks at the same time, including watching TV, listening to music, exercising on a treadmill and calculating calories burned—which we then can tweet about before posting on Facebook and grabbing a doughnut.
The good that has come from technology is phenomenal. It allows a cardiologist in Tupelo, Miss., to see images taken in Chengdu, China. It connects children in Newport News, Va., to parents serving in Afghanistan. But it also has encouraged a huge volume of expression that starts with “I.” If they could be weighed, the references to the first-person singular on social media sites would sink all of Division III. The writer indulges in personal opinion and encourages others to respond in kind. Perhaps on our own social media pages, incessant use of “I” and “me” is okay—maybe that’s the whole point. But the focus on self isn’t contained to social media. It has overflowed the basin and is sloshing all over other conversations. It squashes the opportunity to learn, to question, to feel free to say, “I don’t know.”
Third, you will never understand someone else’s thesis unless you listen to it. If you filter information through your own pre-conceived viewpoints, you cannot be open to comprehending how others reach different conclusions. Think of all the times when people dismiss the idea of discussing religion or politics with certain friends or family, shaking their heads at the futility and the guaranteed arguments that will ensue. There may be no question that they are smart, informed individuals. Yet they appear to have taken the same facts and premises that you have and come to an alternative conclusion that seems completely unreasonable. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to ask how they reached that conclusion rather than immediately dismissing it as wrong. Are there indeed factual disagreements? Are different weights being given to competing ways of reasoning? Are conflicts arising from different roles being played? Or, the most difficult of all, is disagreement due to fundamental differences over initial assumptions about what is good, or true or just? And when they answer, listen.
So you see where we are headed. This fall, there will be an election not only for president and vice president of the United States, but for every member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a third of the U.S. Senate. There will be elections for hundreds of mayors and for about a dozen governors. There will be debates and more debates, town meetings, and online discussions. And there will be you—perhaps voting for the second time, or maybe voting for the first.
How much do you know about the people running for office—any office? What motivates them—why do they think they’d be better suited to address complex problems than their competitors? What are their stated and unstated assumptions? What are their positions and how did they develop them?
It is often said that young people, especially before becoming taxpayers or homeowners, don’t believe that public policy really affects them. But of course that’s not true. The decisions taken by public officeholders will affect you in countless direct ways—the economy in which you will seek to find and hold a job, the health care you will be able to afford, the transportation system you will use, the number of police officers that will serve your community. The president of the United States is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, making the decisions that will send Americans into combat. Isn’t it worth your time to ask questions about all candidates—any candidate—before you cast your ballot this November?
When we held our first debate at Centre, you seniors were busy conquering fifth grade—when we hold our second one here, you’ll likely be mastering a job or further education. But you have been immersed in a college committed to the importance of the free exchange of ideas in a democracy, a college that has gone to great lengths to engage its students in that process. These actions reflect the same belief of the 27-year-old who became this college’s president in 1830—Dr. John C. Young described Centre as “a place of large advantages,” which indeed it is. Part of your Centre legacy is the positive and optimistic chance to exercise your citizenship. Citizenship is fulfilled by the same educational process you have pursued these last several years: learning, questioning, analyzing, reflecting, taking ownership of new information. Just try doing this without listening.
Which leads to a second suggestion: our culture increasingly pushes the idea of the “me-centric.” Try being a bit of a revolutionary and take another path. Take the idea of higher education and go to town with it—keep learning, searching, probing, hunting, listening. And remember that listening is not just waiting for your next turn to speak.
You have a pioneering opportunity, class of 2012: suspend the use of the first-person singular. Ask questions and listen carefully to the replies. This is a great—and civilized—way to engage in contrary behavior. When there’s a debate between candidates for mayor of your town, try actually listening to it without doing four other things. Recruit three friends to do the same. And when the debate is over, have a conversation that focuses on what the candidates think, not what you think. Repeat the exercise for a congressional race, or gubernatorial one. By the debate here at Centre on 10/11/12, you’ll be prepared to voice your own informed opinions.
The U.S. debates are watched by tens of millions of people in this country. They are also watched by millions more abroad, since they are carried live by major television networks all over the world. The primary reason is that our elections carry such consequence for the international community. But an interesting byproduct has developed as a result. People in other countries, particularly emerging democracies, see our debates as a model. They believe that the tradition of having political opponents discuss major issues in a fair and neutral forum is central to democracy. They think it is amazing that Americans believe they have the right to see and hear these exchanges, seemingly taking them for granted. For more than twenty years, we have been contacted by growing numbers of these groups asking for help in starting their own debates. They face big obstacles. Sometimes the media is not independent, but state-owned; often there are dozens of candidates in one race. In some instances, there is the risk of physical danger to those who advocate democratic debate, which challenges the status quo. But the biggest obstacle is that there is no expectation on the part of the public that they have the right to see candidates address major issues in a substantive, face-to-face discussion.
These groups are so anxious to listen, to learn, to help build governmental systems that will move their countries toward stable economies, sophisticated educational systems and international investment. You seniors have first-hand knowledge of the connectedness that has propelled our international work: Centre has encouraged and facilitated your studies abroad—an extraordinary 86 percent of you have had that privilege. Your time in such places as India and Ecuador, Cameroon and Nepal has been eye-opening and life-changing—and underscored the value of continued listening and learning.
It is time to move toward the highlight of the afternoon. In a few moments, as you come forward, you will illustrate one final thought: life may be recorded on the Internet, but it doesn’t happen there. Life happens in little and big offline moments. This is a big one, but the little ones will creep back in tomorrow when your parents ask you to walk the dog. Here’s a tip: find the leash, stow your smart phone and just listen to the walk. And the dog. And whatever sounds and sniffs the two of you discover.
May the spirit of this place and the joy of this day follow you on your next adventures.
For a PDF version of Brown's address, click here.
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Centre College, founded in 1819 and chosen to host its second Vice Presidential Debate in 2012, is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges, at 42nd in the nation, and ranks 27th for best value among national liberal arts colleges. Forbes magazine ranks Centre 34th among all the nation’s colleges and universities and has named Centre in the top five among all institutions of higher education in the South for three years in a row. Centre is also ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News for its study abroad program. For more, click here.