Anna Quindlen: 'Be Not Afraid'

None of what you've learned in college means anything without the courage to use it in the world.

Adapted from the commencement address delivered May 17, 2005 to Barnard College. Reprinted with permission from Barnard College.

Here are the bookends of my first full year as chair of the board at Barnard. In August I asked the entering [first-year students], channeling my 18-year-old self, "Aren't you terrified?"

But today the "first-years" of four years ago are leaving this campus, and from the vantage point of 30 years gone by since I sat where you sit, my message to you is exactly the opposite:

Be not afraid.

It is a simple directive and an old and honorable one, found in both the Old and New Testaments. That is because it is truly the secret of life. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point."

Fear not.

Oh, I have enough of a memory to know that at some level it's preposterous to say that at this moment. You are afraid: of leaving what you know, of seeking what you want, of taking the wrong path, of failing the right one. Your closest friends are going in one direction, you in another. From this small, serene, safe pond you go through that iron estuary to the ocean. And often the current is harsh and the riptides are rough.


But you leave here today with a bedrock you may not even recognize. Some of you know all there is to know about DNA, others the undistributed middle or the form of the sonnet, others the meaning of the shadows in Vermeer or the holes in Freud's theories.

With due deference to the finest faculty in the country, none of that means anything without courage.

This is a college in which the business management directive "Drive Out Fear" might be carved in cast iron over those gates. You must refuse to be cowed by the opinions of others. You must have the strength to say no to the wrong things and to embrace the right ones, even if you are the only one who seems to know the difference. And if my experience serves, in the not-so-distant future you will realize that courage is the central attribute that you took from this place, a place in which timidity is rarely tolerated and audacity is all around you, tempting you with its brio.

It took fearlessness to found this college by a Columbia president named Frederick A.P. Barnard who defied the tenor of his time to stand firm in his belief that young women were as capable of higher learning as their male counterparts.

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Anna Quindlen
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