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.

And it took similar courage for the trustees of this college to conclude, while institutions like us were being absorbed by others or changing their essential natures, that we must and would stand firm, that the level playing field was still a utopian ideal and that a college for women still had, not just a place, but a preeminent place, in modern America.

But all of that would just be the stuff of history if we did not have at our disposal living examples of commonplace courage in the person of the women who are our graduates, whose sisterhood you join today.

Make no mistake about it: you are going to need to work hard not to let fear rule your lives. It takes courage to prevail in arenas that are unaccustomed to the full participation of women, to wield the scalpel, to wear the badge, to run for the Presidency. And it takes courage to be a supremely educated woman and to eschew those arenas, to embrace the teaching of fourth graders or the care of small children.

The world has changed in remarkable ways for women in your lifetime. But we still live with the pinched expectations of a culture of conformity. If you decide at some point in your life that your vocation is to raise your own children full time, you will surely be criticized by those who think you're wasting your intellect. And if you decide to combine full-time work outside your home with a family within it, you will be criticized for not juggling as well as a circus performer. We live in a country that trashes poor women who will not leave their children to go out to work, and trashes well-to-do women who will.

Only a principled refusal to be terrorized by these stingy standards will save you from a Frankenstein life made up of others' outside expectations grafted together into a poor semblance of existence. You can't afford to do that. It is what has poisoned our culture, our community, and our national character. No one does the right thing from fear. And so many of the wrong things are done in its long shadow. Homophobia, sexism, racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia: they are all bricks in a wall that divides us, bricks cast of the clay of fear, fear of that which is different or unknown.

Our political atmosphere today is so dispiriting because so many of our leaders are leaders in name only. They are terrorized by polls and focus groups, by the need to be all things to all people, which means that they are nothing at all.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus