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Donning the Mantle of Civic Leadership
May 5, 2015
by Marjorie Arons-Barron
President, Barron Associates Worldwide
Former Editorial Director, WCVB, Channel 5
Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa
Thanks, and congratulations to all of you who are receiving graduate degrees this week. And a hearty round of applause to the parents, spouses, significant others, professors and, indeed, children who have helped you toward this mighty accomplishment.
Even though I’m a writer, I find it difficult to express how touched I am to be receiving an honorary degree on Saturday from an institution I so greatly admire.
Now, we know from the local scene that Boston is a fertile breeding ground for stand-up comics. I hate to disappoint you: I am not that! Nor, unless someone photo-shops me, will you find any compromising pictures of me on the Internet.
However, because of my career as a journalist and writer, you probably could find some things I’ve said over the last 30 years that could be deemed provocative. And you know what? That’s a good thing.
It’s what freedom of expression is all about, and how rare that is in so much of the world. I hope that, as you go about your personal and professional lives, you will never take that for granted.
The enduring ethos of Regis, and the spirit of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, is to serve the dear neighbor, to be kind to people. I value that, as I value the diversity of thought - and - expression at the heart of academic freedom.
Every day we face a balancing test between freedom to speak and the risk of offending. But public discourse in a democracy should be robust. As difficult as it is sometimes, we also need to protect that right and not reflexively sacrifice it on the altar of political correctness. This struggle between freedom and responsibility played out globally this winter in the Charlie Hebdo murders, and continues to be debated today.
We will all be stronger if we kindly - but fully - exercise our First Amendment rights, and be avid participants in the marketplace of ideas. How do we know that the precepts we’re most comfortable with are valid if we don’t constantly test them against competing points of view? We do this by being active listeners, following current affairs with open minds and engaging in civic debate. We need to be able to deal with nuance and contradiction.
So why do I tell you this today? When you’re a student, that dynamic testing of ideas is served up to you daily. Your professors energize you with what if’s. Your classmates challenge you with why not’s.
But, as many of you are already learning, when you’re out in the work world, paying the bills, or you’re spending hours a day talking to a toddler, - and nothing quite prepares us for that - it’s a lot harder to stay plugged into the news, testing opinions, hearing all sides to a question. But I guarantee, it’s worth the effort.
Consider this. Each generation born since the 1920’s consumes less news than the preceding generation. The result? In one study, in the Journal of Psychology and Human Behavior, 59 percent of Americans could name the Three Stooges, but just 17 percent could name three of the nine Supreme Court Justices. We’re not talking Trivial Pursuits here. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts have more to do with our lives than Curly, Mo and Larry.
Listen to our water cooler conversations: did you hear about Rihanna? Zayn Malik is leaving One Direction. Did you see the pictures of Tom at Giselle’s last runway show? – well, he is good to look at. But when masses of young people spend their non-work time caring mostly about entertainment, and tune out news about the broader human experience, we’re breeding a generation of what the ancient Greeks called idiotes. This is not who you are, to be sure. But we need to be aware there’s a little touch in all of us.
Civic knowledge isn’t just getting the news from the papers or internet. It’s the conversation afterward, the dialogue with others, that educator John Dewey called the “grist of democracy.”
It has an impact on our roles as citizens. Young people never voted as often as older people, but there’s been a decline even among 18-24 year olds. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, half of them voted a generation ago. Today fewer than a third vote. But not to decide is to decide. Not voting is giving others the power to make decisions for you and your families. It’s certainly not the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s vision of engagement and social change.
Not only are we consuming less news, even when we do seek it out, we tend to turn only to sources we’re comfortable with. When we’re balkanized in this way, when we read only the Globe but never the Herald, when we listen only to Fox but never MSNBC or vice versa, or when we click only on to Huffington Post and never Drudge, we don’t allow ourselves to rub up against alternate ideas - and challenge our way of thinking.
Look around us. The problem isn’t just in Washington. Most of the country is falling way short of a rich and rational civic discourse. You’re the generation that can turn it around.
You’re the generation that must turn it around. And, frankly, you’re the generation that has the ease with new technologies that can help make it happen.
Of course, no writer, no communications specialist, can achieve very much unless there’s a good story to tell. And Regis has a most compelling story.
From my very first involvement here in 2001, I fell in love with this institution – with its mission, its people, its students. For 14 years we’ve worked to tell the world the good news about Regis, its transformation from a small liberal arts college to a growing university, the excellence of its educators and programs, its energy in tapping and developing the potential of its students at all levels and across disciplines, and, most especially, its commitment of service to the dear neighbor.
I was there for the birth of the two schools, under the dedicated leadership of former president, Dr. Mary Jane England. I’ve seen the graduate programs grow in number and diversity, and you today are a testament to that powerful change.
You have been blessed with an administration brilliant at identifying a need and creating a curriculum to respond to that need, whether that means working with the corporate sector, the health care sector, or other universities. Has your can-do president Toni Hays ever met a worthwhile creative idea she couldn’t spark into reality?
Her reach – and that of her team - is global. Think how Regis responded to the desperately poor level of health care in Haiti and worked with the Ministry of Health there to create a master’s program in nursing. Believe me, you’re talking about improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
The examples of Regis’ cutting edge creativity are boundless... each one an inspiration. And you’re a part of it.
As beneficiaries of this dynamic institution, you, too, have a wonderful story. You are a wonderful story, and, as you leave commencement on Saturday, you’ll go forth to write the next chapter in your story. But how will you write it?
We’ve heard since we were kids that actions speak louder than words. But I want you to love words as well as action. Love the language. You’re too good to limit your personal ideas and convictions to the 140 characters of a tweet.
Oh, Twitter has a role to play, especially in sharing breaking news. But thoughtful use of language offers so much more.
When my beloved husband, Jim Barron, and his two brothers were growing up, and something different appeared on their dinner plates, their mother would urge them, “try it. It’s interesting.” Interesting could mean she was trying to expand their palette. Or, it could mean she was experimenting, and it hadn’t turned out quite the way she expected. Interesting was the all-purpose adjective, and we still over-use it today. Let’s face it. Not everything is interesting. Not every new experience is awesome. Not every new product is cool. We can do better in how we express ourselves.
For a second opinion on the thoughtful use of language, you can’t do better than consult with Dr. M. J. Doherty in President Hays’ office.
Here’s a radical idea. How about sending a handwritten letter to someone in your lives, thanking them for helping you get to this day of accomplishment. You’ll feel good about it, and they may cherish that handwritten note forever.
I should add that you don’t have to abandon simplicity to reflect the full flowering of who you are.
Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times about King Lear’s poignant entreaty to his dying daughter, Cordelia, “Stay a little.”
Stay a little. He noted how that simple request harbored such profound anguish, as Bruni put it, “capturing a fallen king’s hunger for connection and his tenuous hold on sanity and contentment.” And Bruni reminded us - his language - “how much weight a few syllables can carry, how powerful the muscle of language can be.” So, when you’re pondering how to express yourself, stay a little.
Wherever your hard-earned graduate degrees take you, please remember my two points:
Inform yourself and express yourself in the public arena, and, in the process, learn to love language and appreciate how it can help make you a force to be reckoned with.
Exercise the privileged leadership capacity that your rich experience at Regis has helped to cultivate.
Know your own beauty - and power.
And don’t forget to go out and celebrate.