Distributed May 27, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Mark Nickel

May 27, 2001

Madeleine Albright delivers the Baccalaureate Address at Brown

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed the Brown University Class of 2001 during the Baccalaureate Service in the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America. The following is a transcript of her address as delivered Sunday afternoon, May 27, 2001. [See also news release 00-133.]

Thank you very much, President Blumstein, for that introduction, much too long and much too kind. Thank you, Reverend Miller,1 for welcoming us into your home, and thanks, also, to Reverend Cooper Nelson and to all who worked to put together this magnificent program, which is indeed designed to “melt the clouds of sin and sadness” and “fill us with the light of day.” Above all, I want to congratulate the class of 2001, for you have reached a true milestone. Years from now you will look back and realize that today is the day you began to forget everything you learned at college. Truly, though, graduating from Brown is an immense achievement, and I’m sure that you are rightfully very, very proud.

I have given quite a few commencement speeches before, but not really a baccalaureate address, and the difference is in a commencement they make you sit down after only a few minutes so that everybody can get their diplomas. This has always been very hard for me, because as a professor you all know my soundbites are 50 minutes long. But don’t worry, I’m not going to go on at length, and I’ve only spoken from a pulpit rarely, but it does present the risk of delusions of grandeur and allowing yourself to get carried away a bit.

For example, I’ve recently begun writing my memoirs, and standing here, I have this glorious vision that it’s judgment day, and on one side there is boundless joy, and the other, terrible gnashing of teeth. And the only question that applicants for paradise are being asked is whether they have bought my book. Now, that is truly a pretty self-centered vision. Fortunately, there are lots of different ways to be cut down to size. On the way up here I read an article saying that if you spend too much time on airplanes, your brain begins to shrink. Apparently, that’s what scientists believe now, and during the past four years, I flew more than one million miles, and so this doesn’t bode well for the quality of my speech. But I’ll do the best I can, even if my brain is now the size of a walnut.

There’s an old saying that the medium is the message, and this afternoon, I can’t help but feel that this historic meeting house is, indeed, the message.

The founder of this church was the first true champion of the religious tolerance in colonial America. Roger Williams believed there are limits to what civil authority should impose upon the individual. He set himself apart by dealing fairly with Native Americans and by learning their languages. He made Rhode Island a haven for the persecuted, and he did all this at a time when kings were thought to rule by divine right, heretics were burned, and wars of religion were as common as powdered wigs. There’s a lesson that this involves knowledge, but it’s a kind of knowledge that extends beyond mere facts to knowledge of self. I know, from my own experience, that this kind of knowledge can be hard to obtain.

When I arrived in college, a few years after Roger Williams’ time, I had one basic goal, and that was to be accepted. As an immigrant with an accent, I didn’t want to stand out. I really wanted to fit in. Fortunately, at Wellesley in the 1950s, conformity was encouraged. We were all expected to become young ladies. Gracious living, it was called. And we each had to pose for what they called a posture picture. This was designed to show whether the student had – and I quote – ‘an understanding of good body alignment and the ability to stand well.’ The thing is, that you weren’t allowed to wear any clothing above the waist, and they actually graded the pictures, and if you flunked, they made you do exercises. And we always wondered what had happened to the pictures... Until a few years ago, when they were discovered at a vault at Yale.

While attending Wellesley, I learned all the usual stuff about Renaissance composers, Shakespearean plays, and dissected frogs, but I also learned much more about myself; that I wanted to find a way to give something back to this country that had given so much to me; that I wanted to use the fine education I’d received for something more than meaningful table conversations; that I wanted to test, not simply accept, the limits and boundaries of the life that I was preparing to lead, and I suspect the same is true for you and your experiences here at Brown.

You have learned much about what is outside you and much about what is inside you as well. This is important because from this day forward, you will have to rely not on grades or comments from professors to tell you how you’re doing and where you stand.

You will have to rely instead on an inner compass and whether that compass is true, will determine whether you become a drifter who is blown about by every breeze or a doer, like Roger Williams, determined to chart your own course and unafraid, when necessary, to set sail against the strongest wind.

I look around this incredible church, and I must tell you that all I see are doers, which is good, for in years to come, there will be much for you to do, both here, at home and overseas. At home, America’s great challenge will be to retain a sense of community and common purpose. As this ceremony reflects, we are, indeed, a diverse people – where people say whatever they want.

And I applaud that.

When I was little, my father was the ambassador from Prague to Belgrade, and my job was to stand around in a Czech national costume and hand out flowers. That’s what I did for a living. And I am probably the only person, aside from Alice,2 who actually understands what she reads in Czech. So I grew up highly conscious of ethnic distinctions and I learned the history of a Czechoslovakia nation that maintained its cohesion, culture, and language, despite three centuries of foreign domination. We’re all proud of the distinctions that give us our separate identities, and it’s only natural to be loyal to the groups to which we belong. This kind of solidarity is a means of honoring ancestors and a way to inspire the young. It makes us feel less alone and helps us to find for ourselves a unique place in the crowd. But there’s also a danger; because when pride in “us” descends into hatred of “them,” the American tapestry unravels and the social fabric is torn.

The result may be a terrorist bomb in Oklahoma city, a church burned in the South, an African-American dragged behind a truck in Texas, or a young man murdered in Wyoming for the crime of being gay.

Yes, we are proud of the groups to which we belong but it’s what comes after the hyphen of Czech-American, African-American, Asian-American, or any other variety of American, that counts most. No matter our race or creed, we are all equal shareholders in the American dream. Living up to that principle and valuing fairly the contributions of each other is the great test our nation must pass in the 21st century. Around the world, we will face other tests, the outcome of which is equally uncertain.

For example, one of the central lessons of the last century is that the protection and promotion of human rights is everybody’s business, and yet there is a great debate in the world today between those who believe in international standards and those who do not.

This debate is not as simple as it seems, for there are many Americans who don’t accept the right of outsiders, even to question our own practices on issues such as the death penalty, arms control, and the environment. This provincial attitude may have contributed to the loss last month of America’s seat on the U.N. commission on human rights.

If so, it is unacceptable.

America is the globe’s leading nation, but for all our power, we can rarely succeed simply by going it alone. And if we want the world to take our views into account, we must at least listen to the concerns of others. We must listen to allies who ask us to join in banning nuclear explosive tests and who want us to preserve space as a laboratory for science, not an arena for a new kind of war. We must listen to scientists who say global warming is real and a threat to our future, and who believe that conservation is the key to a sound energy policy, not a four-letter word. We must listen to those whose voices are sometimes the hardest to hear: to the millions afflicted with HIV-AIDS; and those caught up in the conflict in Chechnya and Sudan; for those praying to an end to violence in the Middle East; and the women and minorities of Afghanistan.

Four years ago I met with Afghan refuges in a camp just across the border in Pakistan. These are women and girls who have been denied everything, except the right to remain silent, uneducated, invisible, and unemployed.

More recently, I’ve been shocked by the Taliban’s decision to destroy ancient Buddhist statues and force Hindus to wear special markings on their clothes – a despicable practice we haven’t witnessed since Nazi Germany.

We must tell Afghan leaders it is not enough to restrict the production of drugs. If they want international recognition, they must treat women like people, not property, and they must accord other cultures the same dignity and respect they demand for their own.

Whoever doesn’t believe in global warming, come join me up here.3

Finally, we must listen to those who argue that globalization should not lead to marginalization of the world’s poor.

I suspect you’re like me, when we buy a blouse or a shirt, we want to know that it was not produced by workers who were underaged, underpaid, under coercion or denied their basic right to organize. We must not and will not accept a global economy that rewards the lowest bidder without regard to standards. We want a future where growth is shared and sustainable and where corporate profits come from inspiration and perspiration, not exploitation.

I have traveled almost everywhere, and I have found that there are essentially three categories of countries in the world today. In the first, people work all day and still don’t have enough to eat. In the second, families are able to scrape together just enough food to meet their basic needs. And in the third category of countries, diet books are best sellers. Confronted with this hard truth, some people simply shrug their shoulders and say it’s too bad, but there isn’t anything we can do about it. I say such unfairness is intolerable, and we each have a responsibility to change it.

There was a time when we could say that we didn’t know enough, or didn’t have the resources, or were too imperiled by other urgent threats. But today, there can be no doubt that if only we would so choose, we could produce enough food, build enough shelter, deliver enough medicine, and share enough knowledge to allow people everywhere to live better and more productive lives.

Years from now, you may remember that you were here at this ceremony and your graduation was held on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a very special time in which we honor those who sacrificed for this country.

I don’t intend today to put the weight of the world upon your shoulders – your parents will do that. But I do hope that each of you uses the knowledge gained here at Brown to be more than a consumer of liberty, but also a defender and an enricher of it, employing your talents to heal, help, and teach. I hope you will heed the instruction contained in the Epistle of Saint James to be “doers of the word and not hearers only,” whether the word is embodied in the Old Testament or new, the Koran or another sacred text.

Your choices will make us all different, and you will feel the difference yourselves because the future depends not on the stars or some mysterious forces of history, but, rather, on the decisions that you and I and everyone must make.

It is said that all work that is worth doing is done in faith.

Today, at this ceremony of cherished memory and shared resolve, I hope we will each embrace the faith that every challenge surmounted by our energy; every problem solved by our wisdom; every soul awakened by our passion; and every barrier to justice brought down by our determination will ennoble our own lives, inspire others, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

To this class of 2001, I say again, congratulations. The century is yours, and thank you, once again, for letting me participate.


[See news release 00-133.]

  1 The Rev. James C. Miller is minister of the First Baptist Church in America. Brown Commencements have been held in the First Baptist Meeting House since the building was completed in 1775.

  2 A reference to Alice Lovejoy, a graduating senior, who read Jaroslav Seifert’s poem Kvetoucí Praha (“Blossoming Prague”) in Czech earlier in the Baccalaureate Service.

3 The church, filled to capacity with the graduating class, had become uncomfortably hot.