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New School University
Commencement Address

Stephen Breyer
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States

Madison Square Garden
May 20, 2005
New York, New York

Thank you, President Kerrey. I am pleased to be here at the New School. The University's distinction is legendary. Since the early part of the Twentieth Century the School's name has been synonymous with excellence in humanities, public policy, and the liberal arts. In the 1930s, its University in Exile provided refuge for those fleeing from oppression abroad. My own Supreme Court predecessor, Felix Frankfurter, lectured here. After today, when I look at his chair in my office, I shall think that I too have had the opportunity to speak before New School faculty and students, as he did many years ago; and I shall recall how proud I am to receive a New School honorary degree.

The point of a commencement speech is to congratulate you, your parents, and all those who have supported you. And I do so. They, we, all of us, are proud of your accomplishment. A graduation speaker also should tell a joke, give advice, make a prediction, express a hope - but be brief in doing so. I learned of an exam paper (perhaps mythical) that explained the last point. "Professor Breyer," it says, "if I had only fifty minutes to live, I should like to spend them in your class." Flattering until you look at the other side: "That," it says, "is because only you can make fifty minutes seem an eternity."

Let me now turn to the advice, the prediction, and the hope. The best advice I received when I was your age was from a former law school dean, Bayless Manning. And I shall repeat it. Bayless understood that I, like you, was anxiously wondering: What comes next? He pointed out that, when we make an important personal decision, we rarely know more than ten percent of all we would like to know. We know that our decision will open certain doors, but we often cannot know which ones it will close. We agonize over the decision, but sometimes agonizing does not help. Sometimes we must simply choose. Once we reach a decision, our lives then shape themselves around the choices that we make. Those choices then write a story - and that is a metaphor I have found useful. Every person's life is a story of passion, with its moments of joy and happiness, of tragedy and sorrow. And each person's story is different, each from the other.

The external circumstances, the material circumstances, of that story are often beyond our control. But such circumstances often matter less than we think. We all know many people who complain, even when their glass is overflowing. My wife, who works with children at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, could tell you of many families who bring joy to themselves and others through their ability to see half full a glass that many might find nearly empty.

The most important parts of the story are personal. Your own story will include family, friends, and career. And it will include your own justifications for the choices you make. What we do and how we explain our choices tell us who we are. We cannot escape the negative meaning that a failure of integrity - a failure to live up to our own standards of right and wrong - will give to the stories we ourselves shape. I agree with the philosopher who said that money can vanish overnight, power can disappear, reputation can evaporate, but character - personal integrity - is a rock that stays secure.

Next, the prediction. But wait, Casey Stengal said, "I never make predictions - at least not about the future." And I can see why. Consider the following. 1895: The President of the British Royal Society predicts, "Heavier than air flying machines are impossible." 1899: The chief of the US Patent Office announces: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." 1927: The head of Warner Brothers asks, "Who . . . wants to hear actors talk?" 1943: Tom Watson, the President of IBM announces: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." 1949: Popular Mechanics points out: "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." Neither I nor you can be certain of how your lives will unfold; we cannot predict.

Still, can we not predict with some certainty one thing about the world in which your grandchildren will live? Can we not predict that 100 years from now we will have recently inaugurated a President of the United States, following a free election the preceding November? Daniel Bell made that prediction. So do I. It sounds unremarkable. Yet that very fact - that such a prediction is so unremarkable - tells us something about the country in which we live. And that leads to my hope.

My hope is that, as you compose your life's story - whatever profession you choose - you will commit at least part of your energies to the public affairs of your communities and your Nation. Every day in my work, I am reminded of the importance of civic participation. Without the general public support that interested and informed citizens provide, we would not live in a country that operates according to the rule of law. To take an obvious example, nine judges - not even nine thousand judges - by themselves, could have brought an end to racial segregation in the South. Indeed, fifty years before Brown v. Board of Education held that segregated schools violated the Constitution, Justice Holmes, when faced with a case in which a southern state deprived its black citizens of the right to vote, wrote that the Court could do nothing about it, because its mandate would almost certainly be ignored. Yet within a few years of Brown, President Eisenhower sent troops to Arkansas, to make certain that black children could exercise their right to attend a desegregated school.

This presidential decision reflects the support for a rule of law that our Nation's citizens built, gradually, over a century after the Civil War. That is to say, our Nation's commitment to basic principles of democracy, liberty, and fairness has depended upon a tradition of commitment to the enterprise, built gradually over time, not just by politicians or by judges, but by millions of ordinary citizens. My parents' generation passed that tradition on to mine; we must to yours; and you must to your children's. Otherwise, our society, and our law - however decent and fair in principle - will not work in practice.

I speak of participation and commitment to public life for another reason, namely, because I believe that our own Constitution both foresees it and requires it. That document tells us how to solve only very few of our Nation's problems. It is an enabling (and a constraining) document. It sets forth a mechanism for making and applying law, and it creates a framework for representative government. It protects our basic freedoms, such as our rights to speak and to worship freely. It protects the basic fairness of our system, so that majorities cannot unfairly and systematically oppress minorities. It gives us the freedom to choose. But it does not tell us what to choose. It forces us, as a community, to choose democratically how we will solve our Nation's problems.

Cynicism about government has led many to accept non-participation in our Nation's public life. Some say that our governmental institutions are failing us. Many doubt that our public institutions can promote change and justice. But cynicism is no reason to opt out of public life - it is just a challenge that we as a society must overcome. If you do not trust the way our government works, make it work better. Government, after all, is no more than its individual citizens, working together toward a common purpose. Thus, our constitutional system requires our participation, if it is to work. That is the word, "participate," and that is my hope.

At a commencement many years ago, Justice Holmes said, "as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived."

That is a better charge to each man and woman here than any I could write. I urge you to follow that advice.

I congratulate the New School University Class of 2005. I wish each of you a life of passion and action, integrity and participation - a long and most fulfilling story.


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