This is back to school season—for you, and for me. Fifty-five years ago, I walked onto this campus as a freshman full of questions, with a lot to learn. I’m back at Yale today, with even more questions and a lot I hope we can learn together.
I know there’s something some people like to dismiss as quaint or even anachronistic about a place like Yale contributing to a world as complicated as the one we share today. But I’m proudly idealistic—even stubbornly so—about our role, and our responsibility.
It’s stamped in Yale’s DNA. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, and right here a group of students who had formed the first Yale flying club volunteered to become America’s first naval aviation unit. They were our eyes in the skies—scouting enemy troop movements, locating mines, tracking submarines. On November 14, 1916, the Yale Daily News said they were doing the “work of the pioneer.” Some gave their lives—all because they believed they had a responsibility to country—to a cause bigger than any of them as individuals. One hundred years later, service and citizenship remain an unalterable thread in the very fabric of this university.
But citizenship also means a responsibility to ask tough questions about tough issues, and responsibility, after all, is also stamped in the DNA of this university. Here, when you’re handed your diploma, President Salovey doesn’t say what is said at most schools—that your degree admits you to all its “rights and privileges.” At Yale, they say your degree admits you to all its “rights and responsibilities.”
That responsibility includes participation in the hard debates about hard issues beyond the privilege and comfort that often accompany a world class education. My college years were a time when we were starting as a country to wrestle with some tough questions—and we were beginning a great transformation.
I was a freshman when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of nuclear war. I was a sophomore playing in the Harvard-Yale soccer game when the young president who had inspired us was assassinated. I was a junior when civil rights marchers were savagely attacked on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. I remember vividly seeing the images on my TV set of Bull Connor’s police dogs menacing peaceful civil rights protesters, and something clicked then about unfinished business at home. A young civil rights leader named Allard Lowenstein came to Yale and challenged us to get involved—to get out of our comfort zone and join the fight for civil rights and justice in our own country.
Then came the war that was beginning to loom over our post-graduation decisions—and little did we realize how something that at one point seemed so simple—a great challenge out of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address to bear any burden—would in fact take the form of a complex decades-long fight that it turned out wasn’t about America but was about Vietnam and the Vietnamese.
What’s that have to do with a responsibility to get out of our comfort zone and ask tough questions today?
Today, we face a world that—everywhere we look—is manifestly much more complicated, less hierarchical, where non-state actors play a central role—where disturbing images and outright lies can circle the globe in an instant, where dangers like climate change, terrorism, and disease do not respect borders, and where tribal and sectarian hatreds are as prominent as they’ve been in centuries.
And I think this campus—all of us—needs to actively wrestle with that complexity.
With complexity always comes an easy temptation to wish the world away. The desire to turn inward and shut out the world may be especially seductive in an era as complicated as this. For some, the temptation to find refuge or recrimination in “alternative facts” is also powerful. But it can’t be at Yale, and it’s not a choice that the most prosperous and powerful nation on the planet can afford to make.
Here’s just one challenge I hope we can come to understand—and help navigate, with truth. The world is witnessing a wave of technological transformation that is on the scale of the industrial revolution, but happening at a digital pace. The only thing that isn’t coming at us faster and faster is the ability of governance worldwide to respond. Technology—not trade—is the principal reason we lost 85 percent of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs hemorrhaged in the first decade of this century. It’s bad enough that we haven’t yet solved the jobs crisis in West Virginia and parts of Ohio. But if our institutions can’t build consensus and respond to the demand of Americans for jobs today, how will we ever do it in a time when artificial intelligence and robotics kick in and five times that number of jobs disappear twice as fast?
And this isn’t just happening here, it’s a global challenge. It is happening everywhere and disrupting politics everywhere. Yale graduates will always do well in any economy—but if we aren’t helping build an economy—and governance—where everyone can do well, where there’s shared prosperity, then we aren’t living up to both words on those Yale diplomas: not just privilege, but responsibility.
So, there are debates to be joined—in earnest. Complexities to challenge us. Let’s have at it. As a recovering politician myself, I can tell you it’s easy for politicians to talk about American exceptionalism. But we’re not an exceptional country because we say we are—we’re exceptional because we do exceptional things. Yale, let’s have at it.
The 68th Secretary of State of the United States, John F. Kerry ’66, is Yale’s Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs and is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Visiting Distinguished Statesman. He is teaching a seminar at Yale in the Fall semester.