The end of the school year is always a time of mixed emotions, especially for high school graduates who look to their futures with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
At ISP, like many schools, graduation is a truly joyous occasion. Families and friend from throughout the world come to Prague to join in on the celebration. We are fortunate to hold our graduation ceremony at the grand and ornate Zofin Palace, built in the 1830’s and named after Princess Sophie (Žofie in Czech), mother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. The hall in which we hold our graduation ceremony has a rich social and musical history. Antonín Dvořák held his first concert here in 1878. Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Wagner appeared in concerts in the palace as well.
As I do each year, I had an opportunity to address the graduates and assembled guests. The theme this year’s talk was the “educated citizen.”
As parents we often try to see the world through the eyes of our own children. As educators seeing the world through the eyes of our students is an important part of our job. I’ve wondered lately what sense our students and especially our graduates, who are about to step out into the world, make of all the news, the alerts, the tweets and posts they constantly receive. Of course they discuss what’s happening in the world at school, in class, with teachers and with their friends and peers. But what do they make of the constant news they hear, often bad… of brutal wars, blatant corruption, senseless violence…in many cases involving kids your own age.
I am aware that their reaction can be a tendency, with good reason, to try to tune it out, like so much annoying background noise, or simply because it can feel overwhelming. But I ask you please, don’t tune it out…because as educated citizens we all need to try to understand the world as it is and help to shape it as it should be. Furthermore, each of you, no matter where you come from or where you are going, have a responsibility to take what you have learned and will learn and use it to, as we say at ISP, to contribute responsibly to our changing world. Because truth is that no matter what you do, you will play a role, you will have an impact
John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher and economist put it this way: “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
In simple terms, if we are witness to harm being caused to an individual or group, we should act and get involved in any way we can. And because you are educated young people, the gift of your education, bestows some responsibilities on how you interact with the world.
I would like to read an excerpt from a speech delivered by John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, speaking to the class of 1963 at Vanderbilt University. His words, spoken over 50 years ago, when the civil rights movement was raging and the Vietnam War was growing, are as relevant to us today as they were during those turbulent times. The truth is that turbulent times are not limited to our era, we are not unique, the difference is when I was growing up, I had to make an effort to find out about the news of the day by reading the daily paper or listing to the radio or watching to the news on TV. Just to set the record straight, TVs did exist when I was growing up!
“You have responsibilities, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.
If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system.
But the educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that knowledge is power — more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people; that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all; Therefore the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist at every level of government the improvement of education for all.
The educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or a president. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the state house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.
I urge all of you today, especially those who are students, to act — to enter the lists of public service.
Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his inheritance, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligations.”
Now I am aware that Kennedy’s words were spoken within the historical context of his time, but they do carry a message for us to heed today. I urge our graduates to consider the educational opportunity you have been given and will be afforded in your future.
I am confident that each of you have bright futures ahead of you. Each of you will take different paths in life. Ultimately each of you will make choices which will shape who you will become and how you will impact the world around you. As Anne Frank wrote
“The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
What will you do with your gifts and with what you have learned and how will you take your place in the world as an educated citizen?
I leave you with the words of the great Jane Goodall who honored us with her presence last year last year at ISP
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Jane Goodall at ISP December 2016