Joshua Block was one of two graduating seniors chosen to deliver the senior orations at Brown University’s 246th Commencement. Block delivered his address, titled “Listen,” early Sunday afternoon May 25, 2014, on the College Green. His text follows here. (See also the student orators news release and the text of the oration by Caroline Bologna.)
Thank you, President Paxson.
Class of 2014, we’ve spent our time at Brown ... talking. We talk about politics and personal relationships. We talk about extraordinary scientific advances and ordinary daily events. We talk about our classes during lunch, and yes, sometimes we talk about our lunches during class.
But every now and then, we come across a professor or a student, a peer or a stranger on the street who inspires us. And we stop. And we listen. And it’s those moments – it’s those people – that I’ll think about when I look back on my time at Brown.
My first year, in a seminar on political theory, we were having a discussion about situations in which we believed it was justified to intervene in foreign affairs. One student proposed a doctrine by which the United States had the ability – even the responsibility – to intervene in countries in which an egregious moral injustice was occurring. There were nods of affirmation throughout the classroom. This seemed a reasonable standard and we were ready to move on to the next point, until one student raised her hand. She said, “How do we determine that? By your definition of morality, or by mine?”
And she was right. Without fully knowing her life, her culture, and her perspective, how could I possibly presume that her worldview was the same as mine? The realization that my views were, by their very nature, limited, was one that made me uncomfortable, but it made me uncomfortable for the right reasons.
We all have a lens through which we see the world – a unique point of view that has been shaped by every experience we’ve had. Brown pushes back at that every step of the way. We’re taught to always challenge others and to always challenge ourselves. We’re taught to never take words at face value, to question text, peers, and especially authority, and never to be satisfied with simple answers. Instead of moving on to the next point that day, my class launched into a discussion on differing conceptions of morality from which all of us benefited. This is what Brown does – it teaches us to constantly engage in thoughtful communication.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates wants to journey to the city, but Polemarchus and his men are standing in the way. Recognizing that he doesn’t have the physical strength to take them on, Socrates proposes that he persuade them to let him pass, to which Polemarchus responds, “How can you persuade us if we refuse to listen?”
This passage resonates with me, both as someone who values the impact of interaction and as someone without the physical strength to fight anyone. The point Polemarchus illustrates is that words are only powerful insofar as they are heard. The responsibility of thoughtful communication lies as much with the listener as with the speaker. By opening our ears and opening our minds to something new, something different, something we had never thought of before, we slowly widen that lens and let in more of the world around us.
The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote that if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you. If there’s one thing Brown has, it’s smart people who disagree. We understand there aren’t two sides to every argument – there are fifty. There are subtleties and nuances that dig deeper than we can possibly imagine, and it’s only by surrounding ourselves with the most diverse opinions, backgrounds, and experiences, and by taking the time to stop ... and listen, that we can grow and learn.
Here at Brown, we don’t shy away from controversy. We seek it out, and we embrace it.
Some disagreements, like whether the Ratty is better than the V-Dub, may never be resolved. Others, like stem cell research or the limits of free speech, should never be resolved. There’s a danger in a narrow lens, a danger in accepting that there’s only one way to view a problem. Brown University protects us from that danger by surrounding us with thousands of people different from ourselves – thousands of stories different from our own. And starting tomorrow, it’s in our hands to continue that tradition.
We’ve spent our time at Brown talking. But we’ve also spent our time listening. Listening to smart people who disagree with us, inform us, influence us, and inspire us.
When we walk through those gates, we do so with minds that have been broadened by new experiences and new perspectives. But whatever you do next, whatever jobs you have, places you go and people you meet after leaving this campus, always seek out controversy. Stand up for what you believe in and stand back to let others do the same. Find people with different views, people with opinions that make your blood boil, people who make you feel uncomfortable for the right reasons, and never tune them out. The only way to continue to widen that lens is to stop ... and listen.
Congratulations, Class of 2014.