Professors, guests and friends,
It is an honor to be able to speak on behalf of this most extraordinary class.
In the church where I was raised -- a Korean, immigrant congregation in the outer suburbs of Sydney -- we were used to receiving many gifts. Our Sunday school teachers worked consuming jobs as cleaners and electricians. But with the money they saved, they bought little chocolates, or maybe a small toy, that they placed, weekly, into we kids’ waiting hands. They did this without warning or anticipation. They explained only that it was like the gift of life -- the result of grace -- undeserved, unearned and ours to do with it what we will.
We, the second class of Schwarzman Scholars, stand before you, a full-time gift-receivers. It began with the Schawarzman, because the idea changed the cause of our life and brought them all here miraculously to converge. It continues with the generosity of our donors and it was the same by the conviction of our university and our home, Tsinghua.
We experienced the wisdom of our professors, the patience of our staff, and the unfailing dedication of our workers. Count the time in this imposing city, we rely on one another for a little kindness and a little intimacy. Look across this vast country, we recall the hospitality that we received from all its corners- from Tajik families in Xinjiang, local officials in Baoji. All the gifts that we received go far beyond the reasonable expectations of contract, friendship, and even charity. Faced with them, it is hard to explain how we came by them. The language of merit or exchange that we use to justify privilege, after a while, simply runs out. We are “future global leaders” who, on a good day, are unsure whether this world wants us to lead and whether our leading it will do the world any good. We are “scholars”, not because we’ve earned that most ancient and justly revered title, but because we’re the student recipients of a scholarship.
I have given up on that language of merit. I have given up trying to answer the question, “why do we deserve this?” I’ve started to ask a different question, “Having received this gift, what will we then do it?”
There was once a French sociologist, Marcel Mauss, who studied the role that gifts played in the world’s ancient civilizations. He found that gifts bound people in relationships of reciprocity: one person, having received a gift, must give one back in return.
But Mauss’ best insight was that people connect the gifts they receive, not just to the individuals who gave it to them, but to the society in which that exchange took place. They become loyal, not just to the givers, but to the rules of the system that rewarded them. They come to heed the old warning, handed down through the wisdom of the ages: never bite the hand that feeds you.
Here, I think, is the danger that we face as graduates of this college: that we become loyal to a system that rewards us but a system that, nonetheless, lets down countless others. We, attracted to the animal thrills of competition, come uncritically to love the rules that served us well. We forget that we never started on an equal footing. And we accept ever-lowering standards of what “losing” in this system entails.
It’s a dangerous hint to the one facing us as a young elite program. We become more invested installing future leaders than considering the ends that leadership goes.We measure ourselves by the proximity to the already power that we do ourselves for those in charge of doing in the same way.
Schwarzman Scholars is a program built out of our best instincts. It is made of generosity, of a belief in the powers of the young, and of a faith in the power of mutual understanding to prevent conflict.
By in order for it to live it up to that creed, we must hold it for itself. That will involve, from time to time, speaking truth for us, not from the passive reply, but from the active sense of engagement; not from a concern for our convenience, but what this program might enable us to do for others.
My professor from college, Jamaica Kincaid, whom I love and whom I miss, puts it this way: bite the hand that feeds you. “Bite that hand, for how else will you know,” she asks, “will you know who you are?”
As the second class of Schwarzman scholars, as new and returning member of the world force, as citizens, this, I think, is the loyalty we owe to the world. It is the loyalty that bites, one beholden to truth, rooted in independence, and committed to speech where circumstances demand it.
I know this is a loyalty we can reach. This was a cohort of Schwarzman Scholars who, on our best days, were driven not by a loyalty to the world as it is but by honesty -- a radical openness -- to the way things could be.
I think of my classmates who brought together female leaders for the landmark conference, Pioneers for Parity, of others who organized sexual health education and cultural exchange between China and Africa. I’m reminded of the group who, working with Yenching Scholars from Beida, volunteered this past year at a school for migrant children in Beijing.
My classmate, Brian Drout, shared with our monthly poetry group a short piece that one of the students had written, and with it I’ll conclude:
The Spring Wind blew ten miles
Now you go away in silence
Keep us wind
Keep us rain
Now you go away in silence
These lines implore us to hear the voices that call out to us. They press on us to exercise the privilege of being able to speak at all -- itself a gift, undeserved and unearned -- on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Class of 2018, may the spring wind and the rain keep you. May you go away from this place that we shared, not in silence, but in the noisy, dissonant, and brilliant technicolor of your sound.
2018 Schwarzman Scholar