Commencement address by Tomiko Brown-Nagin ’92
Furman University Commencement Address
Tomiko Brown-Nagin ’92
May 6, 2023
Thank you, President Davis, trustees, honorees, faculty and administrators, families, friends and most of all, graduates of the Class of 2023!
It is truly an honor to address you on this momentous and joyous occasion.
Now, it’s been a while – some 30 years – since I stood where you all stand today.
But I was a big basketball fan then, and I’m a big basketball fan now, so I just have to start by congratulating the Furman Paladins basketball team on their Southern Conference championship and their fantastic March Madness victory over Virginia! I think I speak for Furman alumni around the country when I say I was overwhelmed with pride in that moment.
But alas, I’m not here to talk about basketball.
No, what I want to do today – what I think I can offer all of you as you begin to write this exciting new chapter of your lives – is to share some reflections on:
- The lessons of history;
- the challenges of our current moment;
- and the promise of our shared future.
More specifically, I want to impart three things this evening that I hope you’ll carry with you in whatever adventure lies ahead. Those three things are:
- The power of reason;
- the importance of truth;
- and our obligation to engage.
I expect, and I hope, that many of you hold big ambitions – aspirations to create meaningful change, whether through activism and public service, through innovation in business, through research and scientific advances, through art, or through any number of other valuable endeavors.
But no matter how great your ambitions, when one considers all that needs fixing in this world, the task can seem daunting, and the path forward can be difficult to discern. But let me tell you: You have the tools to do it.
Because you have the power of reason.
The very fact that you’re graduating from Furman – a university that celebrates the liberal arts and sciences and pushes students to explore across disciplines – tells me that you have acquired reason. And it is one of the most powerful tools available to any of us.
The very fact that you’re graduating from Furman … tells me that you have acquired reason.
Now, by “reason” I mean several things. I mean the ability to unearth facts through research, to analyze those facts and discern the truth, and to deploy that truth through thoughtful argumentation.
We live in an era that tends to reward volume and certainty. But rely on reason, and you won’t need to shout down your critics, to belittle, to attack or to grandstand.
Reason doesn’t necessarily lend itself to clever sound bites. But if you embrace reason, it will serve you well throughout your life. In fact, reason might be more important today than ever before, as we try to make sense of the flood of information that bombards us across countless platforms and numerous technological innovations.
And make no mistake: The greatest moments of change in the 20th century were the result of tireless, hard, thoughtful work, deploying reason. Sometimes this kind of work can feel thankless, but there really are no shortcuts to the often slow work of thinking things through.
All of this is to say, as you go out into the world to pursue your ambitions, do not discount the transformative power of your ability to reason. Do all you can to resist drawing easy conclusions on the basis of insufficient facts, or your personal preferences, prejudices and preconceptions. In short, use reason to pursue truth.
Which brings me to my second point: The importance of truth.
Reason and truth go hand in hand. And truth is the foundation for anything of substance that we wish to accomplish as a community, as a nation, indeed as a planet.
Truth is the foundation for anything of substance that we wish to accomplish.
By truth, I mean the pursuit of truth about the present and future, as well as the truth about our past.
Why this emphasis on the past? Because, as James Baldwin wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us … history is literally present in all we do.”
In other words, the past shapes the present, and we ignore the hard lessons of history at our peril. Or, as William Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Here and across this country, vestiges of past harms persist to this day. The last few years have laid bare profound injustices and enduring inequities, demanding urgent action.
Many of these issues are deeply rooted in history. And so our capacity to understand and dismantle contemporary injustice depends on our ability – and our willingness – to reckon honestly with the past.
Yet today, many seek to limit what can be taught and studied, and who can be heard. Efforts are underway in states across the country to shut down teaching about this country’s painful racial history, about gender, and about so many other vital subjects.
And on some university campuses, students have shouted down speakers with whom they disagree.
But the pursuit of truth, through reason, requires debate. It requires genuine curiosity, and the exchange of ideas. I learned this lesson at Furman, and I hope you have too. Yes, the pursuit of truth requires us to engage – with the issues and with one another.
The pursuit of truth requires us to engage – with the issues and with one another.
And this brings me to my final point: Our obligation to engage.
What does that mean? To engage? For me, the meaning is twofold: I want you to engage in making the world a better place. And in doing so I want you to engage ideas – use reason, pursue truth – and engage those who disagree with you. Lead with curiosity, do not shy away from controversy, embrace the freedoms of speech and expression, challenge and allow yourself to be challenged.
We find ourselves in a difficult moment—or to paraphrase the old expression, we live in interesting times. Social and economic problems persist across the country and the world; many of them, as I’ve said, are deeply rooted in history.
But history also shows us that change is possible, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
So, we must engage. Any meaningful change demands robust dialogue and engagement across identities, ideologies, backgrounds and approaches – even when speaking and working across divides is hard.
In fact, the ability to engage in healthy and heated debate in pursuit of truth – persuading the persuadable – is much of the work of progress and leadership. The very nature of a university like Furman and the very legal architecture of this country, which radically changed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, support the work of engagement.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously implored America to “be true to what [it] said on paper,” referring to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
He continued, quote, “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right” – or to engage even when it’s difficult.
Those First Amendment rights – which know no partisan boundaries – were critical to the success of the Civil Rights movement. They empowered King and fellow activists during their non-violent demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, demonstrations that provoked violent resistance and helped pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.
These laws in turn helped make real the American ideals of equal citizenship rights and equal opportunity. The realization of these powerful aspirations was born of dissent and of engagement.
The pursuit of progress is a long-term proposition.
Therein lies the lesson: If our nation is to thrive, and if our democracy is to flourish in the 21st century, we must engage with one another, even – and especially – when we disagree. We must address the problems we face through exchange, reasoned debate, and strategic, thoughtful advocacy. And we must do so with genuine respect for all.
Now, the pursuit of progress is a long-term proposition. But this kind of engagement is how we strive for and ultimately achieve our greatest ambitions.
So use reason, pursue truth, and be courageous as you pursue a better world. Do this in whatever field or fields you choose.
And know that as excited as you all are to have reached this milestone, I am even more excited to see the wonderful things you all will accomplish.
Congratulations to the Class of 2023!
- Tomiko Brown-Nagin ’92 is a leading historian on law and society and dean of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is also the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and a professor of history in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She has published articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence, civil rights law and history, the Affordable Care Act and education reform. Read the Furman News article on Brown-Nagin to learn more.