05/22/2013 05:07 pm ET

To Be a True Practitioner of Democracy

By Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Delivered the following address to The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, class of 2013, on Sunday, May 19.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat visiting the United States saw a new phenomenon in America. In Democracy in America, the book that emerged from his experiences, he called it "individualism," a word he coined to describe the self-reliant character of Americans, who reveled in their freedom from aristocracies. While noting that this unrestrained freedom might well have turned into anarchy, Tocqueville also observed that the excesses and negative aspects of individualism were held in check by citizens' benevolent associations, which were organized to influence politics and address societal concerns. He further pointed out that the United States was that rarest of places, a nation that actually belonged to its citizens, and this sense of ownership fostered a communal, barn-raising spirit. "Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions constantly form associations," he marveled. Tocqueville attributed this generosity to a widespread sense of obligation to repay the country for providing the benefits of freedom and a free market. Citizens, he observed, seemed to have an "enlightened regard for themselves," which spurred them to "willingly sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state." At its best, Tocqueville believed that "enlightened self-interest" would help citizens distinguish between integrity and compromise, justice and injustice, personal gain and public interest, means and ends, good and evil.

Tocqueville was certainly right about Americans' spirit of independence and individualism. However, while celebrating our individualism, it is also necessary to be aware of a conflict inherent in a democratic society--its atomism. In such a society, each individual may become the center of a small and private world consisting of himself or herself and theirs immediate family and friends. Perhaps that has always been true, but the nature of the individual's relationship to the wider society has been greatly altered by how deeply social media, personified by such new communications tools as Facebook and Twitter, have come to dominate our lives. The relentless chatter of news, opinion and information promulgated by the 24-hour news cycle has become the background noise of all our lives. While these communication streams promote what many feel is an over-sharing of our individual likes and dislikes, our minute-by-minute activities, the state of our relationships, etc. these social media platforms also allow us to limit our interactions with those who we perceive to be different than us, or who hold different opinions. Hence, while new technologies and new forms of communication offer the opportunity to know more about our communities as well as the wider world and thus increase civic engagement, there is a flip side to all this. That is, the tools that help us interact with others in seemingly boundless ways also provide the ability to limit those interactions to only those who support our own ideas and beliefs about all aspects of society, culture and politics.

That's where you come in. My dear graduates of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, I believe that you are the people who will begin to break down the walls that we have erected to separate ourselves from each other. I believe this because the education you received at the Heller School has emphasized that to be true practitioners of democracy, you have to be engaged with the process of democracy, which requires the active participation of all citizens. It requires that your high ideals and high aspirations be put to the test of active participation in improving the welfare of others. After all, society is not just a collection of individuals dealing with individual problems or reaching for individual goals. Not at all. There are major problems to be addressed, big issues that face our society as a whole. Inequality, social justice, financial corruption, the corruption of morals and principles, poverty, health care, human rights--the list goes on and on. And in reviewing that list, it may seem difficult to keep hope alive, as the mantra goes. In fact, it may seem easier, even inevitable, to become a cynic.

Today, cynicism has become a corrosive force in our lives. Cynicism has become almost trendy. It is good for making jokes, for livening up the cocktail hour, and for avoiding the responsibility of having a serious conversation with someone. It has also fostered disillusionment with our institutions and policies just at the time when our nation, facing many challenges at home and abroad, needs an engaged citizenry. When it needs men and women who stand up for their rights but at the same time accept and even embrace their responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy. In the Twentieth Anniversary Issue of Journal of Democracy, Thomas H. Sander and Robert D. Putnam directly address this concern, writing, "If the United States is to avoid becoming two nations, it must find ways to expand the post-9/11 resurgence of civic and social engagement [beyond the ranks of the affluent]." Tocqueville, too, worried about how a trend toward insularity may sometimes lead the governed to seek separation from the government and institutions that they themselves have created. He wrote, "The men who live in the democratic ages upon which we are entering have naturally a taste for independence; they are naturally impatient of regulation, and they are wearied by the permanence even of the condition they themselves prefer. They are fond of power; but they are prone to despise and hate those who wield it, and they easily elude its grasp by their own mobility and insignificance."

The Heller School has inoculated you against this kind of insularity. Against cynicism. It has given you the education and the tools to know that you must never give up on yourselves. And you must never give up on America. After all, America is not perfect but I believe it is perfectible. In that connection, I must remind us all that our forefathers founded a land of opportunity, not opportunists. They wrote the Constitution with the faith that the ordinary citizen was committed to the accomplishment of extraordinary acts.

So, like our founding fathers, I am optimistic about America. Indeed, look how far we've come! In the sixty years since I emigrated to America to become a freshman at Stanford University, it is astonishing how much has changed. In 1956, when I first came to the U.S., segregation was still widespread. African Americans had to travel with what were essentially their own maps so they knew where they could sleep or eat and where they could not. Discrimination was rampant: against women, against people with disabilities, against Jews and Catholics, against the elderly, against gays and lesbians and many others. Perhaps we are a more just society today than in the past because, as a true nation of immigrants, we have finally accepted Martin Luther King's notion that while we may have come here on different ships, we're all in the same boat now.

Yes, much has changed--but much more has to. And I believe it will, because Democracy in America is not just the title of a book written by a visitor who passed some time among our forefathers and then went home. In fact, it is a great experiment in believing that we are guided by what President Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." Democracy in America is a living ideal and a work in progress that all Americans are in the process of creating together.

So I congratulate you for having chosen the Heller School and for focusing on public policy because many of you will use what you've learned here to go to work in the nonprofit sector, which is often underappreciated for the contributions it makes to the vitality our national life. But it should not be! Indeed, American nonprofits are part of an independent sector in the United States that serves as the sturdy and irreplaceable backbone of our civil society. The nonprofit sector of our nation comprises more than 1.4 million organizations, not including all the religious organizations. It provides a large measure of the nation's low-income housing, a substantial amount of its higher education and research institutions and is a critical component of K-12 education, as well. Our nonprofits provide a significant portion of the nation's health care, much of its human services and almost all of the arts. Nonprofits address the needs of underserved and disadvantaged populations by providing billions of dollars in services and programs. This sector tackles complex social problems that other sectors are either unwilling or unable to address. And, nonprofits are both a significant provider of American jobs and a source of volunteer energy: almost one of every 12 Americans is either an employee or a volunteer at a nonprofit.

A commitment to thoughtful, bipartisan, human-centered public policy is also needed across the whole spectrum of our national life, from business to government, from health to social work, from education to the arts. These are among the many areas where responsible, educated leadership can make all the difference. And I know you will be those great leaders, the ones who work to make our government more responsive to its citizens, to keep our society strong, and our economy viable.

You will be the leaders who breathe new life into our American ideals and find new ways to bring us together as one nation, one people, one humanity. I am sure you will also pursue happiness as the Declaration of Independence decrees is your birthright, but consider what kind of happiness you seek. Nowadays, there are many books written about happiness and how you can achieve it in ten easy steps, but maybe your true happiness will be found not only in reaching your personal goals but in doing something for your friends and family, for your community, your society, and your country, as well.

There is great reward in being the person who makes a difference in the world. That is true for all of us, but perhaps particularly for those of us who are former or current international students or immigrants. Whether we remain here or return to our native countries, we have the obligation to build bridges between our nations, our societies and the United States, and vice versa, especially now, when there seems to be so much danger and misunderstanding in the world. And those of us who came from developing countries have yet another obligation, and a very weighty one, to work toward creating a better quality of life for those at home and to advance the opportunities that are available to them. After all, we represent their hopes for a better future.

And all of us--Americans and citizens of every other country in the world--represent the opportunity for men and women to be good ancestors to the next generation. There is a saying of Andrew Carnegie's that has always resonated for me: that ancestors are like potatoes because the best part of them is underground. So you have to decide what kind of ancestors you are going to be: buried in what the late William Sloane Coffin, a clergyman and peace activist called "the pygmy world of private piety," or an active, engaged citizen. I am sure you will choose to roll up your sleeves and get to work on dealing with the problems that put obstacles in the path to the future that we are all walking together. That is how you become the kind of ancestor that your own children will be proud of someday when you are the ones watching them graduate from a wonderful school like this one.

However, that is not the only thing that the Heller School--and all of us--expect from you. I know you thought you had finished all of your assignments but I am here to tell you today that you have not. In fact, your work has just begun, because we need you; society needs you, the world needs you, America needs you--perhaps now, in these troubled, extraordinary, challenging and difficult times, even more than ever. We need your intelligence, your courage, your creativity, your ingenuity, your ideas, your strength and your vision.

More than ever, we need young men and women skilled at analyzing, synthesizing, and systematizing the endlessly multiplying fragments of information that we are bombarded with, night and day, from ever-multiplying sources, in ever-increasing volume, at ever-increasing speed.

More than ever, we need American citizens who view education as an investment in our nation's future, not as another expense in the debit column--or worse--as a luxury meant only for those who can afford it.

More than ever, we need a new generation of Americans dedicated to leaving the world in better shape than it was before.

And what we need are citizens who are committed to success but also courageous and skilled at coping with disappointment, failure, loss, tragedy, and defeat. And what we certainly need are men and women who will do their best to change the tide of self-centeredness, of being concerned only with their own success that has led to the corrosion of public and private ethics and civic morality that seems to have invaded so many aspects of our society and contributed to the decline of our sense of committed citizenship.

So I am glad that you have completed your years at the Heller School and are now ready to go out into the world because the world needs you. We all need you. Indeed--you are exactly the people we have been waiting for! We're proud of you. Your families are proud of you. Now is your time, your chance to make a difference. So good luck, Godspeed--and get to work!

Thank you very much.