May 6, 2003
Dean Anthony Kronman's 2003 Commencement Address
Yale Law School Dean and Edward J. Phelps Professor of Law Anthony T. Kronman delivered his Commencement Address to graduating JD, LLM, MSL, and JSD students, their families, and guests, in the William K. Lanman, Jr. Center, on May 26, 2003.
Distinguished guests; colleagues; families and friends; members of the graduating class; welcome, all of you, to the Yale Law School's 2003 commencement exercises.
Graduation is a glorious farewell, but this year it feels more like a reunion. How good it feels to be back together, all of us, in each other's company again.
We have miracles to be thankful for. That no one was hurt in Wednesday's explosion makes the difference between a headache and something unspeakably worse. There is nothing that has happened to our building that can't be fixed. But if one person had been hurt or killed in the explosion, the loss would be beyond our power to repair. I will always be grateful for what we have been spared.
And to the men and women who have worked tirelessly these past five days to restore our School to us, I will always be grateful as well: to the firefighters and police officers of New Haven, who were here to help within seconds; to the mayor of our city, John DeStefano, a true friend of the Law School, who understands what this place means to us and to the world, and who is here with us today to join our celebration; to all our colleagues at Yale, who lent a helping hand, and especially to the members of the Yale Police and Fire Departments, whose assistance and good will I can never forget; to the Connecticut State Police and the many federal law enforcement officers who worked quickly and in concert to help us reclaim our building; and with a respect that borders on awe, to the staff of the Yale Law School. Their devotion to the School is a rare and lovely thing and a large part of what makes it so special. Their constant qualities of kindness and regard, like all true traits of character, were enlarged for everyone to see in the magnifying mirror of a difficult day.
Three weeks ago, at a memorial service in honor of Gene Rostow, the dean of the Yale Law School from 1955 to 1965, I posed a rhetorical question. "If this building fell down tomorrow," I asked, "would the Yale Law School survive?" "Yes, of course, it would," I answered, "though perhaps not under such comfortable conditions," and added, for extra effect, that "even if its faculty and students had to meet in tents on the New Haven Green, the Yale Law School would be the place it is." I had not expected my hypothetical to be tested quite so soon. But I stand by the answer I gave, and the events of the last five days have confirmed my confidence in it. The Yale Law School is a noble building. But more fundamentally, and more durably, it is a spirit, a community, an idea, that no composite of bricks and stone can rival or outlive. Where does that spirit, that community, that idea endure? In the thousand e-mails I have received since Wednesday from friends and graduates of the Law School all over the world. In the dining hall of Ezra Stiles College where we gathered last Thursday. And here, today, in this assembly, in the hearts and minds of the young men and women of the Class of 2003. Welcome to their commencement.
Today is a day of theatrical grandeur. We mark it with banners and costumes and marching and music. The custom of doing so is an old one, so old and so familiar that we sometimes lose sight of the meaning of what we are gathered here today to acknowledge and to celebrate. There are, after all, other days, also deserving of celebration, that might even rank ahead of this one, were it not for the ancient custom of commencement. Surely--to mention just one--the day our graduates were admitted to the Yale Law School was as momentous, and as worthy of celebration, as this day of culmination. And one might also wonder, I suppose, whether the real celebration oughtn't to be postponed for a few weeks more, until our graduates actually receive their diplomas, which they now possess only in the future subjunctive.
But there are, of course, good reasons why we single out this day for special notice. Today's graduates were admitted to the Law School one by one. When they received their letters of admission, they didn't know each other yet. They weren't a class, and the happiness and pride they felt were private feelings. And when their diplomas arrive, in a few weeks time, that will be a private moment too, to be celebrated in hundreds of homes and cities. But this moment, the one at which we have now arrived, is most emphatically a public one, and we are gathered here, in part, to recognize the fact that what our graduates have accomplished they have accomplished together, in each other's company and with each other's help, and in a School whose life transcends their own, as part of that larger public world that sets the stage for all our private moments.
That is one reason why today is so special. Another is that it is the last day of school. I don't mean the last day of this academic year, the last day until school resumes in the fall. For nearly all of today's graduates, I mean the last day, period. You have been in school all your lives. Many of you have taken time out from school to do other things, but these have only been a recess in your schooling. Until today your world has been the world of school and now you are preparing to leave it. What will you find when you leave, and what will you need when you find it?
You will find a world of urgency and action, where the risks are real and decisions must be made, a world very different from school, where leisure and detachment prevail. The word "school" itself comes from an old Greek word, scole, meaning leisure. Here you have time to think, and--within broad limits--freedom from the consequences of your thoughts. There--outside of school--you will have neither. You will be compelled to decide under the pressure of events, and you will be responsible for your decisions. That of course is not a bad thing at all. It is in fact just what you have come here to learn to do, and in doing it you will find that special satisfaction that belongs to those who play a role in the great dramas of their day. But to succeed in the realm of action, with all its demands, you will need to preserve in your selves, under great pressure and with very high stakes, the reflectiveness, the independence, the capacity for observation and introspection that you learned in this leisurely place. You will need to take school with you, and make a place for it in your lives, and if you do you will find that what you have learned here provides solace and strength all the rest of your days. Never lose your student leisure. It will buoy you up and carry you across to the farther shore.
What else will you find in the world beyond school? Here, you have grown accustomed to thinking of the law as a great progressive force, moving slowly but steadily toward the ever more perfect realization of justice on earth. You have poured your dreams into the law. You have imagined what the rule of law might mean for all the men and women on this planet, when its promise is fulfilled. You have made the law's ambitions your own. In the world that lies beyond this idealistic place you will find that these ambitions are hard to achieve. You will be impressed by the obstacles that stand in their way. You will discover that power yields only reluctantly to justice, and sometimes not at all. You will be reminded, over and over again, that the limits of law are as significant as its ideals. None of this is avoidable. It is just the way things are. And none of it is regrettable either, so long as you keep a place in your heart for the idealism of the Yale Law School, and remember that no delay or disappointment or defeat ever proves the unworthiness of an ideal or gives us reason to reject it. Only another ideal can do that. That is an academic proposition in the most literal sense of the word. It is a truth we teach in school. But its real test comes afterwards, in places noisier and more dangerous than this. Keep it in your heart and you will triumph over all the world's despair. Keep it in your mind and you will never doubt the law's transforming power.
And what else will you discover when you leave? The truth, I hope, of Freud's memorable answer to the question of what constitutes happiness in human life. "Love and work," he said, with a directness and simplicity belying his acquaintance with the dark corners of the soul. Work: for that we have prepared you. We have given you not just the tools but the appetite for a profession that demands the most at every moment, and within whose spacious limits may be found everything that matters to humanity, the entire spectacle of striving and loss that makes our life on earth poignant and interesting. We have helped you to know that you can be craftsmen and craftswomen too, like those who preceded you in your profession, and through the exercise of skill and disciplined intelligence make something that will last and be a source of pride, the highest satisfaction work can offer. And love? What of that? Have we prepared you for love? No school could say that. Some of you have found love here. Some will find it tomorrow. And all of you came with it, with the love of those who are sitting behind you, here today, as they have sat behind you all your lives, urging you on, helping you forward, asking nothing in return. They have taught you love, and all they ask is that you now love those you find in your care, as they have loved you, without price or concession, out of a feeling of attachment to the world and the people in it, near and far.
And that, perhaps, is the deepest meaning of this day. We are here as collaborators, your teachers and your families, and though we have never met before, and meet only once, we know that we are partners in a venture and that your happiness is our goal. To love and to work: that is what we want for you, what we have done all we can to help you achieve, and what, God willing, you will find when you leave school today and sail out into the broader reaches.
On that note, I feel prepared to ask for an indulgence. Today is the graduation day for 239 students at the Yale Law School, students I know and admire and to whom I feel a connection as teacher and dean. It is also the graduation day for my son Matthew, who at this very moment is preparing to receive his degree from the Yale School of Medicine. Not to be here for today's ceremony is for me a source of pain. Not to be there for Matthew's would be something worse. And so I ask you, as parents and students and friends, to excuse me so that I may be there when my own son leaves school to find work and love as a doctor. My colleague and good friend Jed Rubenfeld, the deputy dean of the Law School, will preside over the ceremonies here, and I know that today, of all days, I can count on the forgiveness of everyone here as I leave to join my family. God bless you all and congratulations!