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Imagining a New Millennium
Baccalaureate remarks by Patrick Henry, Professor of French

Patrick Henry
Steven Spielberg has often insisted that filming Schindler's List changed his life completely. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine anyone spending a good deal of time studying the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust without being transformed.

While most governments, including our own, looked the other way and tens of thousands of individuals were involved in the rounding up, transportation, confinement, registration, deportation, and extermination of, among others, six million Jews, this incredibly small fraction of people, at the risk of their lives and those of their children, found the moral courage to shelter thousands of persecuted targets of Nazi hatred.

On the whole, neither gender, nor age, nor nationality, nor education, nor profession, nor economic class, nor religious leaning, nor political persuasion played a determining role as to who would be a rescuer. Whereas most people surrender personal responsibility for their actions when those actions are dictated by an authority figure, the rescuers of Jews obviously did not. Why not? Most studies indicate that, as children, in a very significant number of cases, the rescuers were raised in homes where love was in abundance, where parents were altruistic and tolerant and where children were disciplined by reason and explanation, and because in these homes they were taught five essential principles: that human beings are basically the same and differences between them are to be respected; that the world is not divided into "us and them" but rather contains a common bond of humanity; that they should have a clear sense of right and wrong, should stand up for their beliefs, have moral integrity, self-confidence, and self-worth; that kindness and compassion toward others should be practiced; and that they should be of independent mind, self-sustaining, and never follow the crowd.

As you leave Whitman to enter a world marked by violence, homelessness, famine, individual hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, and dangerous nuclear crises, remember the rescuers. Those lights that shone only here and there in the overall darkness enable us to see and to find our way out of the labyrinth of blind hatred and violence that entraps us. By doing what they did, the rescuers rescued the concept of the human being as a being capable of self-transcendence even in the most despairing situation and against the most improbable odds, thereby earning the Talmudic praise inscribed on the Yad Vashem medal they receive: "Whoever saves a single life is as one who has saved an entire world."

All of us, from the depths of our being, yearn for a new millennium, not simply another one. But we cannot build a new world on an old concept of the human being who will inhabit it. To preach or to teach the inevitability of a narrowly conceived self-interest at the heart of all human activity is the greatest tool for the maintenance of the violent status quo. The actions of the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust constitute a vivid and powerful communal memory bank that enables us to recognize our freedom, liberate ourselves from the prison house of self-interest, and acknowledge that "concern for the other" is a foundational motivation of human behavior.

At Harper Joy Theatre: Anything Goes
It would be a tragic mistake to see altruism, or self-transcendence, as either "self-less" behavior or something that contributes to the depletion of the self. On this point, the testimony of the rescuers is clear and unequivocal. Self-transcendence has nothing to do with self-sacrifice, they report in unison, and everything to do with self-fulfillment.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the rescuers is that they were absolutely ordinary people like ourselves. To view them as heroes beyond our reach is to run the risk of becoming passive admirers, bystanders, as it were. Although exemplary, the rescuers nonetheless operated in our moral sphere. Only when we see them in this light are we capable of receiving the greatest gift they can bequeath us: the ability to conceive of ourselves as beings capable of rescue.

You must never yield to the world in matters of conscience. Those who have changed the world for the better have resisted it and forced it to conform to the image they had of it. Only a bullet could stop Martin Luther King, Jr., from dreaming of a new America and acting on that dream, and 10,000 days in jail could not shatter Nelson Mandela's vision of a just South Africa.

Matthew Deegan, '99, senior speaker

It is your turn now to imagine a new world and you must do so before you can actualize it. Imagine a world where Americans finally do desegregate their schools and all American children have an equal chance to succeed. Imagine a world where the United States leads all other nations in responsible use of the world's resources rather than in teenage suicide. Imagine a world where Matthew Shepherd lives without fear in Laramie, Wyoming, and James Byrd, Jr., does the same in Jasper, Texas. Imagine a world where men and women understand their most important role to be the creation of individuals who resemble the rescuers and of communities capable of developing such individuals. Imagine, finally, a world without land mines and economic sanctions, a world where our political leaders recognize their highest duty to be the quest for new, bold, authentic, and imaginative ways of implementing perhaps the most important words ever spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. "Peace," King asserted, "is not merely a distant goal we seek; it is a means by which we arrive at that goal." By designating the decade 2001-2010 "The Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World," the United Nations has challenged all of us to move in that direction. Everything of real consequence depends on how you meet that challenge. Imagine. Just imagine.