Kerry challenges graduates to address world’s needs

Secretary of State John Kerry's '66 speech on Sunday came 48 years after he delivered his "class oration" as a graduating senior.
Secretary of State John Kerry's '66 speech on Sunday came 48 years after he delivered his "class oration" as a graduating senior. Photo by Jason Liu .

Amid fanfare and fancy hats, Class Day speaker and Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 challenged members of the class of 2014 to use their educations to combat problems faced by America and the world at large with courage and integrity. 

Reminding seniors that their diplomas come not with “rights and privileges” but rather “rights and responsibilities,” Kerry pushed those in the crowd to engage in the world without pessimism or hopelessness. He told the graduating class that, as recipients of a Yale education, they bear a responsibility for addressing the growing “felt needs” of Americans and foreign citizens. Kerry’s speech on Sunday came 48 years after he delivered his “class oration” as a graduating senior, which questioned the assumptions undergirding American foreign policy and the then-ongoing war in Vietnam.

“You have had the privilege of a Yale education,” Kerry said. “No matter where you come from, no matter where you’re going next, the four years you spent here are an introduction to responsibility, and your education requires you to do something more than serve yourself.” 

Kerry started off the speech by making jokes about Yale fixtures including Wednesday night Toad’s, and referencing this year’s “poopetrator” incident in the Saybrook laundry room, as well as promising that he would not deal in cliches during his address. Still, his speech quickly took on a serious tone. 

Jason Liu

“Tthe four years you spent here are an introduction to responsibility, and your education requires you to do something more than serve yourself.”

He told the crowd, which included the members of the graduating class along with thousands of their friends and family, that the most important piece of advice he ever received was a single word from his mother: “integrity.” 

“What keeps you awake at night isn’t so much whether you got the decision right or wrong, it’s whether you made the decision for the right reason,” Kerry said. 

He then repeated a phrase he first heard from a professor at Yale, who he remembered saying “All politics is a reaction to felt needs.” A desire to fulfill “felt needs,” drove his Yale classmates to take busses to Mississippi to “break the back of Jim Crow,” and travel to Washington to ensure that laws protected the rights of citizens, he said. 

The TIME magazine cover of 1966 predicted that his generation would end war and poverty “once and for all.” 

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “We really crushed it.” 

That responsibility, he added, now lies with the generation of the Class of 2014. 

However, he noted that as “felt needs” continue to grow across the world, today’s institutions are not evolving quickly enough to meet these demands. He denounced legislatures and other institutions for their inaction in combatting a variety of challenges across the globe. 

“The sum total of all of this inaction is stealing the future from all of us,” Kerry said. 

As an extension of his discussion of “felt needs,” Kerry laid out a vision for American involvement overseas going forward, arguing that it is urgent for the United States to solve problems on the global stage. 

He acknowledged that this contrasted with the message he delivered as a graduating senior. Then, Kerry had spoken out against the excessive interventionism which he said characterized U.S. foreign policy at the time. 

“We cannot allow a hangover of intervention from the last decade to lead to an excess of isolation in this decade,” he said. 

As America’s top diplomat today, Kerry said the globe is troubled by a series of complex and interrelated issues — such as extreme poverty and the lack of democratic opportunities — that cannot be solved through American isolationism. 

Despite their challenges, he said all of the problems that face today’s generation of college graduates, from climate change to the unresponsiveness of today’s governing institutions, are solvable. 

“None of our problems are without solutions,” Kerry said. “But neither will they solve themselves. So for all of us, it’s really a question of willpower, not capacity.”

Kerry’s speech was set amidst the longstanding traditions of Class Day. Seniors, faculty and administrators alike donned creatively decorated hats. Among the most eye catching designs included a block of cheese, a Hogwarts Sorting Hat and the hair of the Greek monster Medusa. 

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The ceremony began with an extended introduction of Kerry by the five senior class officers.

Josh Rubin ’14, who served as Class Day co-chair and as a State Department intern last summer, was instrumental in bringing Kerry to campus and called the secretary of state someone “whose lifetime of public service is something we can all look up to.” 

In her introduction, Class Day co-chair Nia Holston ’14 reminded the audience of the “class oration” Kerry delivered at his own class day 48 years ago. She described the speech as “a broad questioning of the architecture and assumptions of American foreign policy.”

In addition to speeches and hats, Class Day also included the announcement of nine prizes awarded to members of the Yale College senior class. The prizes — which were awarded by Yale College Dean Mary Miller, Director of Athletics Thomas Beckett and Morse College Master Amy Hungerford — are given for high achievement in athletics, scholarship, service to the community and extracurricular pursuits.  

When several prizes had been awarded, Eli Whitney Scholar Lauren Harris ’14  delivered the first of two class reflections. The Eli Whitney scholars program admits students who have not been in an education setting for at least five years.

In her reflection, titled “That is the work, that is the labor,” Harris discussed her unconventional path to Yale, which included a stint at community college. She emphasized the importance of education in her life, saying it awoke “curiosity” and “dignity” that she had not known as a mother struggling to pay her bills and working in a clothing store. 

“I learned to tell the naysayer inside of me to shut up,” she told the crowd. 

Ariel Kirshenbaum ’14 took a "selfie" with Kerry during her speech.

Ariel Kirshenbaum ’14 reflected on her time at Yale, and took a “selfie” with Kerry during her  speech.

After a second set of prizes, the second class speaker, Ariel Kirshenbaum ’14, reflected on the class of 2014’s time at Yale entitled “Because We’re In It.” Over the course of her speech, she discussed the cancellation of Safety Dance, took a “selfie” with Kerry and told University Vice President for Strategic and Global Initiatives Linda Lorimer that she “looked great” at Myrtle Beach. 

But between the jokes, Kirshenbaum imparted advice to her fellow seniors. 

“No, you don’t have to cure cancer, but we do owe it to the people around us to be kind,” Kirshenbaum said. 

Following Kirshenbaum’s speech, the co-chairs of the senior class gift presented the gift of $33,387, which will go toward the unrestricted Yale Alumni Fund. The class also solicited over $300,000 in matching contributions from University alumni. Immediately after, the crowd watched a humorous video — known as the “Class History” — filled with inside jokes about the senior class and Yale. 

Class Day concluded with the singing of Yale’s alma mater, “Bright College Years.” 

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