WASHINGTON - On May 4, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address to the Adrian College Class of 2013. This year's 224 graduates are the latest in a long line from a school with a proud and distinguished history, a school founded by people fired by the search for knowledge and opposition to slavery.
Education, I told the graduates, succeeds not mainly by imparting knowledge, but by encouraging inquiry. It's more about questions than answers. And yet, the world into which these graduates now march is in many ways geared to reward certainty over inquiry and openness. Because the Internet and emerging technologies like Twitter feed us more information more quickly than ever, we are more prone than ever to excessive certainty that we're right. The greater the speed with which information flows over us, the greater the impetus for hasty judgments and the more likely we'll fail to deliberate over what that information really means.
The need for deliberation is all the more crucial because this rapid flow of information is accompanied by a tendency toward rigidity or closed-mindedness. I am most aware of this in my work in the Senate. The Founding Fathers designed the Senate to move carefully, slowly even, so it could weigh arguments on all sides of a matter. But too often, the Senate is instead in gridlock caused not by thoughtful deliberation, but by a refusal to consider opposing points of view.
Sen. Carl Levin
I worry that the increasing rigidity and polarization that has engulfed our politics has encroached on other aspects of American life. Americans are not only increasingly divided about politics, but we have increasingly begun to cluster, in cities and neighborhoods, based on our views. We turn on the television news network that we agree with, one that reinforces our own beliefs. Comfortable and unchallenged in our opinions, we become more and more prone to excessive confidence in the correctness of those opinions.
Adrian's new graduates, and all of us, will face situations in which we are dead certain of our correctness, but are confronted by others equally certain that they are right. Judging when to stand on principle and when to compromise to get the job done that is one of the most important skills we can develop, in work and in life.
How can you tell a principled stand from blind stubbornness? I offered two suggestions.
Not long ago, my wife, Barbara, and I had dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant. When she opened up her fortune cookie, here is what it said: "Try not to stand on your own side during an argument."
I think putting yourself in the other guy's shoes for a while is the right thing to do. But it's also practical. You are not likely to resolve a dispute unless you have some sense of what the other person feels, and why, and what might satisfy their needs.
The second suggestion I borrowed from a colleague. Not long ago, Sen. John McCain spoke to students at the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service about that school's namesake, President Bill Clinton. Sen. McCain described how he and the president had worked together in the 1990s on restoring our diplomatic ties with Vietnam.
At the time, opposition to diplomatic relations with Vietnam was still high. Sen. McCain believed a diplomatic opening was the right thing to do. And as a hero of the Vietnam War, he knew he wasn't likely to face criticism for his stand. But President Clinton's lack of service in Vietnam had been a big issue during the 1992 presidential campaign. He was sure to come in for criticism, and he did. As John McCain told those students: "[President Clinton] had to risk his self-interest to do the right thing. He had to have courage."
And this is the question I asked the Adrian graduates to ask themselves when caught between principled opposition and prudent compromise: Is it my principles and ideals that are at stake or just my interests? If we honestly examine our own motivations, we might find that we have more room than we think for compromise that does not damage principles we hold dear if we have the courage to sacrifice our self-interest.
I told the graduates that their lives will be measured in part by how faithfully they seek to question their own certainties and to understand those with whom they disagree. The same is true, I think, for all of us.
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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.