Commencement Address By Dr. David Lyons, May 16, 2015

Commencement Address delivered by Dr. David Lyons
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 16, 2015

My remarks are for the graduating philosophers. We cannot predict what decisions you may face, but you may be readier for them than you think. To reach this point, you have had to analyze complex issues, you have had to organize your thoughts, and you have had to present them clearly. All of that will help you to work well on a wide range of problems.

I am not thinking only of intellectual problems. I mean to include problems that we all share – problems like climate change and persisting poverty. You have what it takes to work effectively on such issues. Other philosophy majors have done so before. I will mention three. I choose these three because they are not extraordinarily famous.

The first is Robert Parris Moses. Bob Moses grew up in Harlem. Unlike most of his talented African American contemporaries, he managed to get a college education, where he majored in philosophy. When his mother died, in 1958, he returned home in order to help his father, who had been hospitalized. Moses went to work, teaching high school math. In the summer of 1960 Moses volunteered in Atlanta for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There Moses learned about the newly organized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (known as SNCC), which had grown out of the lunch-counter sit-ins.

The following year Moses left his teaching job in order to become a voting rights organizer in Mississippi, the center of Jim Crow repression. Quiet and thoughtful, Moses became the most respected SNCC field worker. In 1964 he organized the Freedom Summer project, which brought a thousand college students to help in the Mississippi voting rights campaign. Later on, Moses challenged Jim Crow by founding the Algebra Project, which develops the potential of young black children who have the lowest math scores, so that they can continue their studies.

The second philosophy major I’ll mention is Mario Savio. Like Bob Moses, Savio was born and raised in New York City. After he finished college, Savio’s family moved to California, where he became a civil rights activist. In the summer of 1964 Savio joined the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi, where he taught in a Freedom School for black children. When he returned North, to begin graduate studies at Berkeley, he wanted to raise funds for SNCC. But the university banned all political activity and fund raising on campus.

That fall, a former Berkeley student named Jack Weinberg manned a table on the Berkeley campus, simply distributing information about another civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (known as CORE). Weinberg was arrested and placed in a police car. Outraged at the arrest and at the university’s policy, hundreds of Berkeley students surrounded the police car. Mario Savio took off his shoes, climbed to the roof of the police car, and addressed the students. That was the beginning of what became known as the Free Speech Movement. The Movement gained widespread campus support. It led to the reform of campus policies and sparked student-led campaigns for civil rights and peace in Vietnam. Echoing Thoreau, Savio said, when the “operation of the machine becomes so odious…. you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears …. and make it stop.”

After he completed his graduate studies, Savio taught math and philosophy at Sonoma State University. Like Bob Moses, Mario Savio did not seek a personal following. But after he died, in 1996, a lecture series and young activist award were established in his honor.

The third philosophy major I shall mention is Anat Biletzki. Unlike the other two, Biletzki is an Israeli and a professional philosopher, who teaches in both Israel and the United States. Many of the faculty here know Biletzki, who was our Findlay Visiting Professor in 2006. Biletzki has long been an activist for human rights in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and for an Israeli state that treats all of its subjects equally.

I mention these three because they have put their analytic skills and their ability to explain things clearly to good use outside the university. Each has faced difficult decisions that they could not have predicted. In the process, they served all of us.

Perhaps no one here is a Bob Moses, a Mario Savio, or an Anat Biletzki. And we cannot predict what decisions you will face. But we have confidence that you have what it takes to understand the issues and to explain them clearly to others.

To paraphrase what a famous philosopher once said, “Philosophers have not only to interpret the world, but also to change it.”