This is the text of President Gerhard Casper's address
to the Class of 1999 and their parents on September 22, 1995.

On Playing Hamlet

     Freshmen members of the Stanford college class of 1999 and those among you who have had the splendid good sense to transfer to Stanford: On behalf of the university's faculty and staff, and your fellow students, both undergraduate and graduate, I warmly welcome you. We have looked forward to your presence with great anticipation because we know that you are superbly qualified to test our abilities.

     Equally warmly I welcome parents, other relatives, and friends who have come along to lessen the apprehensions that our freshmen might have. For many parents this is not the easiest of tasks, since they themselves are full of apprehension about this rite of passage and great adventure, and about what lies ahead for their daughters and sons. I understand this from my own experience. As somebody once said in what has become my favorite mixed metaphor: "The future is an uncharted sea full of potholes." This is on par with President Harding's famous admonition, also appropriate this morning, that "we must not drop anchor until we are out of the woods." Having come to Stanford, you are certainly not out of the woods - quite to the contrary: You are likely to get into them more deeply by the day.

     Whatever the future may hold, there can be no doubt that the class of 1999, the class of the three nines, represents the next chapter in Stanford's history - a history that now stretches back over more than one hundred previous classes and more than one hundred years. However, what really matters in a university's history are not the years it has been in existence, but commitment and continuity. Stanford University is an institution that has benefited from commitment and that has been handed down from one generation of faculty and one generation of students to the next. Now you are the "next," the new chapter in our history. It is the faculty, students, trustees, alumni, and local, national, and worldwide friends whose active engagement has made Stanford University a joint intellectual and moral effort - in short, an institution whose age is not so much expressed by the number of years of its formal existence, but by the intensity of commitment and the continuity of a tradition.

     You are surrounded by the physical expression of that tradition as we have gathered here this morning in the historic Main Quadrangle. It was here, under the tall West Portal, that our founders, Leland and Jane Stanford, stood to welcome Stanford's first entering class of men and women on a similarly bright morning one hundred and four years ago. In 1891, there were only about 400 students, but crowds had poured into the Quadrangle long before the exercises began and, according to a contemporary account, "carriages were tied to every available post, and bar, and fence and tree." People wanted to see the university begin in earnest.

     Why is Stanford here? First of all, Stanford's being here has a lot do with perseverance and determination. When Senator Stanford and his wife Jane lost their fifteen-year-old only child, Leland Jr., in 1884, they decided to use their wealth to do something for "other people's" children. It was this act that led to the opening of our university on the 1st of October, 1891. When, only two years later, after Senator Stanford's death in 1893, the financial situation of the university became highly uncertain, Jane Stanford rejected the recommendation of her legal and financial advisors to close the university, at least temporarily: The university was to go on, no matter what happened to anything else.

     Why is Stanford here - I mean here on the Peninsula? Because here Senator Stanford bred and raised championship horses on thousands of acres that he deeded over to the new university. Of that past two things remain: a building known as the Red Barn and the fact that many people refer to Stanford as "the Farm."

     Why is Stanford flourishing? Because, as I mentioned at the beginning, of the continuing commitment of faculty, students, trustees, alumni, and friends. Stanford flourishes because many of your predecessors, now alumni, have felt and presently feel a moral obligation to give something back to Stanford - and whose support thereby helps you and future generations to obtain the benefits that come from the pursuit of knowledge. Their contributions, all invaluable, come in gifts large and small, from the recent very large one from our alumni William Hewlett and David Packard for a new sciences and engineering quadrangle immediately beyond the West Portal to the senior class gift from the Class of 1995 which broke all participation records. Tuition has never covered, nor will it ever cover, the full cost of a college education. One day, Stanford will therefore call on you, too, to display the same sense of moral obligation to help others that our alumni now show on your behalf.

     Why should you be at Stanford?

     First and foremost, because Stanford is one of the best universities in the world. This university is dedicated to the pursuit of many excellences. Teaching, learning, and research do not benefit from stagnant air but from fresh winds blowing, from interaction with many different people who are at the frontiers of various fields of research. No, not everybody at Stanford is foremost a teacher; yes, a number of classes are taught by teaching assistants (in whose training we invest great care); yes, this is a very complex institution serving society in different ways. However, those of you who seize the initiative, and seek out the incredible range of opportunities that Stanford has to offer you across the entire spectrum of a very comprehensive university, and then make choices, will be rewarded in ways that are not easily matched anywhere.

     Second, you should be at Stanford because there continues here what one might call a "Western" spirit of pioneering, entrepreneurship, energy. It is the spirit of developing an idea and then running with it. While ivy can be found on campus, it is not the dominant plant. As Wallace Stegner, the great writer, said in his Founders' Day speech during the university's centennial year, 1991: "[I]t was not a new dream that the Stanfords tapped into. What made their enterprise special was its ambitious scale, its radical format, its non-denominational and coeducational character, and above all its location [in California]."

     Third, you should be at Stanford because of the diversity it contains as expressed by any measure capturing the type of academic achievements and interests, artistic and athletic accomplishments, ethnic and social backgrounds. We value and seek this diversity, both to be faithful to our task to educate leaders for a diverse and complex society - a society that will, we hope, overcome undue tendencies toward stratification - and to provide a rich and challenging environment in which our students learn much from one another. Very few among you have graduated from a high school or lived in a community with such diversity. As you cross bridges to meet strangers at Stanford, the going will sometimes be rough. That, however, is part of the excitement that Stanford offers you.

     Fourth, you should be at Stanford because of the opportunities it affords for service to the public. Members of a university community, whatever their views, must not shy away from the social and political issues of their time, from citizenship, from engaging in service to the public - service in the many forms such service can take. Stanford is very supportive of these endeavors that are made most effective by applying the same critical reasoning to public service that is otherwise prized in the university.

     Fifth, you should be at Stanford because the institution believes in the Roman adage "a sound mind in a sound body." The pursuit of many excellences at Stanford includes athletics. Athletics play a large role in the lives of many Stanford students; activities range from involvement in one of the 33 Division I varsity sports to participation in intramural sports to hiking in the foothills. As a philosopher once wrote "a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king."

     Sixth, you should be at Stanford because of its global reach and its location on the Pacific Rim. Stanford's president even speaks with an accent (or so people allege). Our eight overseas campuses, of which I greatly hope you will avail yourselves, stretch from Europe to Latin America to Asia. The philosopher William James, at Founders' Day in 1906, prophetically thought of Stanford "in a century" as "devoted to truth, radiating influence, setting standards." He stressed then Stanford's potential for helping people in America and Asia understand one another better. Stanford, over the last century, has certainly mediated between America and Asia - though, to be sure, never restricted itself to these two continents.

     Seventh, you should be at Stanford because of the setting we are in at this particular moment: the yellow sandstone arches and cloisters, the "red tile roofs against the azure sky." The dominant architectural motif at Stanford connects the university to the California missions of the 18th century, to Mexico and Spain, and through Spain to the classical architecture of Rome and Greece. We also are linked to the decorative heritage of Moorish art, as indicated by the intricate arabesque stone carvings of Memorial Church or those on the arch leading into Memorial Court. In short, Stanford's buildings, like the contents of its libraries, connect us to various cultures and bygone ages, especially to those "golden ages" that have left a rich heritage.

     The notion of a golden age that once existed in a distant past is common to many civilizations. It may, for instance, be found among the Hindus. One celebrated version of the notion was put forward by the Greek poet Hesiod. In the Golden Age, according to Hesiod, the mortals lived "as if they were gods, their hearts free from all sorrow. . . and without hard work or pain, no miserable old age came their way. . . . They took their pleasure in festivals and lived without troubles."

     Alas, inherent in the notion of a golden age is a subsequent decline. Hesiod described the descent from a Golden Age to a Silver Age, to a Bronze Age (an age of formidable men who killed one another off), to an intermittent age of Homeric heroes, and, eventually, to the poet's own period, which he called the Age of Iron. Of this last he had, to put it mildly, not a very high opinion. I quote: "Never by daytime will there be an end to hard work and pain, nor in the night to weariness when the gods will send anxieties to trouble us."

     As Hesiod lived around 800 B.C. and did not embrace a cyclical philosophy of history, you can imagine where that leaves you and me. He believed a time would come when "children, as they are born, grow grey on the temples, when the father no longer agrees with the children, nor children with their father, when guest is no longer at one with host, nor companion to companion, when your brother is no longer your friend as he was in the old days." You will recognize some features of our own times.

     Hesiod's unrelieved pessimism did not prevent subsequent generations from discovering other golden ages: the Periclean age is considered the golden age of Athenian democracy; there is a golden age of Latin literature; the Siglo de Oro in Spanish literature gave us Don Quixote. In short, a golden age can be, as it were, subject-matter specific; it need not be paradise all around.

     Which leads me to the quest for the golden age of education, or, more precisely, "higher education." Placing this depends on what aspects of education we want to emphasize. If we were to focus on great teachers and role models, one might argue that the golden age of education came as soon as two to three hundred years after Hesiod's dismal Age of Iron, when in the short period of about 150 years, beginning in the second half of the 6th century B.C., Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates pursued what in universities we call their "teaching careers." As distinguished from most everybody else's teaching career, though, theirs have not yet ended. They continue as role models and teachers, not only over the centuries but the millennia.

     Of course, individual universities, too, have golden ages. These universally tend to be located in the past, though usually in the not-too-distant past. The living alumni are the reason. Whether you talk to alumni of Stanford, Chicago, Princeton, Yale, Michigan , Berkeley, Harvard - you name it - they will almost invariably assure you that their alma mater never had a better faculty, more challenging curriculum, or more exciting opportunities in general than when they were students. This phenomenon is, of course, dialectically linked to the fact that every alumnus was a member of the best class the institution ever had - just as the Stanford Class of 1999 will fulfill its promise to be the best class we have ever seen.

     If that is the case - and it may well be - you and I have arrived at the insight that the golden age is not behind, but ahead of us. To quote the French social visionary Saint-Simon, "the golden age which a blind tradition has hitherto placed in the past is before us." As far as you are concerned, there can be no question that the coming years will be the golden age of education because you will make it so and because your choice of Stanford will enable you, from the first day, to participate in the work of a great teaching and research university.

     I earlier referred to three of the great teachers of all times as having also been role models. These days, it is often said that among the preconditions of a successful education is the availability of role models. It is suggested rather than tightly argued that education presupposes an opportunity to identify with somebody who shares some distinct characteristic with us: gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, national background, regional background, language, religion - to name the most prominent.

     It seems clear to me that if members of a group to which one belongs, such as a racial group, are not present in some areas of human endeavors, this will indeed have a dispiriting effect as one considers one's aspirations in that area. The danger is that of stereotyping against the possibility of achievement by members of one's group in particular endeavors. To the extent to which the role model argument attempts to make this point, I fully agree.

     I also agree that it would be more generally dispiriting if one's group contained few models to whom one could look up. Let me give a very personal example. Those among you who have not yet fallen asleep may have managed to keep awake by wondering about the precise origins of my accent. It was acquired in Hamburg, a port city on the river Elbe in northern Germany. I was seven when the Third Reich and World War II came to an end, which means that I was educated in the postwar world. It was not an easy time to be a German: The generation of our parents contained few role models; the atrocities of the Nazis forced us to search for the reasons why and how the Germans had failed. Many people thought that certain aspects of the German character, that is, the character of Germans, accounted for Hitler and the evil deeds of the Third Reich.

     I nevertheless did find role models. Among them was one who refused to play the role of a role model. She was my history teacher in high school whom the Nazis had put in a concentration camp because she provided her students, with what, between 1933 and 1945, was a politically "incorrect" education - that is, she told the truth. It was very difficult to get her to talk about her personal experiences because she thought the aims of education consisted of the search for truth, positive values, excellences across history and civilizations rather than a student's relationship to a particular teacher with many human frailties. Erna Stahl - her name - exercised great influence on us by refusing the role we had in mind for her.

     A role model, strictly speaking, provides an example, perhaps a compelling example, of how to play a role. If one closely examines the metaphor, a theatrical metaphor, its most important element turns out to be not the model, but the role, the character to be played - such as that of Prince Hamlet. What was Shakespeare's notion of Hamlet's character? The actor John Barrymore may have electrified audiences as Hamlet, and yet his was only one of many possible conceptions of the role. Henry Irving, Maurice Evans, or Laurence Olivier each created his very own distinct portrayal. Any actor has, indeed, a range of choices available.

     Yet whatever the challenges and uncertainties, the actor may at any given time concentrate on the one assigned dramatis persona. By comparison, we all face the difficulty of having to play many roles simultaneously.

     Recall when I quoted Hesiod's prediction of an age that would follow his own Age of Iron, "when the father no longer agrees with the children, nor children with their father, when guest is no longer at one with host, nor companion to companion, when your brother is no longer your friend as he was in the old days." Hesiod, like Homer and other pre-Socratics, spoke in terms of social roles: father, child, host, companion, brother. What he saw coming, in modern jargon, we would probably refer to as the "disintegration" of those roles: father and children not any longer agreeing, guest no longer being "at one" with host, suggests conflict about what these various roles demand. In our own age, we do not any longer believe that the Great Director dictated many aspects of even the male and female roles. We have a difficult time indeed as we attempt to distinguish those traditional contents of a role that are worth retaining from those that should be discarded.

     Each of us has so many different roles to play, each with changing demands, that, most of the time, it seems beside the point to search for a particular model for one specific role that itself can be played in various ways - just like Hamlet. To become a person - the word derives from the Latin word for the mask worn by an actor to indicate the character that is being portrayed - involves, after all, the challenge to become oneself in the roles one must play. In the role of college student in which you have begun to perform today the contours often are not too clear - sometimes the student even turns into the teacher. There is, however, one aspect of the role of a student that cannot be dispensed with without abandoning the very role. Each student must be accepted by each fellow student as an autonomous individual, without regard to his or her sex, race, or any other factor irrelevant to participation in the life of the university. Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, referred to it as a scholar's "skeptical attitude towards all labels and categories that obscure appreciation of the unique feature of specific persons and their work." It would mean stepping out of the role of a student if one student dismissed another student's views simply because of that student's background.

     The university's Provost, Condoleezza Rice, is an African-American from Birmingham, Alabama, a political scientist. She tells the story how, as a junior in college in search of a major, she found a passion: the Soviet Union and Russia, the study of the Soviet military establishment, the study of nuclear war and how to prevent it. I quote:

When I started down that road, it did not occur to me that some might think me outside the boundaries of what a black woman should want to know. I simply found the issues and the concerns riveting. When, years later, the opportunity came to serve President Bush in the White House during the extraordinary period that ended the Cold War, I was grateful that I had followed my passion, not that which had been defined for me.
American women have no reason to do anything else. Barriers are insurmountable only if one sees them as such. And while it is important to have role models, people who can show the way, there is no reason to believe that role models need to "look like you" to show you the path to success in a particular career. Were that the case, there would be no firsts - no first woman on the Supreme Court, no first woman in space. Incidentally, both, the first woman on the Supreme Court and the first woman in space, are Stanford graduates. My role model was Dr. Josef Korbel, a Czech refugee and former diplomat in his sixties. He encouraged me and introduced me to the world of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. His passion for what he did was infectious. That was all that mattered.

     I hope you will find your passion at Stanford - perhaps even more than one. Stanford's motto Die Luft der Freiheit weht - "The wind of freedom blows" - was chosen by our first president after he had encountered the phrase in a biography of Ulrich von Hutten, a humanist who had lived from 1488 until 1523 and who, in the course of the 19th century, had captured the public imagination as an early fighter for secular freedom. I do believe that our motto sums up most everything I talked about this morning. In his own student days, at the height of the Renaissance, Hutten made an enthusiastic statement about the search to know. He wrote in a letter to a fellow humanist: "It is a pleasure to live. . . . Studies blossom and the minds move." I wish that you may fully experience at Stanford the pleasures that come from studies blossoming and minds moving.

     Your opportunities are golden. If only you make use of them, this will be a golden age of education - and, because of you, it will be one for us as well. I wish you the very best in the many roles ahead of you.

     Welcome to the Farm, class of 1999.