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From the Archives: What I Ask of You

Posted October 19, 2020

What I Ask of You
as printed in the Fall 1992 issue of Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

The following remarks are taken from the commencement speech delivered by Leonard Bernstein to the graduating class of Johns Hopkins University on May 30, 1980. Somewhat discouragingly, the Maestro's words remain relevant to us all today.

Leonard Bernstein speaking at commencement. Photo by James Lightner.

What I am asking of you, and what you must ask yourselves, is this: Are you ready to free your minds from the constraints of narrow, conventional thinking, the rigorous dictates of a received logical positivism?...Are you ready to dare to free your minds from the constraints we, your elders, have imposed on you? Will you accept, as artists do, that the life of the spirit precedes and controls the life of exterior action; that the richer and more creative the life of the spirit, the healthier and more productive our society must necessarily be?

If you are ready to accept all that – and I am not saying that it's easy to do – then I must ask if you are ready to admit the ensuing corollaries, starting bravely with the toughest one of all: that war is obsolete. Our nuclear folly had rendered it obsolete, so that it now appears to be something like a bad old habit, a ritualistic, quasi-tribalistic obeisance to the arrogance of excessive nationalism, face-saving, bigotry, xenophobia, and above all, greed. Do you not find something reprehensible, even obscene, about the endless and useless stockpiling of nuclear missiles? Isn't there something radically wrong with nation-states' squandering the major portion of their wealth on military strength at the expense of schools, hospitals, libraries, vital research in medicine and energy – to say nothing of preserving the sheer livability of our planetary environment? Why are we behaving in this suicidal fashion?

We need desperately to cultivate new fantasies, ones that can be enacted to make this earth of ours a safe, sound, and morally well-functioning world, instead of a destruction. We are told again and again that there is food enough on this planet to supply the human race twenty times over; that there is enough water to irrigate every desert. The world is rich, nature is bountiful, we have everything we need. Why is it, then, so hard to arrive at a minimal standard below which no human being is allowed to sink? Again, we need imagination, fantasy -- new fantasies, with the passion and courage to carry them out. Only think: if all our imaginative resources currently employed in inventing new power games and bigger and better weaponry were reoriented toward disarmament, what miracles we could achieve, what new truths, what undiscovered realms of beauty!

Full Speech

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