At first glance, it might seem inappropriate that the motto of an institution such as Brown would be "In God We Hope." The God of our Baptist forbearers has had very little to do with our experience of the last four years. However, I believe that "In Deo Speramus" expresses something more relevant than ever as we prepare to leave the safety of Brown and join the world beyond College Hill — for all of our collective mistrust in traditional absolutes, there are some that still must be hoped for if we are to rise to the calling that this day represents.
When this motto was first adopted in 1833, it would not have been particularly controversial or problematic. God was a given and His grace was universally hoped for, though not expected. Protestant doctrine provided the moral and intellectual compass for those who sat in our places many years ago, which was reflected in the curriculum.
Obviously, this is no longer the case today. The Bible is not required reading, nor is it expected that we go to church on Sundays. However, the Brown education is still structured around absolutes in which we place our faith and hope. We speak of goodness in a similar way that God was spoken of at Brown in the past. Back then, goodness was identical with God. Now the good is no longer the strict province of theology, but rather the guiding star of an intellectual culture based on reason instead of faith.
The argument may be different, but the sentiment is the same. We hope that through reason and intellectual inquiry, we can discover the mandates of the good. Even though our society has progressed immeasurably since 1833, we still seek guidance from above. We still seek the knowledge that we are doing the work of something bigger than ourselves, that all of our works can be toward the same end.
We must hope that despite all of our differences, there is a good that we can pursue together, that we do not spend our lives pulling in opposite directions. As the world has grown more inclusive, it is now incumbent on us to reckon with the many different visions of the good. One need not look further than contemporary American politics to see the difficulty in assessing competing visions for society. This in turn requires the courage to see the world as it really is and not as we would like it to be.
The danger of trying to force the world into our categories of thought is that we risk losing the nuances and subtleties that make the world complex and interesting. If your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. The world does not exist in black and white, up and down, or good and evil — these are just ways in which we try to make sense of a world whose complexity vastly exceeds our own capacities for understanding it.
For all that we have learned in the last four years, we still see through a glass darkly. Perhaps there will come a time when we will see the good face to face, but that is not this day. We must go forth with the understanding that our ideas about the good will necessarily be incomplete.
The world will fall short of our ideals. We can hope that the good exists and is obvious, but we must be prepared to act even when it is not. A liberal arts education is about uncovering the threads of these ideals in many disparate sources and traditions in order to weave them into a coherent understanding of our place in the world. The hope of the Brown education is that these threads lead us towards a universally accessible intellectual and moral compass that will guide us in our lives beyond Brown — in the good of our courage in the face of injustice, we hope. In the good of our ability to confront the problems of the world, we hope.
Progress hinges not on being progressive, but on progressing. It is not enough to simply have an ideal — one must actively pursue it. Decrying the evils of the world is easy, but correcting them is hard. Doing the right thing is not always easy, but it is always right.
Unlike our predecessors, we must work toward first principles, rather than merely accepting them. Just go, now, not to do something easy or comfortable, but something you think is important. Do not worry too much about what that is, because if we have learned anything from this place, it is that we will learn to recognize injustice when we see it. In Good We Hope.
Brian Judge ‘11 is a philosophy concentrator from Chapel Hill, NC. He can be reached at email@example.com.