Albert Einstein High School Commencement
Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Congressman Jamie Raskin
June 5, 2018
Principal Fernandez, Superintendent Smith, President Durso, Principal Sosik, Principal Tsonis, Principal Dimmick, Faculty and Staff, Coaches, Parents and Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts, Friends, Big Brothers and Little Sisters, Big Sisters and Little Brothers, and above all, the Einstein graduating Class of 2018.
Thank you for this honor.
I remember when I was in high school thinking how random it was that, out of billions of people on earth, I ended up going to school and graduating with this tiny and seemingly arbitrary group of people who I must confess had started to get on my nerves a little bit. It could have been anybody, but it was them and it was me. How random and strange.
But now as I’ve gotten older and everything in life seems far sweeter and more precious to me — and far more precarious and fragile, my perspective has shifted dramatically. My sentiments today are captured in a passage I alighted upon from Thomas Jefferson when I visited Monticello recently and was paging through one of his diaries. Jefferson wrote, “The older I get, the more I realize the ones I love the most are the ones I loved the first.”
And so I know everyone is eager today to go off into the world and to find your fortune and your destiny and everybody thinks their destiny has got to be far away, like in California or something. But, wherever your destiny lies, Einstein Seniors, take a deep cleansing breath for a moment and look around — these beautiful people have grown up with you and they have helped define you and shape you just as you have helped to define and shape them and they will be part of you forever. Emily Dickinson once wrote these lines, “That it will never come again/is what makes life so sweet.”
Please take a few moments over the next few days to appreciate and praise these remarkable people you have come to know in class, on the soccer field, the classmates who cheered you on at football games or that you decorated the hallways with for Homecoming, the people you did science experiments with, the friends who cheered you on with Taitanes Solseros, the people you walked out of school and protested gun violence with after the Parkland Massacre, the people you went to the March for our Lives with, the amazing arts students, the dance people, the theater people, the people you rocked out with, people with whom you laughed and cried and endured these hard days.
I assure you these friends will become more and more important to you as you grow up and your life unfolds. There is no one else on earth you have shared your childhood with other than your fellow students, your friends and siblings, your teachers and parents and relatives. Would you stand and applaud all the people who have made you who you are today?
But I want to take a moment to show some gratitude to someone else who’s fundamentally important to every person graduating today even though he’s not here with us and even though no one of us has ever met him, a person whose name and imperishable spirit will be inextricably interwoven always with your life.
And I refer, of course, to Albert Einstein, Time Magazine’s 20th Century Person of the Century, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 and your namesake since 1962.
Now everyone knows that Einstein’s name is synonymous with genius and that he produced the most famous scientific equation in history. But it would be as much of a mistake to reduce Albert Einstein to E=MC2 as it is to reduce Martin Luther King Jr. to “I have a Dream.”
Albert Einstein was the person of the 20th Century because he rose above the terrors and agonies of world war and genocide, mass displacement and exile, racism and anti-Semitism, propaganda and fascism to solve with his boundless childlike wonder and insight some of the basic natural mysteries of the universe. He came to personify the greatest hopes and highest promise of humanity.
Let me tell you some things about Einstein that reveal not only the radicalism of his selection as your namesake back in 1962 by the Montgomery County Board of Education but also the way in which his spirit was imprinted immediately in the culture of your wonderful school. Remember 1962 was two years before the Civil Rights Act and three years before the Voting Rights Act, a time when Jim Crow still prevailed across the South and the Glen Echo Amusement Park in Montgomery County had only just admitted African-American families several months before, after a year of protest by Howard University students and local residents from Bannockburn and Bethesda.
Einstein was a German Jewish immigrant to the United States in 1933 who did not speak a word of English when he arrived here and had been stateless for five years. He lived in Belgium, the UK and Switzerland as the Nazis banned Jews from university positions, purged Jews from government, denounced foreigners and launched genocidal policies against Jews, Poles, gays and Gypsies. Before he became a U.S. citizen during the war, he had gained his Swiss citizenship. Like many of you, Einstein came to America as a stranger in a strange land fleeing violence and the oppression of authoritarian government. But he loved what he saw in the American people when he got here: What struck him, he wrote, “is the joyous, positive attitude to life. . .The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic and without envy.”
Einstein was a scientist. He believed in reason and the scientific method, empirical evidence, induction, and that most radical building block of the Enlightenment: facts. Like many of you, Einstein rejected fake news, propaganda and politicized science, and insisted upon critical thought and truth in discussion.
Einstein was a great champion of learning and creative thought but a withering critic of conventional schooling which he saw as ridiculously obsessed with testing and discipline. “School failed me,” Einstein wrote of his childhood, “and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like sergeants. I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave. This was a Catholic School in Munich. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system?”
The traditional focus on testing, sorting and screening students made schools deeply invested in discrediting students’ personal experience and exposing their ignorance rather than building on their strengths and capacities.
Said Einstein, “Most teachers waste their time by asking questions that are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning is to discover what the pupil does know or is capable of knowing.” The process of reinforcing the knowledge of young people stimulates their creative spirit. Einstein argued that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Einstein insisted that schools should stimulate not only a quest for understanding but a passion for service to the broader community, what we can think of as moral imagination. “The aim [of education],” Einstein said, “must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who . . . see in the service to the community their highest life problem.” Einstein knew in his gut the point Max Weber was making when he said that “science tells us everything except what to do and how to live.”
It is no accident that Albert Einstein the School is a place that Einstein the man would have loved. It is a school not obsessed with ranking, testing, drilling and humiliating children but devoted to nourishing and unleashing the creative capacities and imagination of every student. It emphasizes not rote learning, which Einstein dreaded, but constant questioning, community service and dialogue, creative expression through dance and the arts, excellence in creative writing and drama, serious joyful music of the kind Einstein adored, and bold artistic experimentation, the kind that led several of your classmates to become finalists in the 8th District Congressional Arts Award Competition this year and your classmate Karis Lee to win it, and thus to have her painting displayed in the tunnel of the Cannon House Building for a year. Einstein the school is a place that gives all the students donuts on the birthday of Einstein the man. Surely, he would have loved that touch.
Like so many of you, Albert Einstein was an idealistic social activist who thought and acted as a citizen of the world and a defender of all humanity.
To be sure, he was proud of being Jewish and stood strong with the Jewish people against bullying, Nazism and fascism. He championed the creation of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland. But he refused to be penned in by the kind of parochial identity politics or superficial political correctness which still keep people isolated from each other. Einstein said, “I am by heritage a Jew, by citizenship a Swiss, and by makeup a human being, and only a human being, without any special attachment to any state or national entity whatsoever.” He often sounded like Gandhi, whom he loved, as when Gandhi said, “I am a Moslem and a Christian and a Hindu and a Jew,” although Einstein probably would have added “and an atheist, a humanist and an agnostic too.”
As a humanist and a rationalist, Einstein hated war with a passion and was a lifelong “convinced pacifist.” But he surrendered his pacifism “in the face of an enemy unconditionally bent on destroying me and my people.”
He despised the irrationality and cruelty of violence so much that he rejected it in all cases except when it was absolutely necessary to use against “a hostile power” threatening wholesale destruction of a people. Einstein was involved in both persuading President Roosevelt to explore the making of an atom bomb but also in efforts to ban the bomb after World War II was over. He was a dazzling and spectacular figure.
We don’t know what the history of the 21st Century will be and we don’t know who will be the person of this Century. This will not be decided for a long, long time, and I certainly won’t be around to find out. And of course it doesn’t matter except in the metaphorical sense of which values and qualities will be celebrated and honored by our century.
The person of this century could be another refugee from violence and visionary of universal justice. It could be another immigrant with wild dreams, a passion for scientific discovery that serves all the nations of the world, a love of splendid arts and soaring beautiful music, a relentless optimism and love for humanity, and plans to achieve the elusive goals of global peace and environmental balance. The person of the Century could be someone like any of you graduates today if you follow your hearts and your minds and don’t spend too much time watching the Bachelor and Bachelorette. And remember the Person of the 21st Century is just as likely to be a woman as a man.
But remember this too because the future remains unwritten. The Person of the Century could just as likely be someone who pours contempt on immigrants, injects racial poison into the streams of public discourse, sneers at all science that is not used for war, cuts off support for the arts, spreads misogyny, and beats the drums of war every chance he or she gets.
I don’t have anyone specific in mind in this contest but I know who I’m rooting for.
Your generation has already changed the course of American history in reshaping the debate over gun violence in our country, and many of you have been in the forefront of that struggle.
Here’s a little story about Einstein students. The week following the Parkland Massacre, hundreds of local high school students walked out of class and came to Capitol Hill to protest Congressional inaction and passivity over all the bloodshed. I came out of my office to greet this huge throng of students and the very first ones I met were from Einstein and they said, “We hope you’re not mad that we walked out of school to come march.”
And I said, “Of course not, I’m proud of you. Why would I be mad?”
And they said, “Well, we told our teachers it was OK because you’d be meeting us here.”
And I said, “Well, that’s fine but how did you know I was going to be here?”
And one of them said, “Well, we all know how much you love demonstrations.”
Einstein the School in 2018 you have done honor to Einstein the man. Your school is a place of magnificent diversity of thought, provenance and experience. It is a place, my Democracy Summer Fellows tell me, where the kids who love music support the kids who love dance who support the kids who love math and science who support the kids who love the fine arts who support the kids who love politics and demonstrations and where everyone supports the football team and it makes little difference whether they win or lose. It is a place which never puts competition before community. It is a place that Albert Einstein would have loved.
So now go take your values out to a world hungry for your leadership. America needs you. The world needs you. The environment needs you. Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Because of this great school and your wonderful families, you have the resources you need to remake our reality. The Mishnah says, “it is not incumbent upon you to finish the work but neither are you free to evade it.” And I once saw some graffiti which said, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
I leave you with the words of the namesake of another great Montgomery County school, Walt Whitman, who wrote, “The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”
Now Titans go and sing them.
Godspeed to the Class of 2018.