Aspiring to Greatness

Taking the podium after a glowing introduction, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens ’91 was quick to characterize the biography just given as “the wrong intro…the flattering one,” and proceeded to deliver his own version – one that highlighted his insecurities and failures. His reason for doing so would become apparent later in evening chapel on October 30, when he was invited to speak about this year’s “All-School Ethical Topic” concerning privacy in the digital age. Tackling an even broader subject that he hoped might also encompass that issue, Bret raised the question, “What is it that makes a country great?”

As a way of approaching an answer, Bret asked students to name the “touchstone inventions” that set the tone for the 21st century, as the steam engine did in the 19th century. Smartphones, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, social media, and virtual reality were among their many suggestions – to which Bret added three of his own. Gene therapy, he proposed, may cure many diseases, extending life expectancy and transforming career paths; mobile apps are transforming the economy, providing an array of useful services and creating new jobs; and fracking has turned the U.S. into a major energy producer, making the country less dependent upon and bound to the Middle East.

“Let me point something out,” Bret said. “Anything that you or I mentioned, for the most part, was made in the United States. Why was the U.S. able to unlock and spread these innovations?”

His thoughts centered on five important questions about how a country regards critical elements of its society, starting with its people. “How does society think about immigrants?” Bret wondered. America has produced the highest number of Nobel Prize winners, he detailed, and 35 percent of them were born outside the U.S. Similarly, 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. When statistics show that immigrants – legal or illegal – commit many fewer crimes than native-born citizens, are newcomers assets or liabilities?

“How does society feel toward dissenters?” Bret continued. “When you think of people who are moral heroes, like Rosa Parks, do you think of people who were agreeing or disagreeing?” Those who dissent are sometimes wrong, he allowed, but asserted, “Societies that thrive understand that they have to maintain a sacred space for independent thought.”

Moving on to the third consideration, Bret queried, “How do we relate civically and respond to one another?” Ironically, at a time when interacting is easier than ever, he observed, people seem to be angry with one another all the time. Emboldened by online anonymity, “People are willing to say digitally what they would never say to my face,” he stated. Hostility and polarization are the result, rather than civil discourse.

“What is our attitude toward failure?” was the next question. “I read you my ‘real’ bio because your speaker is a collection of failures,” Bret acknowledged. “You cannot be a success without failure – and the ownership of failure.” Refusing to take responsibility, he cautioned, leads to blaming others – to paranoia and conspiracy thinking – and often to mass shootings, most recently in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Finally, Bret asked, “What is your attitude toward leadership? Do your values drive your interests, or do your interests drive your values?” He reflected regretfully, “Foreign policy today has become deal-oriented: ‘What’s in it for us?’ But you cannot be a leader if no one is willing to follow you. No country will lead for long if it is just being the biggest bully. The only way countries can lead is to inspire others to follow.”

Concisely summarizing, Bret closed, “Everything I have said here is what makes people great. If you can answer those five questions in the right way, you’re going to prosper. If our country can answer those five points in the right way, our country will prosper.”