Sixteen years to the day after Madeleine Albright took her oath as Secretary of State, she addressed an audience of 1,000 at Saint John’s 9th annual Abdella Center for Ethics lecture on January 23, 2013. In addition to claiming her historic title as the first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright also made Saint John’s history as the first woman to speak in the Abdella Center for Ethics Lecture Series. Prior speakers include Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Dr. Paul Farmer, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, and Rev. John Paris - who was the first Abdella lecturer in 2003 and returned to Saint John’s for Albright’s talk.
Small in stature but commanding in presence and wit, Dr. Albright expressed her gratitude for being extended the invitation to come to Saint John’s and interact with the students and guests.
A pioneer herself, Madeleine Albright blazed an unprecedented path in American politics when her appointment as Secretary of State in 1997 made her the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history until that time. She had previously represented the United States as ambassador to the United Nations from 1991 until 1997. Albright continues to make history as a professor of International Relations at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and chair of the global strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group. She also chairs the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project. She currently serves on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Policy Board.
During Dr. Albright’s visit to campus, Saint John’s faculty member Mike Hughes commented that “when you meet her, you’re meeting someone who did the job that George Washington asked Thomas Jefferson to do.” There is a sense of responsibility to the greater good that transcends time, and to that role Albright brought humility and a drive to remain as informed and unbiased as possible.
In a talk entitled “The Courage to Listen: maintaining civility in discourse, discussion, and decision-making in the years ahead,” Albright challenged everyone, especially the students present, to strive to seek the truth in the face of bias and to make informed decisions in a divided world. She argued that the best way do so is by actively listening. “The truth is often difficult to pin down,” Albright observed. “Yesterday’s truth is different from today’s.” She cited that people once held as fact that the world was flat, and that Pluto was a planet.
A core message of her lecture hinged on the students’ ability to use their education to their advantage to defend what they consider to be true, synthesize opinion from fact, and most importantly, to appreciate the position and platforms of those in opposition. “It will always be up to us to separate opinions from fact. It is possible to be utterly sure of something and to be utterly wrong.”
Developing an informed understanding of our own beliefs and the motivations of others is the key to healthy discourse and ethical decision-making, according to Albright. She alluded to Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven year long imprisonment, during which he bettered his understanding of the Afrikaaners who incarcerated him. This act of listening and discerning allowed him to communicate and forgive. Though it is often challenging, said Albright, “choose to listen to those who make you the most upset.” She witnessed the overwhelming impact a Saint John’s education has had on its students and graduates, and challenged those present to continue to push themselves rather than settling for the easy ethical decisions.
Albright was forced to navigate international affairs as a child. Born to a Czechoslovak diplomat in 1937, Albright’s family fled from Nazi forces to England, where they lived through the London Blitz. After the war, her family returned to Prague when she was eight years old, when the looming threat of communism in Czechoslovakia drove them back into exile, this time to America. Madeleine Albright’s deep-seated interest in foreign relations quickly took shape, and she actively sought involvement with international diplomacy clubs in every school she attended.
Her fondness for the Model United Nations club was evident during her visit to Saint John’s. She arrived early to help the SJMUN celebrate their 40th anniversary with a surprise visit. Junior Cody Shallow appreciated how Albright linked international debate on a grand scale to ordinary daily interactions, saying, “she gave a good message to the students of Saint John’s to put aside our biases and listen in a world where there is not a lot of civility in debate or daily conversation.”
At the start of the Abdella lecture, eleven students opened the program with a prayer that was spoken in each of their native languages, highlighting both the diversity of cultures and faith traditions at Saint John’s today and the unifying nature of faith. Albright’s unique background has lent her an appreciation for all faiths and the common threads that run throughout them. As detailed in her 2012 book, Prague Winter, Albright discussed that she was raised Catholic, married an Episcopalian and uncovered in the late 1990s that her ancestors were Jewish, many of whom died in the Holocaust. Her own perception of her identity has changed with a renewed understanding of her family’s roots.
Albright also eagerly took questions from several Saint John’s students, which ranged from her opinions on national sovereignty in today’s world to interactions with world leaders like North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, whose methods and beliefs starkly contradicted her own.
Sophomore Chang Feng asked Dr. Albright to what extent she believes religion should influence foreign policy. Referencing her 2006 book The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections of America, God, and World Affairs, Albright discussed at length how the openness to the beliefs of others and the ability to listen and comprehend ties in with the theme of her lecture. During her tenure as Secretary of State, she strove to develop an understanding of Islam and recommends still that foreign service officers understand the religious and cultural backgrounds of the nations with which they interact. “We can separate church and state,” she said, “but not religion and people.”
Headmaster Michael Welch ’78 cited the Xaverian motto “Concordia res parvae crescunt,” (“In harmony small things grow”) echoing the message of the students’ prayer of growing in harmony. The Abdella Center for Ethics highlights the Christian work and conscientious discussion of ethical issues that Saint John’s addresses on a daily basis. “At Saint John’s, our goal is to graduate men of faith who have a solid academic foundation with the critical thinking skills and moral compass to assess the meaning and ethical implications of the world in which they live, so that they are better positioned to serve others and our global society.”
This installment of the Abdella Center for Ethics was arranged by Steve Kerrigan ’89, who through his work has developed a close friendship with Dr. Albright. During his introduction of Dr. Albright, Kerrigan briefly shared the profound impact Saint John’s made on his educational and professional paths in addition to the indelible effects it had on his formation as an informed, curious, and conscientious person.
Thankful for his Saint John’s education, which he cites as making all the difference in his life, Steve noted that the school “nurtures mind, body, and spirit, and is a beacon of light and great education.” Within the walls of the Saint John’s buildings was where Steve and so many others learned the concept of “same sky” that he has carried with him through his life and work. His education gave him the understanding of everyone’s obligation to each other as members of a global community.
Dr. Albright’s long visit to Saint John’s, which began with her quietly exploring the campus allowed the students and faculty to interact with her on a more intimate level. Her candid and approachable nature belied her impressive achievements on the world stage, and contributed to an even more accessible discussion of ethics and civility in discourse.
“I thought it was a great evening,” remarked teacher Ben Lizotte ’89, who is a close friend of Kerrigan, following Dr. Albright’s lecture. “The importance of the Abdella Center for Ethics is not necessarily what the speakers say, but how they say it, and how they interact with students.”
Hon. Charles Abdella ’60 began the Abdella Center for Ethics in 2003 in honor of his father and with the intent to bring the Saint John’s community another dimension of ethical discourse. “Dr. Albright’s message was penetrating and captured the fundamental purpose of the Abdella Center. My hope for the students through this lecture is that they learn to recognize the value of reasonable dialogue. The message will hopefully stay with them ad infinitum, affecting their own decision-making on whatever paths they travel. Saint John’s instills core ethical values into its students, and enhancing that experience through the Abdella Center will hopefully serve them for the rest of their lives.”
David Wentzell ’83, who has been an integral part of the Abdella Center for Ethics since 2005, ended the evening with the comment that “good listening is more than good hearing. It is allowing the other person the chance to talk,” and therefore “feel empowered, respected, and valued.” For all of Albright’s expertise and experience, her message is simple and powerful: “have the courage to listen to one another.”
Madeleine Albright’s words that “we do well to admit we don’t know everything there is to know” linger as a task for all, especially students, to embody the Xaverian ideals of humility in actions, compassion for others, and the zeal to enthusiastically bring their education out into the world.