Good morning Dr. Craig, Dean Goen, members of the faculty families, friends and most of all, graduates. It’s a good day. A big day, and I’m honored to be here. I have to thank you graduates. Though you’re not the ones who invited me, you apparently didn’t put up enough of a fight to get the invitation cancelled, so thanks for that. This being your day, you should able to hear from someone you’ve chosen. But Bruce Springsteen, Denzel Washington, Bono and Angelina Jolie weren’t available. And Vice President Cheney was stuck away in an undisclosed location somewhere. George W. Bush couldn’t be here either, but I think we can be sure he’s listening. So I thank you for giving me these few minutes, and for being willing to listen along with the National Security Agency.
My heartiest congratulations to each of you graduates – and to your parents and loved ones. This is a significant achievement. You’ve worked hard – at least most of you have – and you’ve earned your right to hold your head high and go out and challenge the world – which is exactly what I’m hoping you’ll do. This education provides a springboard into what can be a deeply fulfilling life. The open road is before you. You have some choices to make and I want to encourage you to dare.
First, let me offer an apology. I’m not sure apology is exactly right, but at least an explanation. You see, I didn’t do what you’ve done. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t put my head down and grind out the hours and the classes and the projects and the essays and the politics and the exhausting, mind-numbing work you did to get to where you are this day. I am not a college graduate, and don’t pretend to be a scholar. I’m proud to stand here in the company of these learned people, but the thoughts I offer you today are gathered from experience in the world, not from the halls of academia. While I’ve made a living in what people think of as glamorous Hollywood, I’ve spent some time in refugee camps and prisons. I’ve experienced massacre sites in Rwanda, death rows in America and war zones in Bosnia. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I’ve lived through that horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” But I want you to know that I very often wish I had done what you’ve done, because I believe it might have better prepared me to deal with what I’ve come to see as a painfully bifurcated world. So please know that I admire and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. I admire it very much. You make me hopeful and you make me proud.
And I want to pay respects to your teachers, as well. Those who teach you, our leaders of tomorrow, do not enjoy the esteem they deserve in our society. I don’t quite understand why. We seem, in America, to glorify “success” – but success measured by the number of dollars one amasses – rather than seeing success as a happy and fulfilled life, realized by making a contribution to a person, our community, the greater society, or to the world at large. And I wonder what greater contribution one can make than to successfully challenge young people to open their minds and embrace possibility.
That issue was nicely put in context by a story I recently heard: It seems that after their dinner at a gathering, some guests sat around the table discussing life. One man, the very wealthy and successful Chief Executive Officer of a major corporation, explained that the problems in our society began, in his view, with poor education. He then expanded on this point by asking, “What’s a kid going to learn from someone whose best option in life was to become a teacher?”
While some at the table were a bit discomfited by this observation, others, in their silence, seemed to agree. But however they felt, no one objected. This guy was very rich and very powerful.
So the CEO went on, holding forth rather pompously, and ended by saying that it’s true what they say about teachers: “Those who can... do. Those who can’t... teach.”
Then, to underscore the point, he singled out one of the guests, a young woman, and said, “You’re a teacher, Susan. Be honest. What do you make?”
Susan looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, then replied, “You want to know what I make?”
“I make kids wonder.” “I make them question.” “I make them criticize.” “I make them apologize and mean it.” “I make them write.” “I make them read, read, read.” “I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, and definitely beautiful over and over and over again, until they will never misspell either of those words again.” “I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.” “I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart.... and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, pay them no attention.” “You want to know what I make?” “I make a difference.” “What about you?”
I don’t know if that actually occurred, but the issue is real. I know that many Susans do exist. And I’m on their side. I hope you are as well, because the story describes a major problem confronting our society today: the downgrading of education, the exaltation of the brute and the concomitant degradation of the nurterers – chief among them, the teacher. We disrespect those who devote their lives to the enhancement of the minds and capacities of others while making heroes of those who only amass great sums of money. That’s a recipe for disaster.
H.G. Welles defined civilization as a race between education and catastrophe.
A while back I saw a study that said high school kids in America, when asked whether they’d rather be rich or smart, chose rich. They said if they were rich they could hire smart people.
That’s the road to Mr. Welles’s catastrophe, because an education that opens your mind to possibility is the greatest gift you can be given. One with an open, inquisitive, excited mind, a person with an active, vivid, enthusiastic imagination, is the richest person in the world. Money won’t give you that.
Now, I have nothing against money. It’s nice to have it in today’s world, but we seem to have come to a place in our society where having it is everything, and having more than the next guy is better, and having even more than you can ever spend, is the top of the pile. While that may be Nirvana for some, to me it’s the beginning of the end. I remember once hearing a psychiatrist who was asked whether he’d rather treat rich people or poor people. He said, “I’d rather treat rich people, because they know money won’t solve their problems.”
So I hope you’ll let this education guide you into some thoughtful life choices – and, 1) don’t think you’re done learning – keep on educating yourselves – 2) go out there and climb the ladder to success. But make it your own success, your own, personal success. Make it something that lights you up inside and gives you that sense that you’re making a contribution in the world, because by doing that you are making a contribution to the world.
Horace Mann, sometimes thought of as the father of public school education, admonished students: “Be ashamed to die before you have won some battle for humanity.”
“Be ashamed to die before you have won some battle for humanity.” That’s a hell of a charge. Your battle, climbing that ladder of success - but hopefully first struggling to define what success means to you - need not be a world-shaking one. But if you do it consciously, thoughtfully, humanely, you’ll win a battle for humanity. Those battles are fought on many fronts every day.
A great and learned friend of mine – a rabbi, said: “the most deeply human and courageous men and women are those who in life and death dare to submit themselves to the ordeal of walking through the fire of selfhood, of loneliness and tragedy. In their example we can learn... that this life, this world, for all of its cynicism and stupidity and anguish, is also a place where change is possible, where one can take on a host of evils, even death itself. There is no guarantee of victory, but there is a choice: one either collaborates with the enemy... with whatever is miserable or inhumane, or one joins the resistance. To be most deeply human is to be among the resisters, to resist whatever demeans life. And that will lead us to become aware of what one human being owes to another, can mean to another, and to have compassion for all people - all of us - in our terrible fragility."
‘Walking through the fire of selfhood…’ Joining the resistance against ‘whatever demeans life…’ win the battle for humanity.
One of the goals of the Eleanor Roosevelt College, it’s my understanding, is “educating young people in a way that inspires them to be ‘involved world citizens.’” As someone put it to me, to get them to know that “You don’t have to be Gandhi, but you can, in the way you choose to lead your life, be a force for change.”
Our world needs those willing to be a force for change. There are too many collaborators, those so concerned with their own status that they become, even if unwittingly, enemies of change.
Ours is the greatest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. But some of us believe its true greatness and power come not from its wealth and its military might, though those are formidable, but from the principles articulated by the Founders who laid out a path to glory. Holding certain truths to be self-evident, they declared that all are created equal and committed themselves to ideals of fairness and equal justice under law. They set out on a revolutionary path that must be continued if America is ever to fully realize the vision they laid before us. As John Denver once put it, “A promise once made, will it shine, will it fade, will we rise to the vision or fall?”
Being a force for change means taking the revolutionary path - resisting whatever demeans life. It means honoring the dreams of the founders and not deluding ourselves that we’ve arrived at perfection. It means that fundamental human rights like dignity, freedom, hope and possibility are not granted exclusively to Americans, but rather that we recognize their necessity, demand them for ourselves and expect – and support - others in doing the same.
But, as with the story of the CEO and the teacher, some have another view. Many years ago, a man named George Kennan, known as the architect of the Cold War, wrote a top-secret memo to U.S. Government leaders declaring: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population...
In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity...
To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our intention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives... We should cease to talk about vague... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
Ambassador Kennan later moderated that view, but its spirit lives on, revived in recent years by the Project for the New American Century, a very powerful group that promotes an American Empire, claiming the right to preserve our superiority by striking out at any nation it deems a potential threat.
Being what Mr. Kennan disdains as an idealist, a sentimentalist and a daydreamer, I have no sympathy with their position, but it’s important that you, as future leaders, know it’s there, embraced by powerful people. As with Susan and the CEO, there are choices to be made, decisions about what enhances and what demeans life, and where we are to stand.
Being part of the resistance in a free society means using your intelligence and talent to engage with the world, to bring about change that enhances the lives of others. And sometimes it demands we dissent. The right to dissent is essential, if more difficult in confusing times – times like today, when kids your age and younger are fighting and dying in a war the rationale for which has since been shown to be groundless. When our leader says you’re either “with us or you’re with the terrorists,” and his spokesperson says Americans should “watch what they say, watch what they do,” one can get the impression that dissenting voices are not only unwelcome, they are disloyal. As one who has been called a “traitor” and a “Saddam-lover” for opposing this hideous war in Iraq, I can tell you it’s sometimes not a pleasant thing to be a dissenter. There was even a time when I was delivered a particularly devastating blow. In a fit of pique, furious at my opposition to the war in Iraq, a man once said I was “French.” But as Robert F. Kennedy reminded us, "What is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant." We, then, have to guard against becoming, through intolerance, the very thing we claim to oppose.
But I am not here today to rail against an unjust, illegal and inappropriate war, I’m here to say that we need you. We need you to join the resistance, to win a battle for humanity.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The truth is found when men are free to pursue it." You, men and women, are free to pursue it, set free by your pursuit of higher education, by your willingness to stick it out, and by the challenges you’ve taken up here at Eleanor Roosevelt College.
Your genius, your talent, the unique quality aching to burst forth from deep in the heart and soul of each of you is the gift that you can bring to bear to help solve our world’s problems. Because there are many problems in our world – and here at home - that reek of misery and inhumanity.
Imagine, for a moment, that you lived in a country that provided an example of human possibility for the rest of the world, one that praised the inherent beauty, value and dignity of every individual human being.
Imagine that this country inspired hope in the breasts of men and women everywhere.
Imagine then, living in this very place, this shining star, this limitless opportunity, and having it denied to you because of your age, your race, your sex, your beliefs, your health, your social status or the place of your birth.
Imagine the frustration, the despair that could infect those who had glimpsed possibility. Imagine the hopelessness that would appear and the cynicism that would follow
Imagine it because this is the worm’s-eye view, the perspective of some in our own country who don’t enjoy the security in their lives that so many of us take for granted. Their existence is the bottom line, where a principled life separates itself from a fear-driven world view; it’s the line one steps across when exposing the lie that claims some human beings are immaterial, inconsequential, invisible.
There is plenty of evidence around us – the unresolved devastation from Katrina only one recent example - to demonstrate that we are failing many of those in our own society by deeming them invisible. We compound the failure by ignoring their pain, blinding ourselves to their possibilities, allowing these invisible people to suffer invisibly and then, if they misbehave, we destroy them. Unless someone cares enough to pierce the shield of invisibility, these children and adults whose hearts yearn for justice, explode and do harm – or implode and do harm in another way.
Some are physically or mentally ill, some may be misled or confused. But they are outside looking in, and consider what is on display for them: a collaboration of celebrity and media that creates heroes without substance: smirking stick figure idols who condemn “girly men” and mouth slogans rather than live principles; professional athletes at the peak of their abilities, wealthy beyond their dreams, behaving like unthinking brutes; enormously successful businesspeople – Enron, Halliburton or the latest offender - trampling others in pursuit of more and more of the almighty dollar; television commentators, bloviators and pundits who cannot open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge; policemen and women losing their way in a whirlpool of power, money, dope and corruption; religious leaders wallowing in self-righteous condemnation of others; political appointees who lie, conspire and seek to destroy anyone who exposes their corruption; elected leaders – one in our own state who doesn’t know if “harass” is one word or two – and others who hide behind the curtain hoping not to be exposed while condoning the evil of torture with a wink.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America,” a book many still consider one of the best assessments of our nation and its institutions. In it, he said “America is great because she is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Today, people here and across the world suffer invisibly while corruption flourishes, we pour hundreds of billions of dollars into a war based on lies, and humanity goes begging. It makes me furious.
A man named Baine Kerr made a very wise observation in a novel entitled “Harmful Intent”: “In cynical times right and wrong can be hard to sort out. Goodness and truth can seem beyond our reach. But we have the option, the obligation, to put cynicism aside and exercise the public virtues: to find truth, oppose wrong, protect innocence, promote good and do right.”
Another novel tells a great truth told quite simply. The primary character, a cop, says, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” Think about it.
John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and philosopher, asks us to recognize that we are privileged to live in America. And, he says, “The duty of privilege is absolute integrity.”
As you leave this institution and go on to become leaders in tomorrow’s America, I hope you’ll cherish what you have here; I hope you’ll remember that the privileges given you in life are considered unattainable luxuries by most of the people in the world; and I hope you’ll join the resistance against that which demeans life.
My congratulations to you all. Go with God.