Commencement Address, May 23, 2010
Dr. Bridges, thank you very much. A lot of people in my graduating class thought my degree was honorary [laughter].
Let me begin with a riddle for today’s graduates. What do good biscuits and good graduation speeches have in common? The answer? Both are better with a little shortening [laughter]. So I’ll be quick. Today is your day, Class of 2010. Also, congratulations to parents, grandparents. You know I just had a grandchild, and I just can’t imagine [pause] [laughter] seeing this day. It is, I mean, it makes me emotional; it’s just beyond my imagination. So I apologize, it’s just too much!
But I know that sacrifices have had to be made to pay bills, to offer encouragement, in some cases to let these young people know that their grandparents and great grandparents could not have dreamed of getting a superior liberal arts education, at a private school like Whitman. So to all you grandparents and parents and foster parents and step-parents, thank you, congratulations, I know this is your day, too, as much as it is the Class of 2010.
I also want to stir a little controversy by pointing out to parents that, as you know, there’s always debate about whether life begins at conception or birth, and today I want to give you the good news that life truly begins when the kids get out of college. [laughter]
So this is a marvelous moment, and it’s a Sunday. So let me have a prayer and that is, that in this magnificent setting, in this Western wonder of rivers, streams, mountains and wilderness, that surrounds Walla Walla and Whitman, may God guide your feet, graduates, as you begin your climb, your race, across the landscape of life’s hills and valleys, its storms, its heat. A retiring wilderness guide was once asked if he was ever lost. He said, ‘no,’ but he was ‘bewildered at times’ [laughter]. Well, when you find yourself bewildered, I hope you find yourself a guide in faith and in the strength of your Whitman education.
What an adventure has life been already for this class of 2010! I was thinking that since seventh grade or earlier you’ve lived through the impeachment of an American president, the horrors of 9/11, the U.S. going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, controversial and politically polarizing national elections, from the 2000 election that was decided by the Supreme Court to the 2008 election that saw the nation select its first black president.
You’ve been in school as this nation has also suffered its most severe economic contraction, recession, since the Great Depression. While you’ve been in school, advances in technology, transportation and communication, have you at ease with cellphones, Ipods, Facebook, Twittering. Speaking for the parents here, we still have to ask you how to use the remote control. No regional conflicts exist in your world: All war touches us all, from Darfur to what’s going in Pakistan, to Iran and the Middle East. It’s all one world. The biggest change as you’ve come to this moment though, I think may be in the biological sciences — cloning, DNA mapping, stem cell research, genetic therapy. Goodness gracious, they’ve got pills to help your heart, lower your cholesterol, to put hair on your head. Let me just tell you something, they’ve got pills! [laughter/applause] [more laughter/applause] If this speech should last longer than four and a half hours …[more laughter/applause]. Yup, seek immediate medical attention [more laughter].
In this fast moving reality of seismic political, economic and scientific changes, let me be the one that advises you that there are others even closer to home that are going to transform your lives. I’m particularly taken by the notion of the immensity of the shifting demographics of our country. Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States. That, too, has taken place while you’ve been getting your education. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians now make up a third of the American population — this is unprecedented. Immigration, including illegal immigrants has now reached a population point that is impacting the American identity. Immigrants come here both intending to settle, and become American, but also as part of the global economic structure — coming here for education or employment. They may stay a short while, return home, move elsewhere. Again, this is unprecedented. The emphasis on assimilation is lower than it’s ever been. Birth rates to immigrants and children of immigrants are now the fastest growing part of this nation’s population. And we have passed, according to the Census Bureau, the 300 million population point. We have never been such a populous nation. President Bridges tells me that in a decade Hispanics with approach the majority of Eastern Washington — incredible!
So change is all around us and in this uncertain environment, so, too, is anxiety. Today’s graduates are going into a tough job market — competition for graduate study as well as jobs, for internships, even volunteer positions is high. Trust in American leadership — positions that you will occupy as people look to you with your Whitman education — trust in leadership is at an all-time low from Washington, to the Vatican, to Wall Street. Most Americans tell pollsters they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. At this moment of great anxiety and uncertainty, let me remind you, today’s graduates, that you are the best — you are good people with good education and, as you can see by all of us gathered here, you are much loved. You are the chosen children. You’ve met expectations of your parents, your teachers, your coaches. This is no time to begin acting out of fear, anger and finger-pointing. This is no time for retrenching in terms of your plans or changing plans to somehow take into account this very tough moment. In fact, if you want to make God laugh, let me suggest that you tell her your plans.
So this is a moment to go beyond expectations, to reach inside and do the unexpected. Surprise your parents. Surprise your teachers. Surprise your friends (they never thought you’d get here anyway). But most of all, surprise yourself. Go beyond what makes you comfortable. Open yourself to ideas, events, relationships that make you uncomfortable. Travel places where you know no one. Learn another language. Create art, even though you’re not an artist. Argue with people. Fall down. Get up. Read books, all sorts of books. Mark Twain once said: “a man who does not read has no advantage over a man who can’t read.”
So read. Be curious. Understand, as Whitman has taught you, as these faculty have sought to ingrain in you, that true freedom is the freedom to avoid manipulation by fear; that true freedom is being able to avoid the evil that comes from not thinking; that true freedom is the ability to avoid the evil that comes from not caring, not excelling and not believing that you can do it.
Think back to those great-grandparents and grandparents who overcame the Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War. Think of the limits that existed 50 years ago for women, Blacks and immigrants in this country. I would ask you to surprise yourself.
As a journalist, I have the opportunity to meet all sorts of world leaders. And I can’t tell you how often this comes to me. That these people are surprising themselves everyday: that that is their distinguishing characteristic. I remember meeting Nelson Mandela after he had just come out of jail. I was in his home in Soweto, South Africa. And it was an odd moment in that, you know there were so many journalists from all around the world there wanting a moment of Mandela’s time. But it turned out I had written a book about the American Civil Rights Movement that he had read while he was in jail. In fact, he’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who read the book before he saw the TV series [laughter].
So when he saw my name on a list of people who wanted to greet him on his release, he said, “Well, I’d like to meet the author,” and so I was put in a line with ambassadors and the like to shake hands with Nelson Mandela. Well once I got up there, I wouldn’t let go of his hand [laughter]. And I said: “Please Mr. Mandela, I come from Washington, D.C., in the United States of America. It would mean so much to us to just have a moment of your time for an interview. Please, please, please.” And of course at this point his aides — you know how it looks when you have a bad comedian on the stage and they give him the hook? — his aides are pulling me to get me out of there, so I finally let go of his hand. But just when I’m about to hit the door, he says, “Well you’re a writer and I have some personal correspondence I need to take care of, and if you’re willing to help me, you can stay around and I’ll talk to you when I can.” So I said, “That’s a deal, I’ll do it!” So I ended up writing silly letters, things like “Thank You Comrade Gorbachev. It’s great to be out. See you soon, love Nelson.” Yeh, you guys laugh, but I got my interview, I tell you that!
So, you know I’m doing this stuff, and then, of course, I’m seeing Mandela as he’s having meals with his children, seeing old friends, relatives, really an unbelievably moment, and at one point everybody gets up from the table, and I say to him: “Mr. Mandela, from the time that you were a child, you must have had a desire to break apart this cruel Apartheid system, to take on the racism in this society.”
And this very serious man begins to laugh out loud. And I think, “Oh my God, there must have been some cultural miscommunication. He didn’t get it.” But he says, “No, no, no.” He says, “No, everybody says this to me.” He says when he was a young man, the only thing we wanted to rebel against were his parents! He said, he wanted to move away from them, he thought they were stuck in the mud, they didn’t know what was going on. Remember, this is a guy that would have been a prince had he just stayed. He was attracted to the lights of the bright city: He wanted to go to Johannesburg. He wanted to see what life was like. He wanted to become a boxer. His parents couldn’t understand it. Then he wanted to learn the language of the Dutch settlers. And his friends couldn’t understand. And then he wanted what he called a Western-style education, a Whitman education, what you’ve received. And one thought, why would you do that?
And then he said he wanted to go to law school, and even his closest friends said, “You know Nelson, a black man, a black lawyer in South Africa, you’re not going to have any juice. No one’s going to hire you. This is a hard life. Why would you do this?” He went to law school. And then he got out of law school, and he was representing the few clients that were attracted to him as a young black man. And he found that he was frustrated by dealing with the legal system, that the courts did not honor their rights, did not listen to his arguments. So he got involved with political activists, with the African National Congress, and pretty soon they had him giving a few speeches, and wouldn’t you know it, the government identified Mandela as a leader, and pretty soon he was in the dock, and pretty soon he was confined to Robben Island. And you couldn’t wear a T-shirt with his picture on it. Journalists couldn’t type his name in the newspaper. You couldn’t hear a Mandela speech on the radio. It was all illegal. He was viewed as that powerful. And, of course, when he was released from prison, well, his light had shown beyond the borders of South Africa. Now he was a beacon, a beacon of the freedom movement to the world, and you had journalists, including me, coming from around the world to simply get a glimpse of him, to hear what he had to say.
And I think to myself as I look out at all of you today that right here are future Nelson Mandelas. Right here are people who don’t know where life’s road is taking them. That today among you are people who are going to make history, but maybe even more so people who are going to make a difference. Because you are a light to the world; you are our greatest hope. You are educated. You are loved. And that’s why I would ask that you make your highest priority on this day to surprise yourself. To allow your imagination to run wild. To test your ability to surprise yourself, challenge yourself in every way.
And remember that the only way that people have to speak good of you, is when you do good. That the only way you can truly be happy is by making others happy. And that the only way that you will feel love, when you reach 95 years old and come back to Whitman, is that you make a practice of loving other people. May God bless you on this Commencement day.