University of Minnesota, Morris
May 8, 2004
Chancellor Schuman, Trustees, Faculty, Graduates and their Families.
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the honor which you have
conferred upon me by asking me to speak. It was not so long ago, just before the
Renaissance, that communities would not bury actors within the town limits because they
were considered shape-shifters and in league with the devil. Their bodies were thrown out
at the cross-roads. Today, after having had a former actor as a President, and another as
current Governor of California, it seems impossible that this was once standard practice.
I begin my remarks with this anecdote today, because I wanted graphic example of the fact
that things do change. The possibility of change and your role in it is the subject of my
It was forty years ago this month that Chancellor Schuman and his wife Nancy and I
graduated from Grinnell College, in Iowa. For obvious reasons, I would like to say that
the remarks of our graduation speaker marked me like a brand and altered the course of my
future. Alas, I cant remember a word or even the sex of the speaker, though being
the early Sixties, it was most-likely a man.
What I do remember most vividly were my curious feelings while walking around the campus
with my parents. It may have been their first visit, Im not sure. But after four
years away, I had, for the first time, created a circle of relationships to which I was
central. Heretofore, I had always perceived myself in relation to the life of my parents.
I sensed a difference, when I returned home from college for my first Christmas vacation.
I noticed subtle changes in my room. It had obviously been used for purposes other than my
personal privacy and pleasure. My parents had begun to incorporate my space for their own
purposes,and I was not certain how I felt about that idea.
As I returned home over the next four years, that feeling of strangeness
clarified the fact that I was visiting the home of my parents.In some subtle way I was now
a visitor and could no longer treat their home cavalierly as a personal laundry and
restaurant. I had cast off from the shore of childhood.
This sense of dislocation continued when my parents attended my graduation. I was proud to
show them the world and friends that I had assembled for myself. Yet, proud as I was to
reveal my new life to them, I was also embarrassed to have them trailing around with me.
In my mind they brought with them, no matter how inadvertently, all of my personal
history: not only their ideas of me, but all the humiliating incidents of childhood and
adolescence which I had sought to leave behind in creating my newer, more adult college
self. It never occurred to me that the dynamics of separation might be mutual. After all,
while I had been creating a life independent of them, they were doing the same thing. Both
processes involved feeling ones way into new and unexplored territory, like fording
a river from one side which is known to another which is unknown and mysterious.
Today, I understand that despite their discomforts, such moments, are extremely fertile.
Since I now think of them as the essence of graduating, Id like to explore this
in-between terrain a bit more and invite you to join me.
In high school and college, I thought of the word graduation as if it meant
release from a small, confining structure constructed of study, deadlines, and pressure.
Today, Id invite you to hear the word differently; to hear it as the graduations of
a measuring cup, or as we describe a graduated cylinder.
If you hear it in this way, graduation is neither an unrelated end or beginning, but
carries with it all the antecedents of ones past and moves them to a new level. The
purpose of a ceremony, like todays, is to slow things down and give us a moment to
reflect. In some cultures, ceremonies last for days, but their purpose is always to allow
time to review where weve come from and assimilate it, and to evaluate or reevaluate
our choice of a future destination.
The degree that you are about to receive today is the product of many peoples labors
besides your own. Your parents, your grammar school teachers, the architects and laborers
who built these buildings, the janitors who keep them clean, the men and women who
prepared your food, and your professors who have offered their lifetimes of scholarship
for your benefit. If you investigate diligently enough, you can easily see that you are
beholden to all these people and many more for this degree. Today is the day where you
consider all these gifts that others have offered you and determine how you might best
shape your life to express your gratitude and to repay them and pass a similar gift onto
I began to consider such things in college, at the time that I was moving away from the
center of my family and entering the gravitational pull of citizenship; active membership
in my society. In my junior year in college, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Few Americans living at that time have forgotten where they were when they heard the news
that their President had been murdered. The Presidents death had a personal
resonance for me as well.
A year before his assassination, President Kennedy had invited me and twelve fellow
students from Grinnell College into the White House under unusual circumstances. It was
immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Russia and the United States had teetered
on the brink of a nuclear confrontation. During that confrontation, glued to the
television news,this group of friends and I were deeply affected by what appeared to be
the end of the world. (Years later memoirs of the politicians involved revealed our fears
to be perilously close to true.) We felt that we needed to do something; that we could not
simply sit by and study Chaucer or Chemistry as our last acts on Earth. So, we raised a
few hundred dollars, bought two old cars, and drove to Washington, D.C. to fast for three
days and walk a picket line in front of the White House. We carried signs calling for an
end to nuclear weapons and supporting the Presidents recent proposal for a
To our amazement, the world noticed. President Kennedy, who was in Phoenix at the time,
heard reports about us and invited us into the White House to meet and speak with
MacGeorge Bundy, then his Special Assistant for National Security Affairs. This was the
first time in the history of the White House that pickets had ever been invited in, and it
became the subject of headlines all over the country.
We parlayed the publicity attending our White House invitation by mailing copies of the
newspaper coverage to every college in the country. The following February, 25,000 young
people converged on Washington to assert their political views. This was the first
national student demonstration in United States history.
With this act, we had graduated into the world, with an intention to move it, and the
world moved. No wonder my parents and I no longer fit together as snugly as we once did.
Like a soldier returning from war, I had been changed by experiences that those who had
not shared them could never fully understand.
These feelings associated with of catching oneself in mid-stream are the inevitable birth
pains as we pass from one psychological diameter into a larger one.
Todays ceremony is one of the few times in your life where the world will offer you
the luxury of recognizing that you are in just such a passage. I invite you to use this
opportunity to make a conscious choice of your next destination and I would like to
propose something for you to consider.
Forty years after my own graduation, the world is a very different place. The promises are
the same, but the dangers and terrors seem to have escalated. Judging by my own children
and their friends, what seems most different between your generation and my own,
translates to me like a loss of belief that one individual can make a tangible difference
in the world for the better.
Its a critical difference. Change is fueled by intention. Its a powerful force
which moves the world. But intention cannot surface unless, underneath and buoying it up,
is the belief that ones own efforts can count for something. Im not speaking
of religious faith but a very simple, rational belief that things could change for the
better. They could not, but believing that they might, is not idle wishing. It is the
foundation that offers us a launching platform for our intention. If you can accept that
simple proposition, you have positioned yourself to exert your will on the world.
The reason that this concerns me so much is that currently less than 50% of our citizens
vote. Consider that. Our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters are in harms way
at this very moment, ostensibly promoting rights for others that more than half of our
citizens do not bother to employ. If ten percent of the energy spent learning sports
statistics and celebrity shopping haunts was dedicated to learning the voting records and
financial supporters of the legislators passing our laws and allocating the Nations
spending priorities, we would live in a Nation without many of those intractable problems
Despite the faults of our political system; its glacial pace of change, its
corruption, and its scant moral courage, it is still available to be changed through the
vote. If we participate in it fully, it is logically possible that it may change for the
better. If we dont participate, there is no hope that it will. This fact is well
understood by extremely powerful forces whose visions and plans for America may conflict
with your own.
This is not a personal prejudice. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Republican
President Dwight D. Eisenhower all warned the Nation publicly and explicitly about the
dangers the concentrated power of corporations pose to civic life. They did not say that
corporations were evil, or malignant in their motives, but that their express purpose of
amassing wealth for shareholders is so single-minded that without the restraints of law
and the critical attention of citizens, corporations will shape the political process (and
therefore civic life) to their own purposes. They will dominate the agenda of what is
discussed and how it is discussed, and have access to lawmakers citizens cannot afford.
Dont misunderstand me, corporations are run by human beings who have many of the
same concerns in their personal lives that most do. The difference is that corporations
are not mandated to serve the public interest. Furthermore they have legal structures that
shelter their officers from many consequences of ill-considered decisions. The private
sector is not charged with protecting the free, non-profit, civic institutions and public
commons---our air, water, wilderness, public schools and government services that we need
for a healthy society. How is it that Europeans and Scandinavians can average six to eight
weeks of vacation a year while Americans are lucky to get two? How do they manage to
receive, in many cases, free university education, reasonably priced, readily available
medical benefits, and clean, safe mass-transit? They are no more perfect than we are.
However, through extensive public dialogue and debate, and more importantly by refusing to
let the economic sector of the society dominate the culture, they have evolved systems
that benefit the broad mass of their citizenry. Here at home, serious debate about
single-payer health care, government creating public interest employment to help those
suffering the consequences of globalism or diverting some percentage of the
one-half-trillion dollar military budget to social spending is virtually absent. This
situation can only be remedied by an active, engaged citizenry which demands change. At
the very least demand meaningful dialogue on the issues from which demands change as the
price for their vote.
So, as we consider this collective mid-stream moment today, I am urging you to include in
your sense of graduation the transition from student to engaged citizen. The downside of
making such a choice is that you will have to pay attention to the struggles, and
disappointments of the world; to the place where it squeezes others unknown to you, but
with whom you are absolutely inter-dependent. It may mean foregoing some indulgences, or
rethinking our ways of life so that we do not scour the planet of its wealth and leave
only the scraps for the vast portion of humanity outside our borders.
On the positive side, engagement will provide you with an expanded sense of personal power
and a more accurate understanding of your place in the world. It will diminish loneliness
by fostering relationshipswith other people and species. It will free you from
self-centered thinking and, best of all, might just alter the situation you are addressing
for the better.
In closing, let me share with you one simple personal practice that you may find useful
should you decide to rise to this challenge. Scanning the newspaper generally leads to the
conclusion that there is little objective evidence for optimism.Radical
optimism means nurturing a positive, energetic feeling that is unrelated to all
objective facts save one: that we never really know how things will turn out.. We know
that by doing nothing, cynicism and despair will become self-fulfilling predictions.
Optimism, on the other hand, while uncertain, is active. It fosters engagement and change.
It supports us, makes us want to accomplish our goals. It makes the outcome personal and
Let today be the day you identify the terrain of engaged citizenship and commit your
course to exploring it. As you cross this graduated mark on your lifes course, this
metaphorical river, you bring the entire world with you. It does not have to remain
unjust, polluted and at constant war. It is your task to ask yourself what kind of world
you want to live in. With your answer the fun part begins. Make your decision real, by
acting it out. Your feet are already wet. Dive in over your head. Learn to swim against
the current. Thank you very much. Happy graduation!
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