Commencement Speech

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 remarks today.

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 can’t 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, I’m 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 one’s 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, I’d 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, I’d 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 one’s past and moves them to a new level. The purpose of a ceremony, like today’s, 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 we’ve 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 people’s 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 others.

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 President’s 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 President’s recent proposal for a “Peace Race.”

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.

Today’s 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.

It’s a critical difference. Change is fueled by intention. It’s a powerful force which moves the world. But intention cannot surface unless, underneath and buoying it up, is the belief that one’s own efforts can count for something. I’m 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 harm’s 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 Nation’s spending priorities, we would live in a Nation without many of those intractable problems vexing us.

Despite the faults of our political system; it’s 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 don’t 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.

Don’t 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 compelling.

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 life’s 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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