What they told the class of '88. On bread and community

LISTEN in some quarters and you will hear predictions of worse days ahead: that the United States, like empires of the past that lived beyond their means and took no thought of the morrow, has begun an irreversible slide. Because we have not been investing in modern industries, because we have been cutting back on our investment in education and the universities like this, because we've not been rebuilding our infrastructure, it's said our problems are going to intensify.

Listen in yet other quarters where I travel and you will hear it said that even if the trend of economic stagnation reverses, even if wages and incomes get better, the slow growth and the greed have done too much damage, the polarization between rich and poor will increase, and the class divisions between us become more aggravated. Even if some of you do better individually, the society you live in runs the risk of being poorer and less just, less equal and less creative....

They tell me people don't remember what they hear at commencement. Maybe they'll remember this - a loaf of bread. In the last 30 years, I've discovered that bread is the great reinforcer of the reality principle. Bread equals life. On the frontier they had to produce this themselves.

But if you're like me, you have a thousand and more times repeated the ordinary experience of eating bread without a thought for the process itself. This was brought to me the other day by a friend who said: ``I depend for bread on hundreds of people I don't know and will never meet. If they fail me, I starve. If I cannot give them something of value in exchange for this, I fail them.''

Bread and life are shared realities. No one prays the Lord's Prayer in the first-person singular. It is always, ``Give us this day our daily bread.'' Our very lives depend on the ethics of strangers, and most of us are always strangers to other people. If you want to see a monument to this, look around. Literally, look around. Think of all the people you will never know and will never meet who raised this university up from just a high spot in Austin.

I assure you it wasn't built by the taxes my parents paid. That wouldn't have dented the cost of being here even in 1954. The $80 Judith and I paid together in tuition each semester was a mere token of the real cost of our experience here. This institution we owe to the vision, the sweat, and the gift of strangers. It is this ethic of obligation - live and help live - which inspires the young to die in battles for their country's sake, the old to plant trees they will never sit under, and men and women to build universities for kids who are not their own. The ethic of cooperation.

From an address given at the University of Texas, Austin

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