Wisdom to Take Along the Way
Speakers from around the country give their best advice to the class of 1995
The graduates sit in their robes, their mortarboards and tassels slightly askew. This is the last step in what, for many, has been a long hard journey. Sometimes the commencement speech seems to last for hours, and those 20 or so minutes can be excruciating for the men and women who are yet waiting. But the insights and stories offered can be thought-provoking, funny, and a rudder by which to steer one's actions in the future. So as this year's graduates prepare to make their way in the world, we take a moment to really listen to the voices behind the podium.
Johnnetta B. Cole
President of Spelman College
Univ. of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
As you graduate today and dream about your futures, I trust those dreams are about more than a closet full of fine clothes and a garage with a fancy car - or two. I hope you also dream of the sheer joy of spending Saturday afternoons at a community center tutoring little girls and boys. Or helping out in a homeless shelter. Or bringing comfort to women in a rape-crisis center. As Spelman College alumna Marion Wright Edelman is fond of saying, "Doing for others is just the rent you've got to pay for living on this earth." ... Here is the story that will explain why.
An old man was walking at dawn on a beach, [and he] spotted a young girl ahead of him systematically picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. He gathered up all his strength to hurry ahead to catch up and to put the question to her, "My daughter, what in the world are you doing?"
Respectfully, she turned and said, "Why sir, don't you know that if the sun comes up and the starfish are caught on the sand, they will die? But if I can throw them into the ocean, they will have life."
The old man shook his head, saying as cautiously and carefully as he could, "But my child, look ahead of you. There is nothing but starfish. Don't you know it's like our world, where there's nothing ahead but problems? Racism and sexism. Violence. Hatred. Don't you know you can't solve all of that? Why are you picking up these starfish? Don't you know it doesn't matter?
She reached to the sand, picked up a starfish, threw it in the ocean, and she said, "But it matters to this one."
Columnist and humorist
Smile. You're one of the luckiest people in the world. You're living in America. Enjoy it. I feel obligated to give you this banal advice because, though I lived through the Great Depression, World War II, terrible wars in Korea and Vietnam, and half a century of cold war, I have never seen a time when there were so many Americans so angry, or so mean-spirited, or so sour about the country as there are today. Anger has become a national habit....
Why has anger become the common response to the inevitable ups and downs of national life? The question is baffling not just because the American habit, even in the worst of times, has traditionally been mindless optimism, but also because there is so little for Americans to be angry about nowadays. We are the planet's one undisputed superpower. For the first time in 60 years, we enjoy something very much like real peace....
So what explains the fury and dyspepsia? I suspect it's the famous American ignorance of history. People who know nothing of even the most recent past are easily gulled by slick operators who prosper by exploiting the ignorant. Among these rascals are our politicians. Politicians who flourish by sowing discontent. They triumph by churning discontent into anger. Press, television, and radio also have a big financial stake in keeping the country boiling mad.
Good news, as you know, does not sell papers or keep millions glued to radios and TV screens. So when you get out there in the world, ladies and gentlemen, you're going to find yourself surrounded by shouting, red-in-the-face, stomping-mad politicians, radio yakmeisters, and, yes, sad to say, newspaper columnists, telling you, "You never had it so bad," and otherwise trying to spoil your day.
When they come at you with that line, ladies and gentlemen, give them a wink and a smile and a good view of your departing back ... and as you stroll away, bend down to smell a flower.
Former United States president
William & Mary
I believe that any definition of a successful life in America must include service to others. It's just that simple....
No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down and lifting someone else up. To serve others, to enrich your community, this truly defines a successful life. For success is personal, and it is charitable. It is the sum not of our possessions, but of how we help each other.
Barbara B. Kennelly
United States representative
Americans seem to find less and less time to volunteer, to work together, to associate. And this is happening even while federal budget cuts are demanding that our churches, our homeless shelters, and our other volunteer groups do more.
These trends, taken together with the explosion in video rentals and other forms of in-home entertainment, might suggest that we are doomed to a future of social isolation, cut off from the wider world.
And yet, there is another simultaneous trend, America's sudden fascination with all forms of communication. Car phones and pagers; beepers and home faxes; e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, newsgroups, and on-line, real-time chat. New ways to come together, to share ideas, continue to proliferate....
I believe that your generation will find the best and most responsible ways to deal with these new technologies. I hope you will learn to use them to bring us together into a richer and more informed community.
And as you redefine community, you must also redefine the way we live together as citizens in a democracy....
And yet, if this is to be true, you graduates today have a special role, for only the educated and the informed can successfully debate the purveyors of prejudice, hate, and anarchy.
Washington Post columnist
University of Virginia
Where have we gone wrong? In thousands of small ways, no doubt, but in one terribly important one: We have been so concerned to give you the things we never had that we have neglected to give you what we did have, and have served us so well....
There's nothing particularly mysterious about these truths, these principles I speak of. You know them. You have found them in your sacred texts, in the philosophies that form the bedrock of this society and in such humbler places as Robert Fulghum's wonderful little book "All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." You know the book and the rules laid out.... Don't take things that aren't yours. Hold hands and stick together. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Play fair.
You remember the list and, I suspect, you've violated every item on it, in- cluding Don't play in traffic. I've seen you drive....
Senior vice president of personnel, The Gannett Company
The Sage Colleges
In the spring of 1993, a young female butterfly beat her wings quickly as she soared in the calm air over Hong Kong. The tiny air currents the butterfly's wings set in motion grew as they encountered other forces, evolving into the floods that plagued the Mississippi valley the summer of 1993.
That's the theory. A single butterfly's flapping wings can set in motion a chain of events that has a significant impact months later and thousands of miles away. The theory is called the Butterfly Effect....
The Butterfly Effect speaks to a number of important ideas: First, small changes can have gigantic repercussions, even within huge systems. Second, the effects of change are difficult to predict. Third, and most important, individuals have enormous power to create change, whether they know it or not.
In each of you is the power for positive change, for leaving your campsite better than you found it. And, as someone in the 1 percent of the world, you have the responsibility to do so.
Smith class of '56
I took geology because I thought it was the least scientific of the sciences. On a field trip, while everyone else was off looking at the cutoff meander curves of the Connecticut River, I was paying no attention whatsoever. Instead, I had found a giant, GIANT turtle that had climbed out of the river, crawled up a dirt road, and was in the mud on the embankment of another road, seemingly about to crawl up on it and get squashed by a car. So, being a good co-dependent with the world, I tugged and pushed and pulled until I managed to carry this huge, heavy, angry snapping turtle off the embankment and down the road.
I was just putting it back into the river when my geology professor arrived and said, "You know, that turtle probably spent a month crawling up that dirt road to lay its eggs in the mud by the side of the road, and you just put it back in the river." Well, I felt terrible. But in later years, I realized that this was the most important political lesson I learned, one that cautioned me about the authoritarian impulse of both left and right. Always ask the turtle.
Actor and human-rights activist
Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi articulated what he called the seven social sins, one of which was "education without character." The others, for your information, were politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice....
I believe, and I'm reassured in that belief by the profusion of energy and possibility arrayed before me today, that it is too soon to admit defeat, to write things off and retreat into cynicism, to draw the wagons in a circle and look out for No. 1. There is too much that is wonderful, too much that is decent ... right here for us to give up. But all the goodness, the willingness, here and out there, cannot survive, much less thrive, on its own. It needs you. It needs your contribution.
And so for those of you who are bold and intelligent, which I suspect is the majority of this class, you have a great and exciting world to go into if you do not despair. If you like the idea that the world is free again, then perhaps we can regain that dream on which this country was founded.