Moving on, by degree

Acknowledging newly minted college graduates is an American rite of spring. Students are feted with pomp and solemnity in honor of the hope they represent as they exchange lecture halls and grassy quads for a new world.

Judges, TV anchors, authors, and scientists, among others, offered their thoughts to the grads waiting in formal garb to claim their sheepskins. But their exhortations to cherish grand ideals speak across the generations.

Toni Morrison


Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, target of your labors here, of your choices of companions or the profession that you will enter. You do deserve it - satisfaction, happiness in the work you do - and I want you to gain it. Everybody should. But if that's all you have on your mind - happiness - then you do have my sympathy. And if these are, indeed, the best years of your life, you have my sorrow. Because there's nothing, trust me, more satisfying, more gratifying, more thrilling, than true adulthood, the adulthood that is the span of life before you, and the process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard-won glory, which commercial forces and even cultural vapidity should not and cannot be permitted to deprive you of.

Jim Lehrer

TV news anchor

Tufts University, Medford, Mass.

[D]on't make a mistake about what is happening here today. The fact that you are about to get a diploma from one of America's finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated. Some of the dumbest people I know have degrees from some of America's finest institutions of higher learning. They took diploma in hot little hand, pronounced themselves educated, and proceeded to never read another book, entertain another fresh ... idea and, most tragically for ... society and country, never again paid attention to much of anything other than themselves.... Please, please, do not do that. Leave ... caring about your mind and your neighborhoods and your government and ... world.

Madeleine Albright

former US Secretary of State

The College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va.

Eventually, you may find, as have I, that there are essentially two types of people. Some are drifters who are blown about by every breeze. Others are doers like Thomas Jefferson and so many of the other great men and women who have studied here. These are people who chart their own course and are unafraid ... to set sail against the strongest wind. The drifters will always find reasons not to act. But the doers find reasons why inaction cannot be excused.

Confronted by injustice, they strive to cure it. Confronted by suffering, to ease it. Confronted by hate, to transform it. Confronted by evil, to defeat it. More often than not, their strivings are not immediately successful. But their courage in trying ... is responsible for all human progress....

We are none of us heroes, but make no mistake: Renewing and refreshing the promise of America - the promise in which this college has played a central role since our national journey began - is indeed heroic work.

Francis Collins

head of the Human Genome Project

University of Virginia, Charlottesville

[C]an there be any more important questions than these: How did we all get here? What is the meaning of life? How is it that we know deep-down inside what is right and wrong and yet rarely succeed in doing what is right for more than about 30 minutes? What happens to us after we die?

Surely these are among the most critical questions in life.... But how much time have you spent on them? Perhaps you, like I, grew up in a home where faith played a significant role, but you never made it your own. Or you concluded it was a fuzzy area that made you uncomfortable. Or even ... that it was all superstition, like Mark Twain's school boy, who when requested to define faith said, "It is believing what you know ain't so." Or perhaps you ... assumed that as you grew in knowledge of science that faith was incompatible with a rigorous intellect and that God was irrelevant and obsolete.

Well, I am here to tell you that this is not so.

All of those half-truths against the possibility of God have holes in them big enough to drive a truck through, as I learned by reading C.S. Lewis. In my view, there is no conflict between being a "rigorous, show me the data" physician-scientist, and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us and whose domain is in the spiritual world - a domain not possible to explore by the tools of language and science, but with the heart, the mind, and the soul.

Yet, it is remarkable how many of us fail to consider those questions of eternal significance until some personal crisis or advancing age forces us to face our own spiritual impoverishment. Don't make that mistake.

Joe Boucher

former producer of "The Simpsons"; producer of "King of the Hill"

Roanoke College, Salem, Va.

...[A]fter graduation, I set out for California with the dream of making a movie.... I worked at a health club and sold cars. Actually ... I sold a car....

My luck changed the day I decided to sneak onto the 20th Century Fox lot. As I drove up to the front gate, the guard started to wave me on ... then tried to get me to stop ... but I just kept on driving. I was in.

Later, as I was strolling past the "L.A. Law" sound stage, I asked where the personnel department was.... "Go back off the lot, past the guard shack, and it's on your right." In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "Doh!"

Lucky for me, the woman behind the personnel desk thought I was nice enough to give a break ... so she recommended me for a job in the mailroom.... I was thrilled.... I brought Rupert Murdoch his mail every morning and wrote my film every night.... And despite the monotony of sorting mail, there were some moments of encouragement. One afternoon, I was delivering mail to a vice president's office when I overheard him ask his assistant where Rhode Island was. She replied, "I'm not sure, I think it's in Massachusetts." And I thought to myself ... I can make it here.

William Styron


Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.

On a day like this in May of 1945, when I should have been graduating from college, I was in Marine dungarees, doubtless pondering, as I so often did, a future that seemed to terminate at the edge of the abyss. The century that stretches before all of you ... is, by comparison at least, suffused with promise....

[Y]ou have the advantage, where matters of justice are concerned, of being able to build upon the momentum of those strivers for freedom who came before you. As individuals, you may wish to participate directly in this ... honorable quest, in law or in politics or in activism.... You may want to seek another destiny, finding fulfillment in science or in the composed energy of art. Or you may care to be only a bystander, interested and compassionate....

The only thing you cannot be is indifferent. It was indifference that underlay the rising forces of tyranny that engulfed my generation ... and which cannot be permitted to exist again. It was, at last, indifference that sealed the fate of so many millions, among them a Czech resistance leader, Janos Kos, who in 1940 faced a German firing squad with [these] words: "Mankind, I love you. Be vigilant."

Robert Moses

civil rights activist

Grinnell University, Grinnell, Iowa

The myth of America is the idea that opportunity for everyone is woven deeply into the fabric of America. But America has always had its caste system: its slaves, its sharecroppers, its prison workforce.... In commonplace terms, America's generosity of spirit has always rested on the myth....

So I ask ... as you ... create adult lives of work, friends, spirit, and family, as you throw yourselves into the scales of competition: Weigh your mettle, search your hearts, cultivate the generosity of spirit. Do it for your country, for the presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept in commonplace terms. It rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of a stranger.

Fred Rogers

children's TV host

Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt.

For a long time I wondered why I felt like bowing when people showed their appreciation for the work that I've been privileged to do. What I've come to understand is that we who bow are probably ... acknowledging the presence of the eternal in our neighbor. You see, I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does; so, in appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred.

Dennis Kozlowski

CEO, Tyco International

Roger Williams University, Bristol, R.I.

I talk to a lot of young people - including my own daughters - who are in law and business school. On top of the natural anxiety about ... finding a job, making their way, I'm hearing something that I think is new. It's the fear that one wrong step will send you veering off "the career path" - whatever that is - on a one-way trip to nowhere. Please - don't fall for it. The first thing you do after you graduate will be just that, the first thing. After that will come the second thing. And then the third.

William Rehnquist

chief justice, US Supreme Court

Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.

One way to look at life is as a great shopping mall where ... the items for sale are things like worldly success, appreciation of music, knowledge of history, a scratch golf game, a close relationship with your daughter, a fulfilling commitment to your church.

But you can't purchase any of these things with money. Instead, they're purchased with time. And even in this capitalistic system, everyone is given exactly the same amount of time in each hour and in each day and in each year. In a limited amount of time it's impossible for anyone to be so rich that they can enjoy every single one of the things which time may buy.

So you have to make choices, although in real life these choices are subtle and perhaps unconscious. And remember, when you are making these choices, hardly anyone, any retired person thinking back ... has ever said, "Gee, I wish I'd spent more time at the office."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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