Words of wisdom for 2006 grads

After four years of textbooks, study sessions, and finals, graduates don caps and gowns and listen to one last lecture. This year, graduation speakers reminded students of the importance of individualism, the joy of taking risks, and that commencement, by definition, is only a beginning. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom passed along to the Class of '06:

Stephen Colbert
Knox College, Galesburg, Ill.

You are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what's going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say "yes." And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say "yes" back.

Now will saying "yes" get you in trouble at times? Will saying "yes" lead you to do some foolish things? Yes, it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the furthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say "no." But saying "yes" begins things. Saying "yes" is how things grow. Saying "yes" leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say "yes."

And that's The Word.

Viggo Mortensen
St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Whether you see yourselves as so-called "liberals," "conservatives," or some other political persuasion – or none at all – you now, by virtue of your liberal arts education, ought to be qualified to ask intelligent questions and not be intimidated or stifled by unreasoned arguments, no matter how forcefully [they are] presented. This, of course, goes for you non-US citizen graduates as well. I'm certainly not asking anyone to run out and burn down City Hall, or to necessarily engage in any overt protest. I simply advocate your continuing to explore being involved citizens. Don't ever be afraid to ask the question, "Why?" or as most small children do, to repeat that question as many times as you receive an unsatisfactory answer. Inquiring minds are essential to a healthy society and to making an individual art out of living.

With apologies to any Latin scholars for my pronunciation, I offer the following epigram: Ducunt volentum fata, nolentum trahunt. For non-Latin scholars, that translates as: "Fate leads those who are willing. The unwilling it drags."

Gretchen Cryer
Playwright, Actress
Colorado College, Colorado Springs

So let's assume you have prepared, that you have learned your craft, you have it in your bones, you are an athlete of God. How do you keep the channel open so that new ideas can come through you, so that you can make your contribution?

Well, first of all, you need to be operating from your authentic self – not somebody else's idea of who you should be. Not your parents' idea, not society's idea, not some media-created fantasy of who you should be. You need to understand that you have a right to be who you really are, with all your strengths and foibles. You have to own your own existence, your identity. Sometimes it's really hard to be your authentic self in the face of the expectations of others. You hate to disappoint; the pressure is great. But what the world needs is you – the real you.

And the courage to be the real you means you have to own not only the equipment you were born with, but the circumstances of your life as well. Life throws everybody a lot of curves, but those circumstances become part of who you are, where you're coming from, what you know about. They are part of the unique definition of you.

Jim Lehrer
Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Speaking now as a journalist whose job it's been to pay attention to such things, I have never seen us more disconnected from each other than we are right now.

We are splintering off into segments, interest groups, lobbies, target audiences, blogs, boxes. Our racial, cultural, and religious differences, always our great strength, have become an instrument in our great disconnection. Our growing economic differences, as [Harvard President] Larry [Summers] put it brilliantly, are feeding this. Our politics at the moment actually seem to be encouraging it, and our otherwise terrific explosion in new media outlets for information and debate are helping facilitate it.

I believe what we need is a new, hard, real-world dose of shared experience. We had one after 9/11, and it drifted away. We had one after Katrina, and it went away. We have yet to even have one on Iraq....

What's left, I believe, for us all, the issues of the war in Iraq aside: How do we connect ourselves and then stay connected to the other Americans who do serve in the military and elsewhere in our name, on our behalf, without having to sustain a tremendous man-made or natural disaster?

I would submit one way is service itself – service in all of its many forms. Service that can mean the Peace Corps, a teacher corps, a conservation corps, a police corps, a hospital aid corps, a tutor corps, a Big Brother/Big Sister corps, a coping corps, a pick-up-the-trash corps, as well as the Marine Corps.

Barack Obama
US Senator (D) of Illinois
University of Massachusetts at Boston

America is an unlikely place – a country built on defiance of the odds; on a belief in the impossible. And I remind you of this because as you set out to live your own stories of success and achievement, it's now your turn to help keep it this way.

It's your turn to keep this daringly radical but unfailingly simple notion of America alive – that no matter where you're born or how much your parents have; no matter what you look like or what you believe in, you can still rise to become whatever you want; still go on to achieve great things; still pursue the happiness you hope for....

You will be tested. You won't always succeed. But know that you have it within your power to try – that generations who have come before you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time. And that through our collective labor, and through God's providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other's burdens, America will continue on its journey toward that distant horizon, and a better day.

El Hassan bin Talal
Prince of Jordan
Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.

I believe we must think of globalization not just as the spread of capitalism or deeper economic and political ties, but as the emergence of a universal consciousness, whereby "an injury to one is an injury to all" (to quote the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa). This is what I call an ethic of human solidarity. We are in the process of creating a global community, and the cornerstones of our vision are values which from time immemorial have been a part of the collective consciousness of the human species, which have ensured their survival, and which have stood the test of time: Respect for life, responsibility toward future generations, protection of the human habitat, altruism nurtured by a sense of mutual interest, recognition of human dignity and worth.

Condoleezza Rice
US Secretary of State
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

I spent last summer reading the biographies of America's Founding Fathers. I read of Jefferson and Adams and Washington and Hamilton. And when you read of their lives and their times, you are struck by the overwhelming sense that there is no earthly reason that the United States of America should ever have come into being. But not only did we come into being, we endured. And not only have we endured, we have thrived.

We have thrived, despite the fact that when the Founding Fathers said, "We, the people," they didn't mean me. We have thrived despite the fact that my ancestors were deemed to be three-fifths of a man and sold at auction. We have thrived despite the fact that it was only in my lifetime that we finally guaranteed the right to vote for all Americans. So remember, even when the horizon seems shrouded in darkness, the hope of a brighter beginning is always in sight.

Ken Burns
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa.

It may seem paradoxical, as you stand looking forward toward an unknown future today, that history might be for you all an important ally and guide in the years to come, that it might offer you choices and exemplars that will help you negotiate the difficult passage you have committed to, poised as you are to start a new and challenging chapter in your own life's history. But it is so; history, I have learned over the last 30 years of practice, is the greatest teacher there is. The question becomes for you, then, this new next generation: What will you choose as your guiding light? Which distant past events or individuals will provide you with the greatest help, the most comforting solace, the best examples of wisdom and leadership? As the echoes of this almost inexpressibly wise past reverberate in your own lives, what warnings will you heed, what strength will you gather to slay the dragons of despair and disappointment that will inevitably invade even the most cheerful and controlled and controlling among us?

Elaine Chao
US Secretary of Labor
Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.

Our country is unique in its spirit of volunteerism. It is in the act of giving from stranger to stranger ... that the bonds of community are strengthened. By helping others, you are strengthening the character of our country and following in a national tradition that defines us as Americans. Throughout history, the destiny of our country has always been determined by the willingness of its citizens to serve a cause greater than themselves – their willingness to "be the difference." So, let me say I hope that whatever you choose to do, you will love what you're doing. Because if you are passionate about what you do ... there will be no limit to what you can achieve and no limit to the difference you can make.

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