Commencement Address, May 21, 1995
University of Virginia
I need to make two apologies before I begin: one specific, one general.
The specific one: My son, Mark, is graduating today, and I had hoped that for his graduation he would hear a speech that would challenge him in a very special way. I wanted this to be a day that would live in his memory as a time when he was given some new and meaningful insight into the world that awaits him.
But recent events have given me a sense of urgency that goes beyond my personal hopes for my son. I watch as our country becomes a mean, distrustful and very dangerous society.
Our well-being is being sacrificed on the altar of partisan advantage, our future encumbered by our unwillingness to be fiscally responsible, our interests as Americans made secondary to our interests as members of our various subgroups. Worse: Our children are dying — not merely at the hands of paranoid bombers in Oklahoma City but also of official neglect and the violence induced by hopelessness in cities across the land.
It is a scary time, and I simply cannot pass up the opportunity to try to impress upon you who will shortly be our leaders and policy makers the importance of deciding here and now to do your bit — and more — to make the world a little better, a little safer, a little more civil for all of us.
And so, Mark, I am afraid that instead of that special message I had envisioned for you, you are going to be stuck with hearing yet again the message you have always heard from me. Please bear with me as I try to impress upon you and your fellow graduates that, fair or not, it falls to you to make this a world worth living in.
I said I had two apologies to make. The second is to the entire rank of today’s graduates. I presume to apologize on behalf of my generation for the environment in which you will begin your careers. We really did want to leave you a world that was better than the one we grew up in. We really did try. But something — or some things — have gone terribly wrong, and it looks like it’s going to be up to you to fix it.
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.
We have given you comfort when we should have given you the spirituality our parents gave us. We have given the self-assurance that makes you see yourselves as strong individuals, and that’s good.
But we should also have given you the humility (we called it patriotism) that can help you to see yourselves as part of the whole — as citizens of a nation that is worth some subordination of your own selfish interests.
We have given you things, when we should have given you the principles that worked for us. Don’t disparage the things. Some of our bequests may turn out to be trivial — mere trinkets and fancies and fads. But some are quite significant — among them a fine education at this excellent institution.
But things won’t be enough to equip you to survive the rough years ahead, let alone to do what we need you to do for the world.
To do that, you will need what we had: not just things but principles, not just details but ideas, not just technical knowledge but a philosophy. We didn’t call it philosophy, of course. We thought of what we had as handed-down wisdom, as simple and powerful truths. But it was these truths that encouraged and guided us when things got rough or choices difficult.
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 Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You know: Share everything. Don’t hit people. Clean up your own mess. 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 — including: don’t play in traffic. I’ve seen you drive.
But I’ve watched the young people in my household long enough to know that you hear preachings, even when you violate them. It always comes as a pleasant surprise to parents to learn that the seeds we planted years ago eventually do take root. That’s encouraging. And this is more encouraging yet: You have taught yourselves some things that your parents are still trying to learn: the folly of judging character on the basis of hair or clothes, for instance; or the ability to have deep and uncomplicated friendships with members of the opposite sex, or the understanding that wealth and reputation and power are no insulation from a self-destructive life.
Now let me make my own modest addendum to Fulghum’s little list: Be civil to one another. There isn’t much civility in our discourse now, you know, and I think we are the worse for it.
I don’t mean merely that we have our political differences. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it seems to me we have become a lot meaner, a lot less civil, and a lot less cognizant of our common interests in our enunciation of those differences.
It matters. Look at what used to be Yugoslavia. There were always Croats and Serbs and Macedonians residing there, and there were always cultural and political differences among them. What happened a few years back is that they started to pay more attention to those differences than to their commonality as Yugoslavs, and the result is: There’s no more Yugoslavia.
Some of the language I hear in our political and social discourse strikes me as similarly dangerous. It’s easy enough to pounce on the remarks of a Rush Limbaugh or a Gordon Liddy and suggest that there’s a straight line from their utterances to the Oklahoma City bombing.
You don’t have to believe that — I don’t— to believe that rhetorical excess, whether from left or right, does harm. It may not provoke violence, but it does poison the public discourse and make it yet more difficult for us to find those necessary points of agreement and compromise.
Those sad and dangerous men running about in their fatigues in the Michigan woods are easy to attack for their divisive rhetoric. But too much of the rhetorical excess is coming from the political mainstream — from the members for the Congress who assert repeatedly that the president is not their commander in chief, or who warn him not to visit their state without a bodyguard. And some of it comes from our bright young people on college campuses who, so certain they are right, find it impossible to compromise — even to speak civilly — with those who hold a different view; who see civil discourse as weakness, and compromise as "punking out."
Don’t believe it. As Robert Theobald notes, what is truly intolerable and dangerous is "to assume you know more than you possibly can know." In these politically difficult and dangerous times, he says, we "have to be willing to hear one another and face our mutual difficulties with passionate uncertainty."
"Passionate uncertainty." I like it. It says you can’t wait for all the facts to be in before you take a position. All the facts are never in. But it also means that you can’t be too dismissive of those who, on the basis of the same incomplete information, take a different position. It means that it just might make sense to talk to — to listen to — people whose perceptions are different from your own. I know that will seem a strange thing to say in these days when reasoned discourse has given way to vituperation and vilification, when the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys are doing their vilifying in support of your cause.
The trouble is, it’s not working very well — for any of us. And you are left with just two choices. The first is to view the world divisively, to tell yourself that everybody is to blame for the problems we mutually face except you and your group. The other is to conclude that the only hope is to look for common ground between you and those you would call enemies — and to believe that common ground is there. It is. It is.
I would never ask that you abandon your principles, or your commitment to stand up for what you believe. But I do ask you to abandon the arrogance that says you are the only one with principles, the only one with beliefs worth standing up for.
Passion tempered with humility may be the only recipe for true community, the only path to the common ground that can make our world safe again.
You are younger than we, better educated than we, more open to relationships than we and I reluctantly concede, you are smarter than we. But you are also in more trouble than we.
And because of all these things, I beg you as you begin your way in the world: Save us. Save us all.
Now let me depart from my text to ask for something I’ve never asked for before: applause. Not for me, but for the people who have paid your bills, washed your clothes, sent you care packages, driven you to buses and trains and airports, chastised you when you skipped class and tried their darndest to turn you into responsible and educated young men and women. Take this opportunity to give them a round of applause right now.
The things these people — your family, your friends and your supporters — have taught you, and the things you have learned from one another may turn out to be as valuable as the specific skills we paid for you to learn at this wonderful institution. Taken together, they will prepare you for the burdens and the opportunities that await you. I wish you luck. WE need it.