USNews & World Report  —  Thomas Jefferson Street Blog 5/14/2012


Lessons from a Commencement Speech

May 15, 2012 RSS Feed Print

A dozen years ago I was honored to be asked to give the commencement address at my daughter’s graduation from high school. I was quite puffed up about it, until I realized I had to actually come up with something that a) wouldn’t embarrass her, and b) actually might be the least bit moving or interesting. Then, of course, panic set in, and I did my best.

My old boss, Sen. Frank Church, who was a noted orator and wrote great speeches, once told me that the hardest speeches he would ever give were when he traveled the state every year to talk to graduating seniors.

I have sat on the stage at my alma mater, Macalester College, as a member of the board of trustees, listening to speeches for every one of the last 18 years.

[College Students Split on Political Graduation Speakers]

I have heard some pretty decent talks from some very famous people and some not so famous.

But this year, the college’s president, Brian Rosenberg, who is a very thoughtful and articulate guy on any day, knocked it out of the park. Our regular commencement speaker was terrific, too, but Brian’s talk was a charge to the graduates—short, sweet, and to the point.

It seems to me that those of us involved in politics and public policy, those who care about the direction of our country, might want to heed his words.

So, for the benefit of all of you, I include Brian Rosenberg’s talk here:

Good stories get told and told again, and I want to begin my brief remarks this afternoon by sharing with you a good story. It was originally told by Jeff Bezos, the multibillionaire founder of Amazon, at the 2010 commencement ceremony of Princeton University, and then recounted recently in a speech by Bill Bowen, Princeton’s former president.

It goes like this. As a child, Bezos spent a great deal of his time in the summer traveling the country in the back of the Gulfstream trailer owned by his beloved grandparents—a pair of Texas cattle ranchers. Being clever, he also spent a great deal of time doing quick mathematical calculations. During one trip, while his grandmother, as was her habit, sat smoking in the passenger seat, he used some information gleaned from an anti-smoking commercial and from his observation of his grandmother, did a bit of mental math, and declared proudly, “Grandma, so far your smoking has taken nine years off your life!”

Rather than the expected congratulations on his quantitative adeptness, what he witnessed instead was his grandmother bursting into tears.

The lesson he learned from that moment, the lesson delivered with great gentleness by his grandfather, is one he has tried to carry with him for the rest of his life: cleverness is a gift; kindness is a choice. Each of us should in the end be judged not on the basis of our gifts but on the basis of our choices.

Every one of you graduating from Macalester today is in possession of remarkable gifts. Without those gifts—those talents, abilities, passions—you would not have been admitted to and would not have been successful at this rigorous college. You have also received the additional gift, thanks to your families and to the peerless faculty and staff at Macalester, of an education whose quality and value far transcend what most people in the world, indeed most people in the United States, could ever imagine.

But in the end your lives will be judged less by the nature of these gifts than by the nature of the choices you make about how to use them.

The ability to argue effectively is a gift; civility is a choice. The skills, education, and social mobility necessary to acquire wealth are a gift; generosity is a choice. The capacity to formulate clearly one’s own thoughts is a gift; the willingness to take seriously the thoughts of those with whom one disagrees is a choice. Self-confidence is a gift; tolerance and humility and selflessness—these are choices.

We at Macalester can say with some confidence that during the past four years we have enhanced your gifts. We have tests and metrics and grades to tell us that this is the case. What we cannot know with equal certainty, but what we devoutly hope, is that we have also increased the likelihood that you will make the right choices, that is, the kinds of choices that will contribute to the bettering of the world we all share.

My experience with those who have graduated from this college over many decades tells me that for most of you, we have indeed increased that likelihood. My observation of you during the past four years tells me the same thing.

There are certainly some in these challenging times who would tell you that your only responsibility is to make choices that are in your own best interest. There have always been those ready to make that argument, and their voices tend to be loudest and most influential when people are afraid. Do not follow their counsel. At Macalester we don’t respond to fear by retreating to our worst impulses, but by thinking and by working to change for the better those things that are making people afraid. We do not marginalize or demonize those who are most vulnerable or who are different from ourselves; we engage with, empathize with, and when necessary assist them. We do not restrict for any group basic human rights and dignity; we offer up these things, with humility and grace. We do not build walls; we open doors. This is our history, and this is the great tradition you are about to inherit as alumni.

So let me offer you my congratulations on completing successfully your course of study at Macalester and on moving from one great community on campus to another—the community of Macalester graduates—that is more far-flung and less connected on a daily basis but that is also large, impressive, and tied together by and through a commitment to the values of the college.

Be well.  Enjoy life. Make good choices.