- Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University, 2011
- E. O. Wilson, University of North Carolina, 2011
- Meryl Streep, Barnard College, 2010
- Barbara Kingsolver, Duke University, 2008
- Bill Gates, Harvard University,
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois USA
JUNE 17, 2011
Stephen Colbert is an American comedian and talk show host.
GOOD MORNING. THANK YOU PRESIDENT SCHAPIRO, AND MY THANKS CHAIRMAN OF THEBOARD OF TRUSTEES WILLIAM OSBORN AND PROVOST DAN LINZER.
AND THANK YOU, PARENTS! OF COURSE, IF YOU DON’T THANK THEM NOW, YOU’LL HAVEPLENTY OF TIME TO THANK THEM TOMORROW WHEN YOU MOVE BACK IN WITH THEM.
AND SINCE IT’S FATHER’S DAY WEEKEND, LET’S SHOW SOME SPECIAL LOVE TO ALL THE DADSOUT THERE. DO SOMETHING NICE FOR DAD TODAY. LIKE BEFORE YOU INTRODUCE YOURBOYFRIEND, ASK HIM TO REMOVE HIS TONGUE RING.
AND THANK YOU TO THE CLASS OF 2011.
YOU ARE WHAT SOME HAVE CALLED “THE GREATEST GENERATION”. NOT MANY – BUT SOME – SO FAR JUST ME. AND I’M COUNTING ON YOU TO NOT MAKE ME LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT FORSAYING THAT. SO BE GREAT – NO PRESSURE.
I AM HUMBLED TO BE STANDING HERE WITH TODAY’S OTHER HONORARY DEGREERECIPIENTS. WILLIAM SCHABAS, HUMAN RIGHTS CHAMPION. WHO IS HERE TO INVISTIGATENORTHWESTERN FOR CRUELLY ALLOWING YOU TO GRADUATE INTO THIS JOB MARKET. DOCTOR BARBARA LISKOV – THE FIRST WOMAN TO EARN A P-H-D IN COMPUTER SCIENCE – I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE COULD CONCENTRATE SURROUNDED BY ALL THOSE NOTORIOUSLYSEXY MALE PROGRAMMERS – AND OPERA LEGEND JESSYE NORMAN, THOUGH THAT’S ACTUALLY KIND OF A DISAPPOINTMENT- I NORMALLY START THE SPEECHES BY SINGINGSCHUBERT’S AVE MARIA, BUT I DONT WANT TO STEAL ANYBODY’S THUNDER. SO I’M NOTGOING TO DO IT TODAY.
NOW, AS YOU HAVE EXPLAINED TO YOUR GRANDPARENTS, MY NAME IS STEPHEN COLBERT, BUT I ALSO PLAY A CHARACTER ON T-V WHO IS NAMED STEPHEN COLBERT. AND I DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHICH OF US HAS BEEN INVITED SOMEPLACE. WELL, TODAY, I’M FAIRLYCONFIDENT THAT I’M ME. BECAUSE I WENT TO NORTHWESTERN AND MY CHARACTER WENTTO DARTMOUTH. SO HE WAS THERE FOR GRADUATION LAST WEEKEND AND HEARD CONAN. ITWAS A GREAT SPEECH. BUT HE WAS HOPING FOR LENO.
I AM HONORED TO BE YOUR COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER ON THIS, THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OFMY GRADUATING CLASS. ANY FELLOW CLASS OF 86ERS HERE TODAY? REMEMBER, LATERWE’RE ALL GONNA GET TOGETHER, PUT ON SOME LEG WARMERS, CRANK UP OUR SONYWALKMEN, AND WANG CHUNG TO MR. MISTER UNTIL THE FLOCK OF SEAGULLS COME HOME.
BUT AS HONORED AS I AM TO BE HERE, I AM ALSO A BIT SURPRISED TO BE YOUR GRADUATIONSPEAKER, CONSIDERING THAT 25 YEARS AGO TODAY, I DID NOT ACTUALLY GRADUATE. I THOUGHT I WAS GRADUATING– MY FAMILY WAS HERE, I WAS WEARING THIS RIDICULOUSMEDIEVAL GARB. BUT WHEN I WENT UP TO GET MY DIPLOMA, AND THE DEAN, CATHY MARTIN, HANDED ME THE FOLDER, SHE LEANED IN AND SAID, “I’M SORRY.” NOW, I DIDN’T KNOW WHATTHIS MEANT, BUT IT DIDN’T SOUND GOOD. I WAS HOPING IT WAS WAS SOME NEW FORM OFLATIN HONORIFIC– LIKE SUMMA CUM LAUDE- “I’M SORRY”-CUM-LAUDE. BUT WHEN I GOTBACK TO MY SEAT AND OPENED THE HANDSOME PLEATHER FOLDER, INSTEAD OF CONTAININGAN EMBOSSED DIPLOMA, THERE WAS INSTEAD A PIECE OF PAPER TORN FROM A LEGAL PADTHAT SAID, “SEE ME, DEAN CATHY MARTIN.” EVIDENTLY I HAD AN INCOMPLETE OF WHICH I WAS NOT AWARE. SO, IN MY GRADUATION PHOTOS WITH MY FAMILY, I AM SHEEPISHLYHOLDING A SCRAP OF YELLOW PAPER. THE FIRST MEMBER OF MY FAMILY TO EARN A SCRAPOF YELLOW PAPER- THE REST OF THEM GOT DIPLOMAS. SO, REMEMBER- JUST BYGRADUATING ON YOUR GRADUATION DAY, YOU ARE STARTING YOUR CAREER WAY AHEAD OFME. BE PROUD.
BECAUSE NORTHWESTERN IS A SCHOOL TO BE PROUD OF. IN ACADEMICS, ATHLETICS, SCIENCE, AND PUBLIC SERVICE, IT REPRESENTS HUMANITY AT ITS BEST, AND ON DILLO DAY, IT REPRESENTS HUMANITY AT ITS WORST – FOR PARENTS, DILLO DAY IS A FESTIVAL THATSTARTED IN 1972 TO HONOR THE ARMADILLO…THAT IS THE BEST EXPLANATION I CAN OFFER. TODAY ARMADILLOS ARE HONORED BY DRINKING 4LOKO OUT OF A SUPER SOAKER WHILEDANCING TO THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS IN A DRUNKEN MOSH PIT FILLED MOSTLY WITHNATIONAL MERIT FINALISTS.
NORTHWESTERN’S ALUMNI LIST IS TRULY IMPRESSIVE. THIS UNIVERSITY HAS GRADUATEDBEST SELLING AUTHORS, OLYMPIANS, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES, GRAMMY WINNERS, PEABODY WINNERS, EMMY WINNERS, AND THAT’S JUST ME!
I LOVED MY TIME HERE – I WAS A TRANSFER STUDENT FROM A SMALL, ALL MALE COLLEGE INVIRGINIA, WHERE I HAD BEEN A PHILOSOPHY MAJOR, BUT I DECIDED TO SWITCH TOSOMETHING WITH STRONGER JOB PROSPECTS: THEATER MAJOR.
WHICH REMINDS ME I FORGOT TO WARM UP: ADMIST THE MISTS AND COLDEST FROSTS WITHBAREST WRISTS AND STOUTEST BOASTS HE THRUSTS HIS FISTS AGAINST THE POSTS ANDSTILL INSISTS HE SEES THE GHOSTS.
I NOT ONLY LOVED STUDYING THEATER, I LOVED BEING A THEATER MAJOR. IT GAVE ME ANEXCUSE TO BROOD, TO GROW A BEARD, TO WEAR BLACK “AT” PEOPLE. I DIDN’T JUST WANTTO PLAY HAMLET, I WANTED TO BE HAMLET.
NORTHWESTERN’S ACADEMIC RESOURCES ARE UNPARALLELED. THE LIBRARY CONTAINS 5 MILLION BOOKS, AND 100,000 PERIODICALS, NONE OF WHICH ANYONE READS BECAUSETHEY’RE NOT ON AN I-PAD. NEXT YEAR, I BELIEVE DEERING LIBRARY IS BEING COVERTED INTOA CHIPOTLE.
HERE’S AN INTERESTING FACT – A RECENT POLL AMONG PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES FOUND THATSTUDENTS AT NORTHWESTERN HAVE THE LOWEST DESIRE TO HAVE SEX. I THINK THAT ISPOSSIBLY BECAUSE THIS YEAR, NORTHWESTERN OFFERED SOME TRULY ADVANCEDINSTRUCTION IN HUMAN SEXUALITY. I SAW SOME PHOTOS OF THE LAB EQUIPMENT, AND I’M THINKING IT MAY HAVE SCARED YOU PEOPLE OFF OF SEX FOREVER. IT MIGHT ACTUALLYHAVE BEEN A STEALTH ABSTINENCE PROGRAM, OR VIRAL AD FOR TRUE VALUE HARDWARE. GRADUATES, GOOD LUCK EXPLAINING WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT TO YOUR GRANDMOTHER ATBRUNCH.
STILL, THAT LOW SEX DRIVE IS SURPRISING, GIVEN THAT EVANSTON IS RIDDLED WITHBROTHELS – OH YEAH, THEY ARE OUT THERE- BUT THANKFULLY THIS TOWN IS FINALLYENFORCING A CENTURY OLD CITY ORDINANCE THAT PROHIBITS MORE THAN THREEUNRELATED INDIVIDUALS FROM LIVING TOGETHER, LEST THEY REACH CRITICAL MASS, ANDSPONTANEOUSLY PROSTITUTE THEMSELVES. I’M ALL FOR THIS LAW. CAN’T BE TOO CAREFUL. IN THIS ECONOMY, RUNNING A BROTHEL MAY BE THE MOST RELIABLE WORK OUT THERE. ANDBEFORE EVERYBODY JUMPS ON ME, I AM NOT SAYING THAT EVERYBODY AT NORTHWESTERNWILL BECOME PROSTITUTES. OBVIOUSLY THE KELLOGG GRADUATES WILL BECOME PIMPS. EXPECTING BIG THINGS FROM YOU FOLKS.
SO YOU HAVE A GREAT TOWN, A GREAT SCHOOL, A GREAT LIFE HERE. MAYBE TOO GREAT. BECAUSE I SEE EVIDENCE THAT SINCE I LEFT, NORTHWESTERN HAS GONE SOFT. AND DON’T GO, “OH WHAT’S HE TALKING ABOUT?” YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I’M TALKING ABOUT: THE SNOW DAY. YOU WERE HOPING I HADNT HEARD ABOUT THAT. ONWEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 2ND, 2011, NORTHWESTERN WAS CLOSED BECAUSE OF SNOW. ‘OHNO! WHAT’S THAT WHITE STUFF COMING FROM THE SKY…IN CHICAGO…IN FEBRUARY!” I’M SORRY, THAT IS WEAK. LET ME ASK THE ALUMNI HERE: YOU EVER HAVE CLASSES CALLEDBECAUSE IT WAS A LITTLE BRISK OUTSIDE? NO! CUZ WE WERE WILDCATS WHEN WILDCATSWERE WILDCATS! FOR PETE’S SAKE IT’S CALLED NORTHWESTERN BECAUSE WHEN IT WASFOUNDED THIS WAS THE NORTHWEST TERRITORIES! IT’S FIRST GRADUATING CLASS WASOFFERED DOUBLE MAJOR IN FUR TRAPPING AND FROST BITE. AND MY FIRST WINTER HERE, TRUE STORY, I ENDURED WHAT IS STILL THE COLDEST DAY IN CHICAGO HISTORY – JANUARY20TH, 1985. NEGATIVE 27 DEGREES, NEGATIVE 83 WITH THE WINDCHILL, YOU WEREN’T CAREFUL, YOUR GENITALS COULD SNAP OFF LIKE A GRAHAM CRACKER. DID NU CLOSE? NO! WE WENT TO CLASS! WELL, NOT ME, I WAS A THEATER MAJOR, AND DIDNT GO TO CLASS THATOFTEN. BUT I WAS SUPPOSED TO! HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I FINISHED COLLEGE WITH ANINCOMPLETE?
AND WE DIDN’T HAVE CELL PHONES. IF YOU MADE PLANS TO MEET SOMEONE IN A SNOWSTORM, AND THEY DIDN’T SHOW UP, YOU JUST HAD TO ASSUME THEY WERE DEVOURED BYWOLVES AND GO ON WITH YOUR LIFE.
AND WE COULDN’T TEXT. AND WE CERTAINLY COULDN’T “SEXT” EACH OTHER. IF YOU WANTEDTO SEND SOMEONE A PICTURE OF YOUR PRIVATE PARTS, YOU HAD TO FAX IT. THAT’S HOWKINKOS GOT IT’S NAME. YOU HAD TO FILL OUT A COVER LETTER – IT WAS EMBARRASING.
BUT THE CLEAREST EXAMPLE OF HOW THIS ONCE GREAT INSTITUTION HAS FAILED YOUSTUDENTS? IN 1986, OUR COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER WAS “GEORGE SCHULTZ,” SECRETARYOF STATE, FOURTH IN LINE TO THE PRESIDENT. YOU GET ME- BASIC CABLE’S SECOND MOSTPOPULAR FAKE NEWSMAN. AT THIS RATE THE CLASS OF 2021 WILL BE ADDRESSED BY A ZOOPARROT IN A MORTAR BOARD THAT HAS BEEN TRAINED TO SAY “CONGRATULATIONS.”
BUT I’M NOT HERE TO TALK ABOUT ME – I AM HERE TO INSPIRE YOU BY TALKING ABOUT ME.
FAIR WARNING: WE ARE NOW ENTERING THE MEANINGFUL PART OF THE SPEECH: THOSE OFYOU WHO ALREADY HAVE ENOUGH MEANING IN THEIR LIVES CAN GO DO SOMETHING ELSE- MAYBE TRY TO REMEMBER WHERE YOU PARKED THE RENTAL CAR.
THIS SPRING, I PARTICIPATED IN A SAILING RACE FROM SOUTH CAROLINA HALF WAY ACROSSTHE ATLANTIC TO BERMUDA. IN MANY WAYS IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL JOURNEY, STARS WHEELINGOVER HEAD, WHALES BREACHING TO STARBOARD, WHICH I THINK IS OVER HERE. AND INMANY OTHER WAYS IT WAS HORRIBLE. WE WERE FILTHY AND TIRED – FOR SEVEN DAYS NONEOF US SLEPT FOR MORE THAN THREE HOURS AT A TIME. WHICH IS HOW STALIN BROKE HISENEMIES. AND HOW INFANTS BREAK THEIR PARENTS.
WE EVENTUALLY MADE IT TO BERMUDA, AND AFTER A FEW DAYS THERE, I CAME BACK HOMEBY PLANE. AND LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW, IT FELT COMPLETELY ARTIFICIAL TO FLY OVERTHAT SAME THOUSAND MILES OF WATER THAT WE JUST FOUGHT OUR WAY ACROSS INCH BYINCH. THE EASE OF COMING BACK SOMEHOW MADE IT THAT MUCH HARDER TO EXPLAIN TOFRIENDS WHAT WAS IT WAS LIKE OUT THERE- WHAT WAS LOST AND WHAT WAS GAINED ONTHAT SUBLIME AND TERRIBLE TRIP. AND IN SOME WAYS, IT FEELS JUST AS ARTIFICIAL TO FLYBACK TO THIS PLACE AFTER 25 YEARS TO TRY TO TELL YOU HOW TO NAVIGATE THE WATERSAHEAD.
THOUGH IT’S TEMPTING TO THINK THAT I CAN.
BECAUSE LIKE MANY PEOPLE MY AGE, I HAVE FANTASIZED ABOUT TRAVELING BACK IN TIMEAND GIVING ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF. TO STOP YOUNG STEPHEN ON A STREETCORNER, AND SAY,
“BREAK UP WITH HER, YOU IDIOT. HAVEN’T YOU NOTICED THAT SHE’S NICER TO THE DOG?!” OR, “BUY REAL ESTATE,” OR, “FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T BUY REAL ESTATE!”
OR “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU WEAR WHITE JEANS. EVEN ON A CRUISE. ALSO, DON’T GO ON A CRUISE. “
OR “WEAR SUNSCREEN – HAVING A TAN LOOKS NICE NOW, BUT IN TWENTY YEARS, YOUR FACEWILL LOOK LIKE A CATCHER’S MITT.”
BUT I DOUBT MY YOUNGER SELF WOULD EVEN LISTEN TO ME. I’M SURE HE’D SAY “THERE’S NO WAY YOU COULD BE ME. I HAVE A CHIN.” PLUS, YOUNG ME WOULD NEVER RESPECT OLDME. HE’S IN THE THEATER. I WORK IN “TV.” I’M A TOTAL SELLOUT.
SO TO RECAP: I’M GOING TO TRY TO GIVE YOU, WHO FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES AREME 25 YEARS AGO, SOME ADVICE THAT I PROBABLY WON’T GET RIGHT, AND YOU PROBABLYWON’T LISTEN TO. READY?
LET’S DO THIS THING!
OK: YOU HAVE BEEN TOLD TO FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS. BUT – WHAT IF IT’S A STUPID DREAM? FOR INSTANCE STEPHEN COLBERT OF 25 YEARS AGO LIVED AT 2015 NORTH RIDGE – WITHTWO MEN AND THREE WOMEN – IN WHAT I NOW KNOW WAS A BROTHEL. HE DREAMED OFLIVING ALONE – WELL, ALONE WITH HIS BEARD – IN A LARGE, BARREN LOFT APARTMENT – LOTS OF BLOND WOOD- WEARING A KIMONO, WITH A FUTON ON THE FLOOR, AND A SAMOVAROF TEA CONSTANTLY BUBBLING IN THE BACKGROUND, DOING SHAKESPEARE IN THE STREETFOR THE HOMELESS. TODAY, I AM A BEARDLESS, SUBURBAN DAD WHO LIVES IN A HOUSE, WEARS NO-IRON KHAKIS, AND MAKES ANTHONY WIENER JOKES FOR A LIVING. AND I LOVE IT. BECAUSE THANKFULLY DREAMS CAN CHANGE. IF WE’D ALL STUCK WITH OUR FIRST DREAM, THE WORLD WOULD BE OVERRUN WITH COWBOYS AND PRINCESSES.
SO WHATEVER YOUR DREAM IS RIGHT NOW, IF YOU DON’T ACHIEVE IT, YOU HAVEN’T FAILED, AND YOU’RE NOT SOME LOSER. BUT JUST AS IMPORTANTLY – AND THIS IS THE PART I MAY NOTGET RIGHT AND YOU MAY NOT LISTEN TO – IF YOU DO GET YOUR DREAM, YOU ARE NOT A WINNER.
AFTER I GRADUATED FROM HERE, I MOVED DOWN TO CHICAGO AND DID IMPROV. NOW THEREARE VERY FEW RULES TO IMPROVISATION, BUT ONE OF THE THINGS I WAS TAUGHT EARLY ONIS THAT YOU ARE NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE SCENE. EVERYBODY ELSE IS. AND IF THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE IN THE SCENE, YOU WILL NATURALLY PAYATTENTION TO THEM AND SERVE THEM. BUT THE GOOD NEWS IS YOU’RE IN THE SCENE TOO. SO HOPEFULLY TO THEM YOU’RE THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON, AND THEY WILL SERVE YOU. NO ONE IS LEADING, YOU’RE ALL FOLLOWING THE FOLLOWER, SERVING THE SERVANT. YOUCANNOT WIN IMPROV.
AND LIFE IS AN IMPROVISATION. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT ANDYOU ARE MOSTLY JUST MAKING THINGS UP AS YOU GO ALONG.
AND LIKE IMPROV, YOU CANNOT WIN YOUR LIFE.
EVEN WHEN IT MIGHT LOOK LIKE YOU’RE WINNING. I HAVE MY OWN SHOW, WHICH I LOVEDOING. FULL OF VERY TALENTED PEOPLE READY TO SERVE ME. AND IT’S GREAT. BUT AT MYBEST, I AM SERVING THEM JUST AS HARD, AND TOGETHER, WE SERVE A COMMON IDEA, INTHIS CASE THE CHARACTER STEPHEN COLBERT, WHO IT’S CLEAR, ISN’T INTERESTED INSERVING ANYONE. AND A SURE SIGN THAT THINGS ARE GOING WELL IS WHEN NO ONE CANREALLY REMEMBER WHOSE IDEA WAS WHOSE, OR WHO SHOULD GET CREDIT FOR WHATJOKES.
THOUGH NATURALLY I CREDIT FOR ALL OF THEM.
BUT IF WE SHOULD SERVE OTHERS, AND TOGETHER SERVE SOME COMMON GOAL OR IDEA – FOR ANY ONE YOU, WHAT IS THAT IDEA? AND WHO ARE THOSE PEOPLE?
IN MY EXPERIENCE, YOU WILL TRULY SERVE ONLY WHAT YOU LOVE, BECAUSE SERVICE ISLOVE MADE VISIBLE.
IF YOU LOVE FRIENDS, YOU WILL SERVE YOUR FRIENDS.
IF YOU LOVE COMMUNITY, YOU WILL SERVE YOUR COMMUNITY.
IF YOU LOVE MONEY, YOU WILL SERVE YOUR MONEY.
AND IF YOU LOVE ONLY YOURSELF, YOU WILL SERVE ONLY YOURSELF. AND YOU WILL HAVEONLY YOURSELF.
SO NO MORE WINNING. INSTEAD, TRY TO LOVE OTHERS AND SERVE OTHERS, ANDHOPEFULLY FIND THOSE WHO LOVE AND SERVE YOU IN RETURN.
IN CLOSING, I’D LIKE TO APOLOGIZE FOR BEING PREDICTABLE. THE NEW YORK TIMES HASANALYZED THE HUNDREDS OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECHES GIVEN SO FAR IN 2011, ANDFOUND THAT “LOVE,” AND “SERVICE” WERE TWO OF THE MOST USED WORDS.
I CAN ONLY HOPE THAT BECAUSE OF MY SPEECH TODAY, THE WORD “BROTHEL” COMES IN A CLOSE THIRD.
THANK YOU FOR THE HONOR OF ADDRESSING YOU, AND CONGRATULATIONS TO THE CLASSOF 2011.
Dr. Edward O. Wilson
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina USA
MAY 8, 2011
Dr. Wilson’s groundbreaking research and insights changed the way humans think about nature. A research professor and museum curator at Harvard University, he received many of the world’s leading prizes in science and environmental activism. Professor Wilson was a leader in the fields of entomology, animal behavior, evolutionary psychology, island biogeography, biodiversity, environmental ethics, and the philosophy of knowledge. Two of his non-fiction books, The Ants (1990) and On Human Nature (1978), won Pulitzer Prizes.
As your commencement speaker, I will be brief. I’m not going to be as brief as Salvador Dali, who once gave the world’s shortest speech – six seconds in duration. He said, “I will be so brief I have already finished,” and he sat down. There was the perfect commencement speaker, but I’m not and I will be reasonably brief, nonetheless, I promise.
And to the point. I’m going to seize this opportunity to describe the world in a way you may not have often heard it expressed, even at this great University, and certainly not widely, even at our best universities. It is that the 21st Century is going to be the Century of the Environment worldwide, and in science it is going to be the Century of Biology. The reason is simply that this is the time we either will settle down as a species or completely wreck the planet.
We will have to evolve a better world order than the one we have now, which I like to call our Star Wars Civilization. I mean we have stone-age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. In the case of emotions, they evolved in pre-history over millions of years. In the case of our institutions, especially within religions and ideology, we are in constant conflict. And in the case of our technology, we are seeing things going almost beyond the control of our imagination. These three stanchions of current civilization explain why we are constantly in trouble. They are dangerous. They are very serious problems for the rest of life and, ultimately, for ourselves. And today we are still far from even at the margin of solutions.
At the base of the problem, I would like to suggest, are the three still mostly unanswered fundamental questions of religion, philosophy and science. They are: Where do we come from?, What are we?, and Where are we going? You graduates have dealt with aspects of these questions, the great riddle, here at this university, in parts and pieces, but everywhere our best thinkers are confounded by them. It is still the case, as the French writer Jean Bruller put it during the dark days of the 1930s. He said, for then as well as for today, “All of mankind’s problems are due to the fact that we do not know what we are and cannot agree on what we wish to become.”
In one area in particular, the environment, humanity urgently has to decide what we are, what we wish to become, and where we are going. And that is especially true for the way we relate ourselves to the rest of life. And we better do it soon.
The world is fortunately beginning to turn green, at least pastel green. But I’d like to call your attention to an imbalance in the way we are turning green. The emphasis today is on the physical environment, that is, on climate change, pollution, the decline of fresh water and arable land, and the depletion of irreplaceable natural resources. And it’s well and good that we focus on these matters.
But there has been proportionately much less attention paid to the living environment, and especially the diversity of life – biodiversity – which is the totality of the ecosystems, such as ponds, rivers, forests patches, and coral reefs; and then the species of plants, animals, and microorganisms that compose each of these ecosystems; and then the genes that prescribe the traits of the species that compose the ecosystems – all are at peril.
That great hierarchy and resource has taken three-and-a half billion years to emerge. Our lives depend upon it, because we are, first and above all things, a biological species living in a very special biological world. Our relation to it can be put in a nutshell as follows. Scientists have found the biosphere, that razor-thin membrane plastered onto the surface of the earth, to be richer than ever before conceived. But due to human activity it is being eroded away at an accelerating rate. We estimate, those of us who measure such things, that the rate of species extinction is now about a thousand times higher than before humanity entered the scene, and furthermore if it is left unabated, half the species on Earth will be gone or on the edge of extinction by the end of the century.
That loss of so much of the rest of life, if allowed to continue, is going to inflict a heavy price on you and future generations in wealth, security, and spirit. If on the other hand, the problem is solved, the benefits in wealth, security, and spirit will become beyond measure.
So the torch is passed to you here. Please take the torch of this fundamental problem and the opportunity it provides to understand and to contribute to its solution.
And now finally a piece of personal advice. This university, one of the best in America, has given you the means to be flexible, to look ahead and that capacity, with determination and hard work, means you will lead a fulfilling and honorable life. If you are planning on graduate studies and they feel right, then good for you. If you opted out of advanced studies, but think that it might have been right, consider trying it and find out. We need as many determined, highly educated citizens in this faltering country of ours as we can get.
At Harvard I advised students for decades on these matters and here is what I’ve said to those in particular who were planning to go, as undergraduates, into medical and law schools, but were still a little shaky about the whole thing.
There is an enormous, built-in, professional flexibility in an M.D. In addition to the large array of specializations and general practice within those, there is public health, there is hospital and medical institute administration, and then there is the vast and very rewarding world of medical research. For the graduate in law and those going into the law school, there are endless avenues open for practice and application, in business, in public service, in public and private administration in a wide diversity of venues.
And for you graduates in science, technology, and education, the 21st Century is indeed one to make a huge individual contribution.
And for all of you, for whatever future you have in mind, the future and changes are becoming radically new and different at warp speed. Ours is above and beyond all an exponential world, changing faster than at any previous period of history. We are now in the early period of an overwhelmingly techno-scientific civilization, connected literally person to person. The accumulated knowledge of the world is already at the zettabyte level – that’s a one followed by 21 zeroes of bytes. It is growing faster and faster by the digital revolution in communication, which is changing everything – all that we know, all that we need to quickly learn, all that we need to understand in order to survive as a species.
The trajectory of history can only be dimly foreseen. It will consist of shocks and surprises. This country and the rest of the world needs university-trained young people prepared not only by knowledge itself but by the capacity to find new knowledge in order to respond quickly to unexpected needs and crises, challenging all the various professions, also in public affairs, and in simple, everyday life. And, with it all, to think upon and understand the meaning of humanity and yourselves and your lives. So, go forth. Think. Save the world.
But for now, congratulations to you and to your wonderful, justly proud, and much relieved parents. And thank y’all for having me with you and, as a son of Alabama, to become an honorary Tar Heel.
“Acting in the Wider World”
Barnard College, New York City
MAY 18, 2010
Mary Louise “Meryl” Streep (born 1949) is an American actress who has worked in theatre, television, and film. She is widely regarded as one of the most talented film actresses of all time. She also is the spokesperson for the National Women’s History Museum.
Thank you, all. Thank you, President Spar, Ms. Golden, President Tilghman, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, proud swelling parents and family, and gorgeous class of 2010.
If you are all really, really lucky, and if you continue to work super hard, and you remember your thank you notes and everybody’s name; and you follow through on every task that’s asked of you and also somehow anticipate problems before they even arise and you somehow sidestep disaster and score big. If you get great scores on your LSATS, or MSATS, or ERSATS or whatever. And you get into your dream grad school or internship which leads to a super job with a paycheck commensurate with responsibilities of leadership, or if you somehow get that documentary on a shoe-string budget and it gets accepted at Sundance and maybe it wins Sundance and then you go on to be nominated for an Oscar and then you win the Oscar. Or if that money-making website that you designed with your friends somehow suddenly attracts investors and advertisers and becomes the go-to site for whatever it is you’re selling, blogging, sharing, or net-casting and success – shining, hoped-for but never really anticipated success – comes your way, I guarantee you someone you know or love will come to you and say, “Will you address the graduates at my college?” And you’ll say, “Yeah sure, when is it? May 2010? 2010. Yeah sure, that’s months away,” and then the nightmare begins. The nightmare we’ve all had and I assure you, you will continue to have even after graduation, 40 years after graduation. About a week before the due date, you wake up in the middle of the night, “Huh, I have a paper due and I haven’t done the reading. Oh my god.”
If you have been touched by the success fairy, people think you know why. People think success breeds enlightenment and you are duty bound to spread it around like manure, fertilize those young minds, let them in on the secret, what is it that you know that no one else knows. The self examination begins, one looks inward, one opens an interior door. Cobwebs, black, the lights bulbs burned out, the airless dank refrigerator of an insanely over-scheduled, unexamined life that usually just gets take-out. Where is my writer friend, Anna Quindlen when I need her? On another book tour.
Hello I’m Meryl Streep, and today, Class of 2010 and I am very honored and humbled to be asked to pass on tips and inspiration to you for achieving success in this next part of your lives. President Spar, when I consider the other distinguished medal recipients and venerable Board of Trustees, the many accomplished faculty and family members, people who’ve actually done things, produced things, while I have pretended to do things, I can think about 3800 people who should have been on this list before me and, you know, since my success has depended wholly on putting things over on people. So I’m not sure the parents think I’m that great a role model anyway.
I am however an expert in pretending to be an expert in various areas, so just randomly, like everything else in this speech, I am or I was an expert in kissing on stage and on screen. How did I prepare for this? Well most of my preparation took place at my suburban high school or rather behind my suburban high school in New Jersey. One is obliged to do a great deal of kissing in my line of work. Air kissing, ass-kissing, kissing up and of course actual kissing. Much like hookers, actors have to do it with people we may not like or even know. We may have to do it with friends, which is, believe it or not, particularly awkward. For people of my generation, it’s awkward.
My other areas of faux expertise – river rafting, miming the effects of radiation poisoning, knowing which shoes go with which bag, coffee plantationing, Turkish, Polish, German, French, Italian, that Iowa-Italian from the bridges of Madison County, a bit of the Bronx, Aramaic, Yiddish, Irish clog dancing, cooking, singing, riding horses, knitting, playing the violin, and simulating steamy sexual encounters – these are some of the areas in which I have pretended quite proficiently to be successful, or the other way around. As have many women here, I’m sure.
Women, I feel I can say this authoritatively, especially at Barnard where they can’t hear us. What am I talking about? They professionally can’t hear us. Women are better at acting than men. Why? Because we have to be. If successfully convincing someone bigger than you are of something he doesn’t know is a survival skill, this is how women have survived through the millennia. Pretending is not just play. Pretending is imagined possibility. Pretending or acting is a very valuable life skill and we all do it. All the time, we don’t want to be caught doing it but nevertheless it’s part of the adaptation of our species; we change who we are to fit the exigencies of our time, and not just strategically, or to our own advantage, sometimes sympathetically, without our even knowing it, for the betterment of the whole group.
I remember my own first conscious attempt at acting. I was six, placing my mother’s half slip over my head in preparation to play the Virgin Mary in our living room. As I swaddled my Betsy Wetsy doll I felt quieted – holy, actually – and my transfigured face and very changed demeanor (captured on super-8 by my dad) pulled my little brothers Harry, 4, to play Joseph and Dana, 2, too, a barnyard animal, into the trance. They were actually pulled into this nativity scene by the intensity of my focus, in a way my usual technique for getting them to do what I want, yelling at them, would never ever have achieved, and I learned something on that day.
Later when I was nine, I remember taking my mother’s eyebrow pencil and carefully drawing lines all over my face, replicating the wrinkles that I had memorized on the face of my grandmother, whom I adored, and made my mother take my picture and I look at it now and of course, I look like myself now and my grandmother then. But I really do remember in my bones, how it was possible on that day to feel her age. I stooped, I felt weighted down but cheerful. I felt like her.
Empathy is at the heart of the actor’s art. And in high school, another form of acting took hold of me. I wanted to learn how to be appealing. So I studied the character I imagined I wanted to be, that of the generically pretty high school girl. I researched her deeply, that is to say shallowly, in Vogue, in Seventeen, and in Mademoiselle. I tried to imitate her hair, her lipstick, her lashes, the clothes of the lithesome, beautiful and generically appealing high school girls that I saw in those pages. I ate an apple a day, period. I peroxided my hair, ironed it straight. I demanded brand name clothes; my mother shut me down on that one. But I did, I worked harder on this characterization really than anyone I think I’ve ever done since. I worked on my giggle; I lightened it. Because I like it when it went, kind of “ehuh” and the end, “eheeh”, “ehaeaahaha” because I thought it sounded child like, and cute. This was all about appealing to boys and at the same time being accepted by the girls, a very tricky negotiation. Often success in one area precludes succeeding in the other.
And along with all my other exterior choices, I worked on my, what actors call, my interior adjustment. I adjusted my natural temperament which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, loud, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy, natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very, very effective on the boys. But the girls didn’t buy it. They didn’t like me; they sniffed it out, the acting. And they were probably right, but I was committed; this was absolutely not a cynical exercise; this was a vestigial survival courtship skill I was developing. And I reached a point senior year, when my adjustment felt like me; I had actually convinced myself that I was this person and she, me: pretty, talented, but not stuck-up.You know, a girl who laughed a lot at every stupid thing every boy said and who lowered her eyes at the right moment and deferred, who learned to defer when the boys took over the conversation. I really remember this so clearly and I could tell it was working. I was much less annoying to the guys than I had been, they liked me better and I like that; this was conscious but it was at the same time motivated and fully-felt this was real, real acting.
I got to Vassar, which 43 years ago, was a single-sex institution, like all the colleges in what they call the Seven Sisters, the female Ivy League; and I made some quick but lifelong and challenging friends. And with their help outside of any competition for boys, my brain woke up. I got up and I got outside myself and I found myself again. I didn’t have to pretend. I could be goofy, vehement, aggressive, and slovenly and open and funny and tough and my friends let me. I didn’t wash my hair for three weeks once. They accepted me like the Velveteen Rabbit. I became real instead of an imagined stuffed bunny but I stockpiled that character from high school and I breathed life into her again some years later as Linda in the Deer Hunter. There is probably not one of you graduates who has ever seen this film but the Deer Hunter, it won best picture in 1978. Robert De Niro, Chris Walken, not funny at all. And I played Linda, a small town girl in a working class background, a lovely, quiet, hapless girl, who waited for the boy she loved to come back from the war in Vietnam. Often men my age – President Clinton, by the way, when I met him said, “Men my age, mention that character as their favorite of all the women I’ve played.” And I have my own secret understanding of why that is and it confirms every decision I made in high school. This is not to denigrate that girl, by the way, or the men who are drawn to her in anyway, because she’s still part of me and I’m part of her. She wasn’t acting but she was just behaving in a way that cowed girls, submissive girls, beaten-up girls with very few ways out have behaved forever and still do in many worlds.
Now as a measure of how the world has changed, the character most men mention as their favorite. Miranda Priestly. The beleaguered totalitarian at the head of Runway magazine in Devil Wears Prada. To my mind this represents such an optimistic shift. They relate to Miranda. They wanted to date Linda. They felt sorry for Linda, but they feel like Miranda. They can relate to her issues, the high standards she sets for herself and others. The thanklessness of the leadership position. The “nobody understands me” thing. The loneliness. They stand outside one character and they pity her and they kind of fall in love with her but they look through the eyes of this other character.
This is a huge deal because as people in the movie business know the absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman protagonist, to feel themselves embodied by her. This more than any other factor explains why we get the movies we get and the paucity of the roles where women drive the film. It’s much easier for the female audience ‘cause we were all grown up, brought up, identifying with male characters from Shakespeare to Salinger. We have less trouble following Hamlet’s dilemma viscerally or Romeo’s or Tybalt or Huck Finn or Peter Pan – I remember holding that sword up to Hook – I felt like him. But it is much much much harder for heterosexual boys to be able to identify with Juliet or Desdemona, Wendy in Peter Pan or Joe in Little Women or the Little Mermaid or Pocohontas. Why I don’t know, but it just is.
There has always been a resistance to imaginatively assume a persona, if that persona is a she. But things are changing now and it’s in your generation we’re seeing this. Men are adapting… about time…They are adapting consciously and also without consciously and without realizing it for the better of the whole group. They are changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred, and the door to this emotional shift is empathy. As Jung said, emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of lightness into dark, of apathy into movement, without emotion. Or as Leonard Cohen says pay attention to the cracks because that’s where the light gets in. You, young women of Barnard have not had to squeeze yourself into the corset of being cute or to muffle your opinions but then, you haven’t left campus yet. I’m just kidding. What you have had is the privilege of a very specific education. You are people who may be able to draw on a completely different perspective, to imagine a different possibility than women and men who went to coed schools.
How this difference is going to serve you it’s hard to quantify now; it may take you 40 years like it did me to look back and analyze your advantage. But today is about looking forward into a world where so-called women’s issues, human issues of gender inequality live at the very crux of global problems from poverty to the AIDS crisis to the rise in violent fundamentalist juntas, human trafficking and human rights abuses; and you’re going to have the opportunity and the obligation, by virtue of your providence, to speed progress in all these areas. And this is a place where the need is very great, the news is too. This is your time and it feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There’s only change, and resistance to it and then more change.
Never before in the history of our country have most of the advanced degrees been awarded to women but now they are. Since the dawn of man, it’s hardly more than 100 years since we were even allowed into these buildings except to clean them, but soon most of law and medical degrees will probably also go to women. Around the world, poor women now own property who used to be property, and according to the Economist, for the last two decades, the increase of female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants India or China. Cracks in the ceiling, cracks in the door, cracks in the Court and on the Senate floor.
You know, I gave a speech at Vassar 27 years ago. It was a really big hit. Everybody loved it, really. Tom Brokaw said it was the very best commencement speech he had ever heard and of course I believed this. And it was much easier to construct than this one. It came out pretty easily because back then I knew so much. I was a new mother, I had two Academy Awards, and it was all coming together so nicely. I was smart and I understood boiler plate and what sounded good and because I had been on the squad in high school, earnest full-throated cheerleading was my specialty, so that’s what I did but now, I feel like I know about 1/16th of what that young woman knew. Things don’t seem as certain today. Now I’m 60; I have four adult children who are all facing the same challenges you are. I’m more sanguine about all the things that I still don’t know and I’m still curious about.
What I do know about success, fame, celebrity that would fill another speech. How it separates you from your friends, from reality, from proportion.Your own sweet anonymity, a treasure you don’t even know you have until it’s gone. How it makes things tough for your family and whether being famous matters one bit, in the end, in the whole flux of time. I know I was invited here because of that. How famous I am, how many awards I’ve won and while I am, I am overweeningly proud of the work that, believe me, I did not do on my own. I can assure you that awards have very little bearing on my own personal happiness, my own sense of wellbeing and purpose in the world. That comes from studying the world feelingly, with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter what you see me or hear me saying when I’m on your TV holding a statuette and spewing, that’s acting.
Being a celebrity has taught me to hide, but being an actor has opened my soul.
Being here today has forced me to look around inside there for something useful that I can share with you and I’m really grateful you gave me the chance.
You know you don’t have to be famous. You just have to make your mother and father proud of you and you already have. Bravo to you. Congratulations.
“Embrace the Revolution”
Lynn Sherr is an award-winning correspondent at ABC She is the author of several books, including “Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words,” “America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation’s Favorite Song” and “Tall Blondes,” a book about giraffes. She has won numerous awards, including an Emmy.
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA
MAY 10, 2010
“Kim — President Bottomly — very distinguished faculty, trustees, staff, sister alums, loving parents and grandparents and families and all the friends who made all of this possible today, and above all, beautiful, bubbly members of the Royal Purple class of 2010. Congratulations! I’ve even written my speech on purple paper today.
“Thank you for inviting me to your party. Thank you for letting me pretend I’m still here. And really, above all, thank you for showing me what the Scream Tunnel sounds like!
“I celebrate your accomplishments and I share every tingle of excitement. This day is beyond special in your lives, and I am honored to help welcome you out into the wide, wide world. Regrettably, I do not stand here to guarantee you a job; I can, however, guarantee lunch. Never underestimate lunch.
“This is not about women’s lib, this is about women’s lives, which means this also about the survival of children and men throughout the planet.”
“I also stand here as living, breathing proof that Wellesley does indeed open the doors to the planet. Most of those doors were, in fact, barred to women when I graduated from Wellesley in 1963 — another century, another era, even another color. I was a mellow yellow girl. Golden, if you pushed. Which my generation had to do. As women — or “girls,” they called us — we were not invited to participate in the working world except at the lowest levels. But thanks to the knowledge we gained and the courage we inhaled on this campus, we figured it out. We smashed the barriers so that you — every one of you — can now walk into any doorway that you want. That’s the way it works. Pay it forward, when you’re ready to do the same.
“What you have earned as graduates — or about to be graduates — of this amazing institution is the ability to move on, to dare to do anything. What you retain as graduates of this amazing institution is the privilege to return any time. Emotionally, spiritually or just to visit. As [dean of religious and spiritual life] Victor [Kazanjian] said, this is home base. Always.
“And it’s what you’ve learned in here that will help determine what you do out there. It certainly did for me.
“I urge you not to reject “feminism” as a four-letter word. It is a good, precise term. It means you believe that women are people [interrupted by cheers] — thank you — who have rights and responsibilities equal to those of men. Nothing more, nothing less. And it doesn’t signify warfare. Because men are not the enemy, and we are only part of the solution. We’re all flying on this planet together. And as the multitasking gender, we are definitely smart enough to make compromises when we need to.”
“Someone at a Jewish newspaper in Philadelphia, which is my hometown, once asked me if my background had anything to do with my choice of a career, since Jews were always asking questions — and answering with a question. I asked him if he was serious. In fact, I became a reporter for a very corny reason: to tell the truth. To go behind the curtain and expose the wizardry; to find out why and when and where and how; to help make sense and thus bring order to a distinctly disordered world.
“By an accident of timing and pure good luck, I have lived the glory years of television network journalism, when news was still recognized as a public service and when getting the story was the only thing that mattered. When we were reality TV. At its best, it’s been energizing and humbling and very satisfying. I relish getting bad guys. I adored bringing people together in front of what we used to call the electronic hearth; I like — what’s not to like — saving lives.
“And I loved celebrating the turn of this century on the air with — oh, maybe 10,000 other revelers, Indian revelers, in Mumbai, for our ABC News millennium show, where a very wise fellow helped me put things into perspective. “Aren’t you excited about a new millennium?” I said him, pretty charged up myself. “Well,” he said to me, ” you know, for you folks in America, of course you’re excited; this is your first. We’ve had a few already.”
“A few years ago, I did an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose brilliant mind and true grit helped make women equal in the law. She took me back to 1993, when she first was appointed as the second woman on the bench to the equally liberated Sandra Day O’Connor. So, as Justice Ginsburg told me this story, the day she took her seat, an organization called the National Association of Women Judges had brought along some presents for Ginsburg and O’Connor — and the presents were T-shirts. There was a T-shirt for each of the women. One read, “I’m Sandra, not Ruth;” the other read, “I’m Ruth, not Sandra.” Justice Ginsburg said with great glee, “Now,” she said, “I went through the entire last term, which was my, what? My seventh year on the court? With no one calling me Justice O’Connor. It took six years! But that to me was a sign that we’ve really made it. Now they know that there are two women.” Who would have imagined three?
“This wasn’t just about numbers. It was not just about getting in. It was about producing a better product, better reflecting the country, and in my case, covering the news and presenting the audience with a more textured, more accurate sense of the world that we inhabit. And as one of the first women in the business, I not only covered the feminist movement; I was part of it, stepping into jobs that did not exist until I got there, then chronicling the social revolution that has literally changed the rules of society.
“Because until women showed up in American newsrooms, and Amercican legislatures, there were no major stories, or laws, on child care, on women’s rights, on sexual harassment. We are the ones who lobbied or reported stories to combat the evils that were savaging our bodies: breast cancer, rape, battering husbands. We are the ones who insisted on putting other successful women on the air, and into every office, so that little girls (and little boys) could know that women in fact can do anything in the world.
“Oh, that’s worth a cheer, sure! [Responding to spontaneous cheers.]
“I am thrilled that the rules have changed. But I am constantly reminded that the change can be unsettling. How different was it?
“Well, I grew up in a world where a mouse was a furry rodent, a twitter was a bird-call, and Katharine Lee Bates, as far as I knew back then, was merely a dormitory. When I was at Wellesley, as Kim mentioned, I majored in classical Greek, which, by the way, I suggest, even if you haven’t majored in Greek, go study it at some point. It will make you a better person, I promise. At any event, I majored in classical Greek, which really hasn’t changed all that much but the collapsed civilization I studied was of Pericles, not Papandreou.
“And of course, when I sat where you are sitting, the secretary of state of the United States was — and always had been —a white male. None of whom had gone to Wellesley.
“Worse yet, success back then meant defying nature. Anatomy, Dr. Freud told us, was destiny, condemning women to a status far below our own expectations. Little wonder so many tried to act and think like men. We wanted to prove we were just as good as the guys, because they held all the passwords. We worked very hard to detach our bodies from our business lives because we had to. In those days, getting pregnant could get you fired; giggling about girl stuff meant you weren’t serious; crying in the office labeled you unprofessional. Newspapers tapped into the zeitgeist with headlines screaming, “BEAUTIFUL BLONDE MURDERED,” as if the color of her hair had anything to do with the crime that took her life; or, this one’s my favorite, “GRANDMOTHER ELECTED PRIMEMINISTER,” as if Golda Meir’s ovaries had qualified her to be the leader of Israel.
“Today, men weep in public (often when they’re confessing to betraying their wives), babies have become common campaign props and the U.S. Congress — the United States Congress! — has lactation stations. Being a grandma is not only acceptable, it is partly how the speaker of the House of Representatives defined herself when she ran for the office, later including her grandkids and the children of others — a new badge of honor — when she took the oath of office.
“Although I must say, I do wonder why, if it’s so cool to be a grandma in public life, how come no guy running for office ever, ever defines himself as a grandpa?
“At any rate, it is now safe, politically, to be female — it is okay if you choose to be a mom, a grandmom, a woman with womanly concerns AND — if you choose – to be a scientist, a corporate executive, a senator, an astronaut, a journalist — all at the same time.
“That is the reality on this campus, on this continent.
“However, when you step further outside this beautiful quadrangle that we’re in, out into the developing world, the challenges remain very chilling. Way out there:
“When times are tough, and prices go up, it’s the girl who is taken out of school.
“Way out there, when there’s not enough food, the boy gets fed; the girl does not.
“And it’s worse in time of conflict. In modern war, 90% of all casualties are civilians, people not in uniform; 75% of them are women and children.
“That’s the bad news. The good news is, that from Wall Street to West Africa, philanthropists and economists have discovered the value of investing in girls and women — notice I said investing, because it turns out that putting your money on girls and women is just good business. The new awareness goes beyond jokes about the possibility of better results if, for example, one firm had been named Lehman Sisters. This is not about women’s lib, this is about women’s lives, which means this also about the survival of children and men throughout the planet. I’ve seen some very heartening signs of progress:
“On assignment in Liberia, I met the unbelievably courageous market women who helped end nearly 14 years of civil wars by pulling a trick right out of my ancient Greek texts: until their husbands agreed to sit down for peace talks, the women refused sex. In Nicaragua, I met an American medical team volunteering their services to women who pick and sort coffeebeans — they did screening for them and instantly treating cervical cancer. Which in fact is saving lives. And thanks to an organization helping victims of rape in Congo, women-owned businesses are making a profit and allowing their children — many for the first time — to go to school. Here in the U.S., we now have our first ambassador for global women’s issues — reporting directly to the Secretary of State. That would be, our Secretary of State. [Cheers.]
“You are entering a world that is beginning to understand women’s needs, to respect women’s value and to crave women’s power. At last.
“My generation didn’t make all of this possible, and we didn’t do it all perfectly. In the process, we overly dismissed our stay-at-home moms; sometimes I think we may have demanded too little of ourselves. Perhaps we offended or overreached. But we did what we thought we had to, given the odds that we faced. We measured the odds and we saw our goals, and we reached a number of them. Look how the imperative has flipped.
“Today, as a sensible friend of mine from California observes, we don’t need strong women to think like men; we need more strong men to think like women.
“Not by the way that I think Wellesley ought to produce them; that’s a separate story.
“And consider this: my generation is not so easy to get rid of. Some of us are busily redefining retirement, as we adjust to a landscape greatly altered by technology. The challenge for journalism, my business, is immense, trying to cope in a world where news has moved from the living room to your laptop; from a giant studio to a tiny space on your phone or on your dashboard or whatever fits into your hand. I am completely convinced that someday the news will be delivered on our electric toothbrushes. So in a way, you and I are very much alike — as you start out in your lives, and I’m starting out on the rest of mine. We’re both saying, “Now what?” This is not a race; we’re focused on different directions. But I hasten to inform you that while our gender is now generally accepted, our gray hairs are not. Fair warning.
“And there’s something else you’re going to find out out there. Something that just doesn’t seem to go away. It’s the question that continues to nag every single working woman in America. And it’s best illustrated by a cartoon that I cite every time I get the chance. It’s a barnyard scene, and there’s a mother hen in front and there are two hens in the back. And the two hens in the back are gossiping about the one in front. And the caption, which is one hen to the other in the back, is, “How she’s able to manage a career and still juggle her family, I’ll never know.”
“I know the answer: The eggs get scrambled. Get used to it.
“As contemporary women, we have reinvented every stage of our lives, turning dissatisfaction with convention into new rules for success, trying to reshape the battle of the sexes into a more practical form of peaceful coexistence. Once unwelcome in all but the lowest-paid pockets of journalism, my generation of female reporters hit the business when a job could become a profession; when we begged, then demanded, then won, the right to work. We came on the scene as “girls” who were supposed to know our place, which was nowhere. Today, with the privileges we’ve earned as powerful women, we know that our place is everywhere.
“I beg you to remember how we and you got here; and how long it took. I urge you not to reject “feminism” as a four-letter word. It is a good, precise term. It means you believe that women are people [interrupted by cheers] — thank you — who have rights and responsibilities equal to those of men. Nothing more, nothing less. And it doesn’t signify warfare. Because men are not the enemy, and we are only part of the solution. We’re all flying on this planet together. And as the multitasking gender, we are definitely smart enough to make compromises when we need to. I certainly did.
“As a new wife and unexpected stepmom, I turned political campaigns into social studies lessons for three young boys and I regularly put politicians on hold when the plumber returned my phone call. My priorities have always been very clear. I have also faced the heartbreak of death too soon and come out the other side. My husband died of cancer; I am a cancer survivor.
“But I’m betting that every woman here — every person here, in fact — has a similar story, or will, because that, certainly for us, is the story of women’s lives. We dream, we cope and we endure.
“And we keep on learning. Today I’m a proud grandma, too, and here is what my grandchildren have taught me: the joy of unconditional love; the unbearably adoring tug of a tiny little hand; the right way to leap off the bridge in Super Mario. I can identify each of The Wiggles by name. And just try me on Hannah Montana.
“That is also the story of women’s lives.
“As yours begins anew, I have a couple of suggestions: When we’re done here, first thing, thank your families for footing the bill and for understanding that you and Wellesley are worth it.
“Remember our history as you make your own.
“And while the media world descends into shout-fests and outlandish opinion saturating the blogosphere, please don’t let the widening political divide hijack your dreams or weaken the intellectual rigor that you learned here. There are some people, some very famous people, who are saying some very silly things out there. Things that are just plain wrong. Fight them back. Fight them back with facts. Because facts matter. There are standards of truth, and we should demand nothing less.
“Back in 1902, my hero, Susan B. Anthony, the woman who understood the truth that women deserve the right to vote, contemplated the changes after her own extraordinary life. She was 82 — older than even I am — and she was slowing down — which I’m not. But her voice resonates perfectly as you are about to step out of this quad and into the world:
“”There is so much yet to be done,” she said. “I see so many things I would like to do and say, but I must leave it for the younger generation. We old fighters have prepared the way, and it is easier than it was 50 years ago when I first got into the harness. The young blood, she said, fresh with enthusiasm, must carry on the work.”
“So carry on. Carry us with you. Continue the revolution. Know that we are right beside you.
“And just in case you are wondering what direction to take, consider one more thing Miss Anthony said. It was 1905. “I firmly believe,” she predicted, “that some day a woman will be elected president of the United States.” I urge you to go for it. It is our tradition. And it’s about time. Congratulations, class of 2010!”
The Earth is Hiring
Paul Hawken is an environmental activist, entrepreneur, author and, most importantly, a dreamer.
University of Portland. Portland, Oregon USA
MAY 3, 2009
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there.
Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
“Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.”
This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.
You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
“Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.”
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.
The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.
The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.
This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequeathed to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
“Failure and Imagination”
J. K Rowling is a British writer, most well known for the Harry Potter series.
J. K. Rowling
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
JUNE 5, 2008
President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.
The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.
Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.
“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”
You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.
Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.
These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.
I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.
So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.
I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.
“If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.”
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.
At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.
I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.
Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.
I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.
Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.
Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.
But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.
So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.
“Make Us Believe Again”
Senator Obama — from Illinois by way of a life spent in Hawaii, Indonesia, California, New York and Boston — was running at this time for President of the United States.
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut USA
MAY 28, 2008
I have the distinct honor today of pinch-hitting for one of my personal heroes and a hero to this country, Senator Edward Kennedy. Ted is at home getting some much needed and deserved rest, and we are so pleased to see many of his family here today including his wonderful wife, Vicki. He called me up a few days ago and I said that I’d be happy to be his stand-in, even if there was no way I could fill his shoes. I did, however, get the chance to glance at the speech he planned on delivering today, and I’d like to start by passing along a message from Ted: “To all those praying for my return to good health, I offer my heartfelt thanks. And to any who’d rather have a different result, I say, don’t get your hopes up just yet!”
So we know that Teddy’s legendary sense of humor is as strong as ever, and I have no doubt that his equally legendary fighting spirit will carry him through this latest challenge. He is our friend, he is our champion, and we hope and pray for his return to good health.
Now the topic of his speech today was common for a commencement, and we heard some of the themes from president Roth, but one that nobody could discuss with more authority or inspiration than Ted Kennedy. And that is the topic of service to one’s country – a cause that is synonymous with his family’s name and legacy.
I was born the year that his brother John called a generation of Americans to ask their country what they could do. And I came of age at a time when they did it. They were the Peace Corps volunteers who won a generation of goodwill toward America at a time when America’s ideals were challenged. They were the teenagers and college students, not much older than you, who watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on their television sets; who saw the dogs and the fire hoses and the footage of marchers being beaten within an inch or their lives; who knew it was probably smarter and safer to stay at home, but decided to take those Freedom Rides down south – who still decided to march. And because they did, they changed the world.
“At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again. That’s your task, class of 2008.”
I bring this up because today, you are about to enter a world that makes it easier to get caught up in the notion that there are actually two different stories at work in our lives. The first is the story of our everyday cares and concerns – the responsibilities we have to our jobs and our families – the bustle and the busyness of what happens in our lives. And the second is the story of what happens in the life of our country – of what happens in the wider world. It’s the story you see when you catch a glimpse of the day’s headlines or turn on the news at night – a story of big challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change; injustice and inequality. It’s a story that sometimes can seem distant and separate from our own – a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control.
And yet, the history of this nation tells us this isn’t so. It tells us that we are a people whose destiny has never been written for us, but by us – by generations of men and women, young and old, who have always believed that their story and the American story are not separate, but shared. And for more than two centuries, they have served this country in ways that have forever enriched both.
I say this to you as someone who couldn’t be standing here if not for the service of others, and wouldn’t be standing here today if it were not for the purpose that service gave my own life.
You see, I spent much of my childhood adrift. My father left my mother and me when I was two. When my mother remarried, I lived overseas for a time, but was mostly raised in Hawaii by her and my grandparents from Kansas. My teenage years were filled with more than the usual dose of teenage rebellion, and I’ll admit that I didn’t always take myself or my studies very seriously. I realize that none of you can probably relate to this, overachievers that you are, but there were many times when I wasn’t sure where I was going, or what I was going to do with my life.
“But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service – one blow against injustice – to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that ‘tiny ripple of hope’ That’s what changes the world.”
But during my first two years of college, perhaps because the values my mother had taught me – the values of hard work, honesty, empathy and compassion – had finally resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself. I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime in South Africa. I began following the debates in this country about poverty and health care. So that by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with this crazy idea – that I was going to work at a grassroots level to bring about change.
I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of steel mills. My mother and my grandparents, liberal-minded though they were, wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car. And I said yes.
I didn’t know a soul in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure what this community organizing business was all about. I had always been inspired by the stories of the Civil Rights Movement and by JFK’s call to service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches; there were no soaring speeches. In the shadows of empty factories, there were just a lot of people who were struggling. And at first we didn’t get very far.
I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together. The community had been plagued by gang violence and so we tried to mobilize a meeting with community leaders. I had worked for weeks on this project and we waited and waited for people to show up, and finally, a group of older people walked into the hall. And they sat down. And a little old lady raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”
“It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”
It wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made progress. Day by day, block by block, we brought the community together, and we registered new voters, and we set up after school programs, and fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.
I also began to realize that I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction that I’d been seeking. Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.
Now each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say “chance” because, as president Roth indicated, you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the outside world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.
But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although I believe you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get to where you are today, although I do believe you have that debt to pay.
It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story.
There are so many ways to serve and so much that needs to be done at this defining moment in our history. You don’t have to be a community organizer or do something crazy like run for President. Right here at Wesleyan, many of you have already volunteered at local schools and elementary schools, contributed to the United Way, and even started a program that brings fresh produce to needy families in the area. One hundred and sixty-four graduates of this school have joined the Peace Corps since 2001, and I confess a special pride that two of you are about to leave for my father’s homeland of Kenya to bring alternative sources of energy to impoverished areas. I ask you to seek these opportunities when you leave here, because the future of this country – your future, my future, my children’s future – depends on it.
At a time when our security and moral standing depend on winning hearts and minds in the forgotten corners of this world, we need more of you to serve abroad. As President, I intend to grow the Foreign Service, double the Peace Corps over the next few years, and engage young people of other nations in similar programs, so that we work side by side to take on the common challenges that confront all of humanity.
At a time when our ice caps are melting and our oceans are rising, we need you to help lead a green revolution. We still have time to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change if we get serious about investing in renewable sources of energy, and if we get a generation of volunteers to work on renewable energy projects, and if we teach people about conservation, and help clean up polluted areas; if we send talented engineers and scientists abroad to help developing countries promote clean energy in a way that’s compatible with economic growth.
At a time when a child in Boston must compete with children in Beijing and Bangalore, we need an army of you to become teachers and principals in schools that this nation cannot afford to give up on. I will pay our educators what they deserve, and give them more support, but I will also ask more of them to be mentors to other teachers, and serve in high-need schools and high-need subject areas like math and science. We will need you.
At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help rebuild. If you can’t get the time, volunteer at the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen in your own community, because there is more than enough work to go around. Find an organization that’s fighting poverty, or a candidate who promotes policies you believe in, and find a way to help them. We need you.
At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again. That’s your task, class of 2008.
Now understand this – believing that change is possible is not the same as being naïve. Go into service with your eyes wide open, for change will not come easily. On the big issues that our nation faces, difficult choices await. We’ll have to face some hard truths, and some sacrifice will be required – not only from you individually, but from the nation as a whole.
There is no magic bullet to our energy problems, for example; no perfect energy source – so all of us will have to use the energy sources we have more wisely. Deep-rooted poverty will not be reversed overnight. It will require both money and reform at a time when our federal and state budgets are strapped and when Washington is skeptical that reform is possible. Transforming our education system will require not only bold government action, but a change in attitudes among parents and among students. It’s hard to change attitudes. Bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur will involve navigating extremely difficult realities on the ground, even for those with the best of intentions.
And so, understand that should you take the path of service, should you choose to take up one of these causes as your own, know that you’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures. Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times where you will be tempted to take such advice.
But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service – one blow against injustice – to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that “tiny ripple of hope.” That’s what changes the world. That one act, an act by you, class of 2008.
You know, Ted Kennedy often tells a story about the fifth anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps. He was there, and he asked one of the young Americans why he had chosen to volunteer. And the man replied, “Because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country.”
Now I don’t know how many of you have been asked that question, but after today, you have no excuses. I am asking you, and if I should have the honor of serving this nation as President, I will be asking again and again in the coming years. We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe that we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready, and eager, and up to the challenge.
We will face our share of cynics and doubters. But we always have. I can still remember a conversation I had with an older man all those years ago right before I was headed for my new job in Chicago. He said, “Barack, I’ll give you a bit of advice. Forget this community organizing business and do something that’s gonna make you some money. You can’t change the world, and people won’t appreciate you trying. But you’ve got a nice voice, so you should think about going into television broadcasting. I’m telling you, you have a future there.”
Now, I’ve wondered, he might have been right about that TV thing, but he was wrong about everything else. For that old man has not seen what I have seen. He has not seen the faces of ordinary people the first time they clear a vacant lot or build a new playground or force an unresponsive leader to provide services to a community that’s been neglected. He has not seen the face of a child brighten because of an inspiring teacher or an inspiring mentor. He has not seen scores of young people educate their parents on issues like Darfur, or mobilize the conscience of a nation around the challenges of climate change. He has not seen the lines of men and women that wrap around schools and churches, that stretch out block after block after block just so they could make their voices heard, many for the first time.
And that old man who didn’t believe the world could change – who didn’t think one person could make a difference – well he certainly didn’t know much about the life of Joseph Kennedy’s youngest son.
It’s rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has touched the lives of nearly every single American without many of us even realizing it. And yet, because of Ted Kennedy, millions of children can see a doctor when they get sick. Mothers and fathers can leave work to spend time with their newborns. Working Americans are paid higher wages, and compensated for overtime, and can keep their health insurance when they change jobs. They are protected from discrimination in the workplace, and those who are born with disabilities can still get an education, and health care, and fair treatment on the job. Our schools are stronger and our colleges are filled with more Americans who can afford it. And I have a feeling that Ted Kennedy is not done just yet.
Surely, if one man can achieve so much and make such a difference in the lives of so many people, then each of us can do our part. Surely, if his service and his story can forever shape America’s story, then our collective service can shape the destiny of this generation. At the very least, his living example calls us to try. That is all I ask of you on this joyous day of new beginnings; that is what Senator Kennedy asks of you as well, and that is how we will keep so much needed work going, and the cause of justice everlasting, and the dream alive for generations to come. Thank you so much to the class of 2008, and congratulations on your graduation.
“Your Money or Your LIfe”
Barbara Kingsolver is the author of twelve books, including The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible. She was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest.
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina USA
MAY 11, 2008
Audio version: http://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/commencement-addresses-audio/id420504599
The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.
Let me begin that way: with an invocation of your own best hopes, thrown like a handful of rice over this celebration. Congratulations, graduates. Congratulations, parents, on the best Mother’s Day gift ever. Better than all those burnt-toast breakfasts: these, your children grown tall and competent, educated to within an inch of their lives.
“You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck – those will be yours.”
What can I say to people who know almost everything? There was a time when I surely knew, because I’d just graduated from college myself, after writing down the sum of all human knowledge on exams and research papers. But that great pedagogical swilling-out must have depleted my reserves, because decades have passed and now I can’t believe how much I don’t know. Looking back, I can discern a kind of gaseous exchange in which I exuded cleverness and gradually absorbed better judgment. Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, that happens by accident while you’re trying to do something else. And wisdom is what people will start wanting from you, after your last exam. I know it’s true for writers -– when people love a book, whatever they say about it, what they really mean is: it was wise. It helped explain their pickle. My favorites are the canny old codgers: Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing. Honestly, it is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing. The best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise.
If I stopped there, you might have heard my best offer. But I am charged with postponing your diploma for about 15 more minutes, so I’ll proceed, with a caveat. The wisdom of each generation is necessarily new. This tends to dawn on us in revelatory moments, brought to us by our children. For example: My younger daughter is eleven. Every morning, she and I walk down the lane from our farm to the place where she meets the school bus. It’s the best part of my day. We have great conversations. But a few weeks ago as we stood waiting in the dawn’s early light, Lily was quietly looking me over, and finally said: “Mom, just so you know, the only reason I’m letting you wear that outfit is because of your age.” The alleged outfit will not be described here; whatever you’re imagining will perfectly suffice. (Especially if you’re picturing “Project Runway” meets “Working with Livestock.”) Now, I believe parents should uphold respect for adult authority, so I did what I had to do. I hid behind the barn when the bus came.
And then I walked back up the lane in my fly regalia, contemplating this new equation: “Because of your age.” It’s okay now to deck out and turn up as the village idiot. Hooray! I am old enough. How does this happen? Over a certain age, do you become invisible? There is considerable evidence for this in movies and television. But mainly, I think, you’re not expected to know the rules. Everyone knows you’re operating on software that hasn’t been updated for a good while.
The world shifts under our feet. The rules change. Not the Bill of Rights, or the rules of tenting, but the big unspoken truths of a generation. Exhaled by culture, taken in like oxygen, we hold these truths to be self-evident: You get what you pay for. Success is everything. Work is what you do for money, and that’s what counts. How could it be otherwise? And the converse of that last rule, of course, is that if you’re not paid to do a thing, it can’t be important. If a child writes a poem and proudly reads it, adults may wink and ask, “Think there’s a lot of money in that?” You may also hear this when you declare a major in English. Being a good neighbor, raising children: the road to success is not paved with the likes of these. Some workplaces actually quantify your likelihood of being distracted by family or volunteerism. It’s called your coefficient of Drag. The ideal number is zero. This is the Rule of Perfect Efficiency.
Now, the rule of “Success” has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, the two children have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio should at all times remain greater than one. I’m not making this up, I’m just observing, it’s more or less my profession. As Yogi Berra told us, you can observe a lot just by watching. I see our dream-houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So you need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office. If you’re successful, it will be a large, empty-ish office you don’t have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you may never have to come face to face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.
And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle: Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside. Because it’s looking that way. We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another. Even the architecture of our planet is collapsing under the weight of our efficient productivity. Our climate, our oceans, migratory paths, things we believed were independent of human affairs. Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that unlimited carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, we need to think about that. About ten years later, nations of the world wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. The US said, we still need to think about it. Now we can watch as glaciers disappear, the lights of biodiversity go out, the oceans reverse their ancient orders. A few degrees looked so small on the thermometer. We are so good at measuring things and declaring them under control. How could our weather turn murderous, pummel our coasts and push new diseases like dengue fever onto our doorsteps? It’s an emergency on a scale we’ve never known. We’ve responded by following the rules we know: Efficiency, Isolation. We can’t slow down our productivity and consumption, that’s unthinkable. Can’t we just go home and put a really big lock on the door?
Not this time. Our paradigm has met its match. The world will save itself; don’t get me wrong. The term “fossil fuels” is not a metaphor or a simile. In the geological sense, it’s over. The internal combustion engine is so 20th Century. Now we can either shift away from a carbon-based economy, or find another place to live. Imagine it: we raised you on a lie. Everything you plug in, turn on or drive, the out-of-season foods you eat, the music in your ears. We gave you this world and promised you could keep it running on: a fossil. Dinosaur slime, and it’s running out. The geologists only disagree on how much is left, and the climate scientists are now saying they’re sorry but that’s not even the point. We won’t get time to use it all. To stabilize the floods and firestorms, we’ll have to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent, within a decade.
Heaven help us get our minds around that. We’re still stuck on a strategy of bait-and-switch: Okay, we’ll keep the cars but run them on ethanol made from corn! But… we use petroleum to grow the corn. Even if you like the idea of robbing the food bank to fill up the tank, there is a math problem: it takes nearly a gallon of fossil fuel to render an equivalent gallon of corn gas. By some accounts, it takes more. Think of the Jules Verne novel in which the hero is racing Around the World in 80 Days, and finds himself stranded in the mid-Atlantic on a steamship that’s run out of coal. It’s day 79. So Phileas Fogg convinces the Captain to pull up the decks and throw them into the boiler. “On the next day the masts, rafts and spars were burned. The crew worked lustily, keeping up the fires. There was a perfect rage for demolition.” The Captain remarked, “Fogg, you’ve got something of the Yankee about you.” Oh, novelists. They always manage to have the last word, even when they are dead.
“That will be central question of your adult life: to escape the wild rumpus of carbon-fuel dependency, in the nick of time. You’ll make rules that were previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess. You will radically reconsider the power relationship between humans and our habitat.”
How can we get from here to there, without burning up our ship? That will be central question of your adult life: to escape the wild rumpus of carbon-fuel dependency, in the nick of time. You’ll make rules that were previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess. You will radically reconsider the power relationship between humans and our habitat. In the words of my esteemed colleague and friend, Wendell Berry, the new Emancipation Proclamation will not be for a specific race or species, but for life itself. Imagine it. Nations have already joined together to rein in global consumption. Faith communities have found a new point of agreement with student activists, organizing around the conviction that caring for our planet is a moral obligation. Before the last UN Climate Conference in Bali, thousands of U.S. citizens contacted the State Department to press for binding limits on carbon emissions. We’re the five percent of humans who have made 50 percent of all the greenhouse gases up there. But our government is reluctant to address it, for one reason: it might hurt our economy.
For a lot of history, many nations said exactly the same thing about abolishing slavery. We can’t grant humanity to all people, it would hurt our cotton plantations, our sugar crop, our balance of trade. Until the daughters and sons of a new wisdom declared: We don’t care. You have to find another way. Enough of this shame.
Have we lost that kind of courage? Have we let economic growth become our undisputed master again? As we track the unfolding disruption of natural and global stabilities, you will be told to buy into business as usual: You need a job. Trade your future for an entry-level position. Do what we did; preserve a profitable climate for manufacture and consumption, at any cost. Even at the cost of the other climate – the one that was hospitable to life as we knew it. Is anyone thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, “Your money or your life,” that’s not supposed to be a hard question.
A lot of people, in fact, are rethinking the money answer. Looking behind the cash-price of everything, to see what it cost us elsewhere: to mine and manufacture, to transport, to burn, to bury. What did it harm on its way here? Could I get it closer to home? Previous generations rarely asked about the hidden costs. We put them on layaway. You don’t get to do that. The bill has come due. Some European countries already are calculating the “climate cost” on consumer goods and adding it to the price. The future is here. We’re examining the moralities of possession, inventing renewable technologies, recovering sustainable food systems. We’re even warming up to the idea that the wealthy nations will have to help the poorer ones, for the sake of a reconstructed world. We’ve done it before. That was the Marshall Plan. Generosity is not out of the question. It will grind some gears in the machine of Efficiency. But we can retool.
We can also rethink the big, lonely house as a metaphor for success. You are in a perfect position to do that. You’ve probably spent very little of your recent life in a freestanding unit with a bathroom-to-resident ratio of greater than one. (Maybe more like 1:200.) You’ve been living so close to your friends, you didn’t have to ask about their problems, you had to step over them to get into the room. As you moved from dormitory to apartment to whatever (and by whatever I think I mean Central Campus) you’ve had such a full life, surrounded by people, in all kinds of social and physical structures, none of which belonged entirely to you. You’re told that’s all about to change. That growing up means leaving the herd, starting up the long escalator to isolation.
Not necessarily. As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. Not Orgo 2, I’m guessing, or the crazed squirrels or even the bulk cereal in the Freshman Marketplace. I mean the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bhubaneswar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess; there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs. In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.
You can take that to the bank. I’m not sure what they’ll do with it down there, but you could try. You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.
The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, “We already did. We have made the world new.” The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it. The ship of your natural life and your children’s only shot. You have to love that so earnestly –- you, who were born into the Age of Irony. Imagine getting caught with your Optimism hanging out. It feels so risky. Like showing up at the bus stop as the village idiot. You may be asked to stand behind the barn. You may feel you’re not up to the task.
But think of this: what if someone had dared you, three years ago, to show up to some public event wearing a big, flappy dress with sleeves down to your knees. And on your head, oh, let’s say, a beanie with a square board on top. And a tassel! Look at you. You are beautiful. The magic is community. The time has come for the square beanie, and you are rocked in the bosom of the people who get what you’re going for. You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world. Look at you. That could be you.
I’ll close with a poem:
“Hope; An Owner’s Manual”
Look, you might as well know, this thing
is going to take endless repair: rubber bands,
crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse.
Nineteenth century novels. Heartstrings, sunrise:
all of these are useful. Also, feathers.
To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand
on an incline, where everything looks possible;
on the line you drew yourself. Or in
the grocery line, making faces at a toddler
secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.
You might have to pop the clutch and run
past all the evidence. Past everyone who is
laughing or praying for you. Definitely you don’t
want to go directly to jail, but still, here you go,
passing time, passing strange. Don’t pass this up.
In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off.
Park it and fly by the seat of your pants. With nothing
in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse that are sleeping
in the shade of your future. Pay at the window.
Pass your hope like a bad check.
You might still have just enough time. To make a deposit.
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
JUNE 7, 2007
Chairman of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr Gates has commited more money than perhaps anyone in history to improve life on this planet.
President Bok, former President Rudenstine, incoming President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, parents, and especially, the graduates, I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.”
I want to thank Harvard for this timely honor. I’ll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume.
I applaud the graduates today for taking a much more direct route to your degrees. For my part, I’m just happy that the Crimson has called me “Harvard’s most successful dropout.” I guess that makes me valedictorian of my own special class; I did the best of everyone who failed.
But I also want to be recognized as the guy who got Steve Ballmer to drop out of business school. I’m a bad influence. That’s why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today.
Harvard was just a phenomenal experience for me. Academic life was fascinating. I used to sit in on lots of classes I hadn’t even signed up for. And dorm life was terrific. I lived up at Radcliffe, in Currier House. There were always lots of people in my dorm room late at night discussing things, because everyone knew I didn’t worry about getting up in the morning. That’s how I came to be the leader of the anti-social group. We clung to each other as a way of validating our rejection of all those social people.
Radcliffe was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and most of the guys were science-math types. That combination offered me the best odds, if you know what I mean. This is where I learned the sad lesson that improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success.
One of my biggest memories of Harvard came in January 1975, when I made a call from Currier House to a company in Albuquerque that had begun making the world’s first personal computers. I offered to sell them software.
I worried that they would realize I was just a student in a dorm and hang up on me. Instead they said: “We’re not quite ready, come see us in a month,” which was a good thing, because we hadn’t written the software yet. From that moment, I worked day and night on this little extra credit project that marked the end of my college education and the beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft.
What I remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so much energy and intelligence. It could be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging. It was an amazing privilege-and though I left early, I was transformed by my years at Harvard, the friendships I made, and the ideas I worked on.
But taking a serious look back I do have one big regret.
I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world-the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.
I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.
But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries-but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity-reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.
It took me decades to find out.
You graduates came to Harvard at a different time. You know more about the world’s inequities than the classes that came before. In your years here, I hope you’ve had a chance to think about how-in this age of accelerating technology-we can finally take on these inequities, and we can solve them.
Imagine, just for the sake of discussion, that you had a few hours a week and a few dollars a month to donate to a cause-and you wanted to spend that time and money where it would have the greatest impact in saving and improving lives. Where would you spend it?
For Melinda and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.
During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One disease I had never even heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million kids each year-none of them in the United States.
We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.
If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”
So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”
The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.
But you and I have both.
We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism-if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We also can press governments around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that better reflect the values of the people who pay the taxes.
If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world.
This task is open-ended. It can never be finished. But a conscious effort to answer this challenge will change the world.
I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us till the end-because people just don’t care.”
I completely disagree.
I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with.
All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing-not because we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known how to help, we would have acted.
The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.
To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact. But complexity blocks all three steps.
Even with the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news, it is still a complex enterprise to get people to truly see the problems. When an airplane crashes, officials immediately call a press conference. They promise to investigate, determine the cause, and prevent similar crashes in the future.
But if the officials were brutally honest, they would say: “Of all the people in the world who died today from preventable causes, one half of one percent of them were on this plane. We’re determined to do everything possible to solve the problem that took the lives of the one half of one percent.”
The bigger problem is not the plane crash, but the millions of preventable deaths.
We don’t read much about these deaths. The media covers what’s new-and millions of people dying is nothing new. So it stays in the background, where it’s easier to ignore. But even when we do see it or read about it, it’s difficult to keep our eyes on the problem. It’s hard to look at suffering if the situation is so complex that we don’t know how to help. And so we look away.
If we can really see a problem, which is the first step, we come to the second step: cutting through the complexity to find a solution.
Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks “How can I help?,” then we can get action-and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares-and that makes it hard for their caring to matter.
Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have-whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.
The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand-and the best prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky behavior.
Pursuing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pattern. The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working-and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century-which is to surrender to complexity and quit.
The final step-after seeing the problem and finding an approach-is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.
You have to have the statistics, of course. You have to be able to show that a program is vaccinating millions more children. You have to be able to show a decline in the number of children dying from these diseases. This is essential not just to improve the program, but also to help draw more investment from business and government.
But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work-so people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.
I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life-then multiply that by millions. Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on-ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.
What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software-but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?
You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that-is a complex question.
Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new-they can help us make the most of our caring-and that’s why the future can be different from the past.
The defining and ongoing innovations of this age-biotechnology, the computer, the Internet-give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.
Sixty years ago, George Marshall came to this commencement and announced a plan to assist the nations of post-war Europe. He said: “I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation. It is virtually impossible at this distance to grasp at all the real significance of the situation.”
Thirty years after Marshall made his address, as my class graduated without me, technology was emerging that would make the world smaller, more open, more visible, less distant.
The emergence of low-cost personal computers gave rise to a powerful network that has transformed opportunities for learning and communicating.
The magical thing about this network is not just that it collapses distance and makes everyone your neighbor. It also dramatically increases the number of brilliant minds we can have working together on the same problem-and that scales up the rate of innovation to a staggering degree.
At the same time, for every person in the world who has access to this technology, five people don’t. That means many creative minds are left out of this discussion-smart people with practical intelligence and relevant experience who don’t have the technology to hone their talents or contribute their ideas to the world.
We need as many people as possible to have access to this technology, because these advances are triggering a revolution in what human beings can do for one another. They are making it possible not just for national governments, but for universities, corporations, smaller organizations, and even individuals to see problems, see approaches, and measure the impact of their efforts to address the hunger, poverty, and desperation George Marshall spoke of 60 years ago.
Members of the Harvard Family: Here in the Yard is one of the great collections of intellectual talent in the world.
There is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of people here and around the world. But can we do more? Can Harvard dedicate its intellect to improving the lives of people who will never even hear its name?
Let me make a request of the deans and the professors-the intellectual leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:
Should our best minds be dedicated to solving our biggest problems?
Should Harvard encourage its faculty to take on the world’s worst inequities? Should Harvard students learn about the depth of global poverty the prevalence of world hunger the scarcity of clean water the girls kept out of school the children who die from diseases we can cure?
Should the world’s most privileged people learn about the lives of the world’s least privileged?
These are not rhetorical questions-you will answer with your policies.
My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here-never stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given-in talent, privilege, and opportunity-there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.
In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue-a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.
Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.
You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort.
You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.
Knowing what you know, how could you not?
And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.