Every year, commencement speakers tell college graduates they must go out and make the world a little better. And in 2016, many implored them to restore some sanity to society.
Both conservative and liberal speakers asked graduates to listen to people who don’t share their opinions. Politicians told crowds they must stick up for the truth, as well as for people who can’t stand up for themselves. Others pleaded with newly minted grads to get engaged in the political process, because they fear much-needed rational voices aren’t behind heard in the age of Donald Trump.
Here are a few things commencement speakers asked graduates to do as they leave campus.
Build a society that strives for peace and uses reason to bridge differences.
“I’m tired of this call in our country for this idea of tolerance — that is not the aspiration. We have a nation right now that seems to think the greatest and highest achievement is for us to be a tolerant nation, but I say no. We’re not called to be a tolerant nation. We’re called to be a nation of love. What we need to do is understand that we have to love each other, that we have to see each other have worth and dignity and value. … Don’t give in to cynicism. It is a toxic spiritual state. You’ve got to be one that, wherever you are, like a flower you’ve got to blossom where you’re planted. You cannot eliminate darkness. You cannot banish it by cursing darkness. The only way to get rid of darkness is light and to be the light yourself.”
Before arriving at campus, Bial spoke with a few dozen elementary school students who said they were worried their parents or neighbors would be deported if Trump was elected president. Many of those kids, Bial said, are afraid.
“While they are picking up a lot from their parents, they’re also dwelling in a place to fear that we formerly reserved for adults. It is possible that there is a shift in what kids think about today. It may have to do with social media and TV, the 24-hour breaking news that flashes by them in their living rooms, or on their computers, the pop-up blogging, tweeting, texting culture that surrounds us with news flashes — they see it too. … The truth is there are many problems that we have let fester. My generation has, quite frankly, failed you. Did we make the world the way you would have wanted it to be? I don’t believe we have. …
“The kids had a lot of pretty good ideas. They want cool technology. They want the future to be peaceful caring and happy. They want the whole world to have hope and faith. Their ideas were reasonable. One told me, ‘I think the president should make sure there’s peace around the world and you don’t just start kicking people out of where they live in and start sending them somewhere else.’ They thought there should be talking instead of violence, including in the Oval Office. They thought the president should just talk to people and reason with them.”
He wanted grads to bring America away from a “culture of fear.”
“The rule of thumb in America today seems to be, ‘Be whatever you want, but be afraid.’ Fear leads to dislike; dislike leads to disrespect; and disrespect leads to disengagement and hostile relations. … A major obligation of your generation, by both action and example, will be to bring this nation back that distance from ‘where’ to ‘who’ we are.”
Defend others who are being treated unfairly.
“Just because someone else wronged us did not justify reciprocal conduct on our part. Right was right, and two wrongs did not make a right. … As you go through life, try to be that person whose actions teach others how to be better people and better citizens. Reach out to that shy person who’s not so popular. Stand up for others when they’re being treated unfairly on small things and large.”
“You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. To save this little piece of real estate that we call earth for generations yet unborn. You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate when you leave here to go out and seek justice, for all. You can do it, you must do it.”
Get engaged with the political process.
“Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. … May I plead with you: Please don’t stay on the sidelines as America struggles to find the best path forward. Come off the bench and get into the arena.”
“Here in the United States, we find ourselves in the midst of a shockingly coarse presidential election campaign occurring at a time when politics has become strikingly polarized. Americans increasingly live in what might be called ideological silos. … Your Princeton education has provided you with the intellectual resources required not only to connect with one another but also to resist or reverse the partisanship that so threatens America and the world today. We need people who commit themselves to forging a public culture that enables shared, respectful and engaged discourse through which we can negotiate differences and address the urgent issues confronting us. … The world that awaits you will sometimes be frustrating and difficult. But it is a world that needs your talents, your citizenship and your engagement. … America’s constitutional culture is in distress, and it will take leadership and engagement from all of us to repair it.”
“As historical boundaries and traditional social norms give way, we see those uncomfortable with, or threatened by change, desperately holding tight to the status quo. Building barriers — both literally and figuratively — to try to regain their sense of identity, certainty and stability, while all the while the ground is shifting seismically under our feet.
And then, of course, there’s the polarization of our domestic politics. My world — and one of my greatest disappointments. Rather than being a space where we can negotiate the needs of a strong and diverse country, in a globally competitive world, our politics has become pathetically tribal. The inevitable differences in a richly diverse country are increasingly cause for scorn and suspicion, rather than, as you learned here, curiosity and yes, compromise. …
If you don’t engage, you run the risk that they will make decisions based on the narrow self-serving priorities of those special interests that spend a lot of money lobbying. … If you are unwilling to honestly and fairly engage with, and yes, challenge, your government, how can it possibly reflect your values and priorities? Ours is a big and diverse country. We are strongest when every voice speaks up — when we do more than passively love our country, but when we actively help perfect it.”
Stand up for the truth.
“At a moment when this country is on the cusp of legitimizing the most unqualified presidential nominee in U.S. history, some leaders are speaking the truth, and some are holding back. In the U.K., conservative Prime Minister David Cameron rose to the occasion, calling Donald Trump’s plan to institute a religious test to ban all Muslims from the United States exactly what it is: ‘divisive, stupid and wrong.’ That’s bold. That’s true. And that’s leadership. The alternative is to pretend that the truth is always in the middle, and that our job is to present two sides to everything. But not every story has two sides, and the truth is often found on one side or the other. The Earth is not flat. Evolution is a fact. Global warming is a fact. And there are definitely not two sides to the truth that instituting a religious test to enter a country founded on religious freedom is ‘divisive, stupid, and wrong.’ Claiming that Mexico is sending us rapists, inciting violence at rallies, or claiming that President Obama was not born in the United States — we know these are all false and all wrong — and if we don’t say so clearly and unequivocally, that’s how these insidious falsehoods become whitewashed and mainstreamed.”
“From comments of astonished pundits on television, in print, and online, to conversations with bewildered friends and colleagues, the question seems unavoidable — and mesmerizing: What is going on? What is happening to the world? The tumultuous state of American politics, spotlighted in this contentious presidential contest; the political challenges around the globe from Brazil to Brexit; the Middle East in flames; a refugee crisis in Europe; terrorists exploiting new media to perform chilling acts of brutality and murder; climate-related famine in Africa and fires in Canada. It is as if we are being visited by the horsemen of the apocalypse with war, famine, natural disaster — and, yes, even pestilence — as Zika spreads, aided by political controversy and paralysis. …
We must be unassailable in our insistence that ideas most fully thrive and grow when they are open to challenge. Truth cannot simply be claimed; it must be established — even when that process is uncomfortable. Universities do not just store facts; they teach us how to evaluate, test, challenge, and refine them. Only if we ourselves model a commitment to fact over what Stephen Colbert so memorably labeled as ‘truthiness’ (and he also actually sometimes called it ‘Veritasiness!’), only then can we credibly call for adherence to such standards in public life and a wider world.”
Listen to people who disagree with you.
“It’s possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think. That is a temptation that educated people must reject. There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it strongly. But at times when you are sure that you’re absolutely right, go and find somebody who disagrees. Don’t allow yourself the easy course of the constant amen to everything that you say.”
“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in, ask them tough questions. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be afraid of somebody.”
“Above all, I ask you to understand that there is an enormous difference between entering into an argument for the purpose of proving how smart you already are — and engaging in research and discussion for the purpose of stretching your mind and giving free rein to your conscience.”
“In this year’s presidential election, we’ve seen more demagoguery from both parties than I can remember in my lifetime. Our country is facing serious and difficult challenges. But rather than offering realistic solutions, candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment. For Republicans, it’s Mexicans here illegally and Muslims. And for Democrats, it’s the wealthy and Wall Street. The truth is: We cannot solve the problems we face by blaming anyone.”
And don’t forget to show some empathy.
“America needs your leadership. … Nobody sent you here to be a follower. We’re all expecting you to lead, that’s what it means to be a graduate of DePauw, that you step into the world and you provide leadership. … You can’t lead people unless you love people, and you can’t save people unless you serve people.”
“I say today as I say in any forum, before any audience and given any opportunity, as I have sat in that darkened room talking to people — that there are common denominators to the human experience, and we share a range of emotions, from hope to fear, love to jealously. Ambition and complacency. Affirmation and betrayal. Birth and death. These are Shakespearian themes, but they’re also life themes and they will be the themes of your life.”
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