Tom Brokaw Commencement Address

For those of you who did not have the priviledge of attending commencement, here is the text of Tom Brokaw's (Democrat) commencement address (minus the jokes, unfortunately)...

This cherished ceremony is for me an annual ritual of renewal. I come to these academies across America with a sense of awe, humility and envy. Awe that the American dream is so fully realized in these environs where the working class and the privileged mingle in common pursuit of learning and advancement, where immigrants fresh from foreign lands have equal claim to our rule of law, opportunity and, if they choose, the privilege of taking their new skills back home.

I am humbled by the sacrifices of so many who have helped you to this promising place in your lives – your family, your teachers and some you may not have considered: the young men and women in uniform, who, at this moment, are in far off places, many in harm’s way, dedicating their lives to your security, and you must think of them today as well.

I am envious of what you carry from here. More than the degree or the honors, what you will come to treasure over the years as they advance, are the friendships and fellowship, some of which will accompany you all the rest of your days. I envy you the experience of exploring new frontiers of knowledge while re-discovering and re-examining ancient truths.

Most of all I envy you at your age the road ahead, life in the 21st century with its transformational technology, emerging democracies, developing economies, shifting power centers and, yes, cultural conflicts that demand our attention and resolution.

These are the themes of commencement addresses across the broad spectrum of campuses this spring and I will expand on them in just a moment, but first I am compelled to offer a somewhat less lofty but more useful observation.

First, you have been hearing all your life that this is it: your first big step in what is called the real world.

You may ask, what is this real world all about?

What is this new life that I’m about to enter?

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2005, Life is not college.

It’s not high school.

Here’s the secret no one told you: Life is junior high.

The world you’re about to enter is filled with junior high adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds and the false bravado of 14-year-olds. Forty years from now, I guarantee this, you’ll still make silly mistakes; you’ll have temper tantrums; your feelings will be hurt for some trivial slight; say something dumb; you’ll lose your car keys and your glasses every day; and wonder at least once a week, “Will I ever grow up?”

You can change that. In your pursuit of your passions, always be young. In your pursuit of relationships with others, always be grown up. Set a standard and stay faithful to it.
In this new life you’ll also have to think about money in a new way. You’ll discover that life is not an ATM. Now you have to earn it. You’ll have to think about how you can hang onto some of it and, if you’re fortunate, use the money that you have beyond what you need to save a life, save a neighborhood or save the world.

You may be surprised to discover that it is that use of money that is the most gratifying and satisfying. In our family, we like to say that God invented money so that those who have it could help others.

Moreover, while money helps, it is discounted somehow if it doesn’t also carry your full personal value.

A few years ago, in a similar ceremony very much like this, I declared, “It is easy to make a buck. It’s tough to make a difference.” A father of one of the graduates, a Wall Street success, wrote to me suggesting a re-write. “It’s tough to make a buck,” he said, “but if you make lots of bucks, you can make a helluva difference.” A or B? You decide. There is no wrong answer.

But before you get to that, let’s assign a marker to your class – and explore the consequences. The marker, of course, is 9-11, the terrorist attack on America, the worst single assault on this nation in our history. You are the class of 9-11 as well as the Class of 2005. You had a dizzying experience of entering college as your country was entering a shooting war in far-off lands, as a clash of cultures and ideals was altering political, economic and spiritual landscapes far beyond these solicitous environments.

You found sanctuary here at Providence College and the comforting certainty that if you played by the rules, this important passage in your life would be successfully concluded in four years.
Alas, there is not a comparable orderliness about the other passage, the rough ride guaranteed by the rough events of 9-11.

We’re still working our way across open water, forced to navigate by the stars because the old navigational charts are of little use.

Our destination remains uncertain.

Some seas have been rougher than expected. Certain forecasts proved to be perilously wrong. Unexpected currents keep pushing us close to dangerous shoals or in a direction not of our choosing.

It is time then, as they say at sea, for all hands to be on board for this is a common journey and it requires a common effort and the collective wisdom of crew and passengers alike.
Your individual hopes, dreams and plans will be seriously compromised if the ship of state is allowed to drift or steer a hazardous course.

We cannot pretend on this sunny spring day that simply because there has not been another 9-11 that the world is now safe or as it once was. We are not near the end of epic struggle between the Western ideal of rule of law, tolerance, pluralism and modernity and the crazed advocates of a distorted vision of Islam, an ancient and great faith that is too often being misinterpreted by the mullahs that teach in far-away places.

We cannot wish away the complex set of conditions that fuel a rage across a broad band of the globe where too many young men and women your age are caught in the cross fire of claims on their faith and another way of life playing out on the ever wider screens that reflect the images of a world of unveiled women, material excess, secular joy disconnected from their lives of deprivation and uncertainty.

These young men and women are not incidental to the world you are entering. They are the fastest growing population in an already over-crowded part of the globe where self-determination, which you take for granted, remains at best a work in progress. Or, at best, a faint rumor, or, at best, a distant promise.

Many of them understand our culture and speak our language but in their eyes, we show no interest in returning the favor.

Too many of them love the idea of America but hate our government, envy our freedom and deeply resent what they see as our sense of entitlement.

The worst among them did have to be punished and will continue to have to be punished, and the fight goes on but no army can conquer them all or force them to change.

So as you leave here in pursuit of your dreams try to imagine their dreams. Stand tall. Don’t apologize for what you have or what you believe in, but get to know what they don’t have, and why.

Take the lead in establishing a common ground between generations, a common ground of appreciation, understanding, a shared destiny of self-determination and economic opportunity.
See the ancient Arab culture and its faith as something much more than a pipeline from their natural riches to our gas tanks.

This is a place to begin but, fair warning, it will be hard work. Challenging, stimulating, frustrating and hard, for this common ground cannot be found in a piece of software. It is not hidden in the settings on your toolbar. There is no delete button for intolerance and no insert button for understanding.

This new technology that we take so much for granted here in this country and that so defines your generation, is a transformational tool, but as a tool it is really only an extension of your head and your heart.

It will do us little good to wire the world if we limit our vision. It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls. No, the world still requires personal, hands-on, be brave, speak-out courage. We, as the most powerful political, military and industrial super-power ever imagined require citizens who understand that patriotism means to love your country but always believe it can be improved – and that improvement comes not exclusively from the left or the right but much more often from the center. From the arena of public debate and participation where ideology always has a place but where ideological bullies must be confronted. If we present ourselves to the world as patrons of democracy and the oxygen that that requires – free speech without fear of punishment – then we must be the vigilant stewards of it at home as well.

We have another obligation. It will do us little good to export democracy and economic opportunity, to use our military power wisely and efficiently, to nurture tolerance and cross cultural appreciation if, at the end of our lives, we wind up on a dead planet.
Mindless consumption of the basic resources of this precious place we inhabit is a form of blasphemy – and suicide. In my generation we have been witness to the power of awareness, of an environmental consciousness and the modest triumphs of renewal but we continue to lose ground, clean water, creatures large and small, at an alarming rate.

Slowing the destruction and reversing the damage does not require sack cloth and hobbit huts but it does require imagination and temperance, it does require a re-definition of convenience and need. It does require you and all the rest of us to love our mother – Mother Earth – and live our lives in a manner that will allow future generations to know her succor and wonders.
Let me conclude then here today by briefly sharing with you another generation of young Americans – one I tend to be very close to.

Sixty years ago this spring they were coming home. They were re-starting their lives after a dozen years of brutal deprivation, sacrifice, separation, death and grievous wounds that they would carry with them the rest of their lives. Sixty years ago this year Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were defeated in a great war by these young men and women your age and our allies.

These young men and women did not know the plenty you have become so accustomed to. They came of age in the Great Depression when life was about sharing clothing, shoes, food, jobs and what little money a family could muster. Ragged bands of hungry men rode the rails across this country, looking for any kind of work. Families left their dried up family farms for hard labor in California; city kids slept four to a room in walk-up apartments. Banks failed and hope had to be renewed every 24 hours.

Just as these young men and women your age were beginning to emerge from those dark and difficult days, America was attacked – and entered a war on two fronts for survival that was already under way in Europe and the Pacific: World War II.

These young Americans and their families answered the call, fighting across the deadly beaches of Italy and France; in the freezing winters of central Europe; in the South Pacific and on all the seas and in the skies, day in and day out. . . . Bloody, face-to-face battles of unspeakable cruelty and death. At home, farmers grew more food and civilians ate less so the soldiers could be fed. Women put on overalls and kerchiefs and went to the factories. Young wives and children didn’t see their husbands and fathers or hear from them for months or, in too many cases, ever again.

And when that war was over, when the terrible, hateful evils of the Third Reich and imperial Japan had been defeated, this generation of Americans returned to their homes or established new communities in other places. They went to college in record numbers, married in record numbers, gave us new laws expanding the freedoms of those who had been left behind for too long. They did something that had never been done in international warfare; they rebuilt their enemies. They gave us new art, new science, new industries and new international institutions. They gave us the lives we enjoy today.

They came home to run for political office at every level; they formed service clubs and built new universities; they never gave up on the idea of common cause and their role in it.

They were Republicans and Democrats, but at the end of the day, they did not lay down their arms and say, “I’ve done my share.”

Some are in this arena today, quietly look on with pride and humility at the promise of your generation, the opportunities available to you that were simply unimaginable to them.

They ask little of us and yet we owe them so much.

I call them “The Greatest Generation.”

Remember them as you leave here. Nurture their legacy.

Remember how they rose as one to meet far greater challenges than we face today.

Remember them as you put the mark of greatness on your generation.

Good luck and Godspeed.


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