Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, 2013 honorary degree recipient, delivered the keynote address at Bowdoin Baccalaureate May 24, 2013.
President Mills, Dean Foster, Daisy Alioto, members of the college community, distinguished guests, parental units, and — most of all — young men and women of the class of 2013 — thank you for the invitation to be here.
According to my dictionary, a baccalaureate address is defined as a farewell speech or a sermon; this will be neither. I’ve just met most of you, so bidding you “farewell” seems a little abrupt, and I’ve spent too much time in Washington to qualify in the sermon department — so let’s just call this a conversation.
To begin, my name is Madeleine; I am a professor, the mother of three college graduates, and the grandmother of six current students; so I love academic surroundings — and it’s a particular pleasure to visit this fine school. After all, what’s not to like?
Bowdoin is one of the most respected colleges in the northeast; your campus is gorgeous; your faculty is outstanding; your students are perfect; your mascot is a polar bear; and your entire community is dedicated to sustainability and to serving the common good.
Not only that, your former students include a host of famous authors, explorers, athletes, civil war heroes, diplomats, United States senators and Franklin Pierce who — how shall I put this? — was among the 44 best presidents our country has ever had. Bowdoin is truly one of our nation’s great colleges, and I congratulate President Mills and all of you for what you have accomplished, both in and outside the classroom.
To the parents who are here, I expect your emotions are mixed. You feel excited and proud that this graduation weekend has finally arrived; yet also astonished at how brief the interval can seem — between diapers and diplomas.
To alumni, if you are anything like me, tomorrow’s commencement will bring back memories of your own college years, which in my case took place about half way between the invention of the iPod and the discovery of fire.
But the real reason we are here this weekend is to honor — and warn — the class of 2013.
Now, the theory behind a baccalaureate is that an older person such as me is invited to share the wisdom of his or her generation with the young, based on the older generation’s superior insight into life.
I have yet to meet any young person who actually subscribes to this theory. In fact, if I were sitting where you students are today, I might well have some questions of my own.
For example, if older people are so smart, why have we allowed such an unconscionable gap to open between rich and poor in our country and overseas?
Why have we failed to get our fiscal house in order, instead asking future generations to pay our bills?
Why, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, have we done so little to safeguard the environmental health of our planet — including those polar bears of which we are so fond?
Why haven’t we become wise enough to defend ourselves against terrorism in the near term without sowing the seeds of future violence?
And why do surveys show that Americans are now more pessimistic about the future than at any time in the past fifty years?
It would be natural then if, in addition to the joys of graduation, you are feeling a little sorry for yourselves, because the world you are about to inherit is a troubled one. You may believe that the class of 2013, more than any other, has been given a raw deal. To those of you who feel that way, I offer my deepest sympathy and also three words of advice: Get over it.
No one likes a whiner and besides, every generation has its burdens. In mine, we faced the real possibility that Cold War tensions would erupt, launching us into the cauldron of nuclear conflict. Schoolchildren routinely practiced hiding under desks, as if that would provide an effective shield against the deadly effects of radiation.
At the same time, our country was only beginning to heed the call of a young Baptist minister who urged us to confront the ugly reality of racism. There followed years of struggle, including Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination, leaving behind both a challenge and a dream.
As for women back then, we were still expected to exist primarily as satellites of men.The United States had a few women ambassadors, but they were all single. If they got married, they also got fired, because it was thought that no woman could possibly cope with the twin duties of family and job.
For two centuries, about the only way a woman could have an impact on foreign policy was by accidentally spilling tea on an ambassador’s lap. As you might guess, this affected my own options.
Until long after I left college, I couldn’t imagine ever becoming secretary of state. It’s not that I lacked ambition; it’s just that I had never seen a secretary of state in a skirt.
I mention this ancient history only to show that the class of 2013 is, in fact, far from unique. The human condition requires that we struggle — and whether you are an individual, a country, or a generation, you will be tested and tested again.
That is why, over the past four years, you have worked so hard to develop your capabilities; accumulate knowledge; identify your true interests; and become familiar with people who are much different than you — whether they live across the ocean or in a dorm room down the hall.
All that is to the good, but more important still, you have learned how to ask questions and acquired — I hope — an unquenchable thirst to learn more. The college degree you will receive tomorrow marks an end, but also a beginning; signifying less what you have already done than what you are now prepared to do.
This matters, because it used to be that, when coming of age, most people had a fair idea of where they would live and what careers they would choose, many following in their parents’ footsteps or finding a niche in a stable profession.
In 2013, stability is no longer a viable concept. As we have seen, companies and whole sectors of industry can rise and fall within a matter of years; meanwhile professions such as law, engineering, health care, journalism, and education are being transformed.
As we look ahead, we realize that the demands of the workplace will continue to change and that — whether your primary goal after graduation is material success, community service, or a combination of the two — you will have no choice but to keep innovating and learning. This is a challenge you should welcome because the quest to know more is a vital part of what it means to be alive.
It is what prompts us to look at an eco-system and want to find ways to preserve the miracle of life within it; to conceive of new and time-saving applications for modern technology; to design a business model that will simultaneously create jobs and help society; or to mobilize support for strategies to fight disease, curb poverty, defeat prejudice, or blaze the trail to peace.
The desire to do everything you can with the time you have will — if you let it — enable you to reach new frontiers whether or not you travel far from home. But as you explore the world in this era of constant change, I advise you also to bear in mind what does not change.
Most of you who will graduate this year are about twenty-two years old. By comparison, South Africa’s beloved patriarch, Nelson Mandela, spent 27 years — the prime of his life — in prison.
As a victim of racism and persecution, Mandela could have used that time to nurture his bitterness and allow his anger to grow. Instead, he devoted his many hours of solitude to learning about the people who had put him in jail — the Afrikaaners.
He studied their language, history, grievances and fears. So when he was finally released, he was not only able to understand those who had imprisoned him; he was able to communicate with them, find common ground with them, forgive them and — most astonishingly — to lead them.
Mandela knew that the surest way to defeat his enemies was not to make them do what he wanted; it was to persuade them to want what he wanted. He led his jailers to a new understanding of their own interests. In so doing, he reminded us that we are all in need of new understandings from time to time.
Today, I am not proposing that any of us cast aside our own opinions or be shy in defending our own ideals. I am not suggesting that we downplay our individual identities based on ethnicity, language, gender or creed. I am not asking that we pretend we are all the same — because we are not all the same — and life would be incredibly boring if we were.
But I do offer a reminder that we are all members of one community breathing the same air and sharing the same planet; we all draw from the same supply of nonrenewable resources; and we are all mortal.
We each have a choice — to live for ourselves alone or to contribute in every way we can to a better life for all. We can seek shelter from responsibility by ignoring those outside our own familiar group; or we can — like Nelson Mandela — fulfill our humanity by demanding the best from ourselves while searching for the good in others.
In closing, let me say to the class of 2013 that it has not been my desire this afternoon to place the weight of the world on your shoulders — for that will always be your parents’ job. But I do hope that, tomorrow, when you accept your diplomas, you will do so determined to keep asking questions, and to use each day to learn more.
I hope that you will take pride in who you are, but leave room for the pride of others; that you will go forward with confidence despite the burdens handed down to you by my generation; and that you will employ your talents to keep pace with technology — while remembering that there is no technological answer to the questions that matter most.
Above all, know that your actions and choices truly do count, and that every obstacle surmounted by your energy; every problem solved by your wisdom; every soul awakened by your passion; and every barrier to justice brought down by your courage will inspire others and enrich your own journey on this earth.
Thank you very much.