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Spring 2000 Commencement
School of Communication and School of International Service
May 14, 2000
If tradition can be defined as the continuing observance of a custom long after its original purpose has been forgotten, then I am about to commit tradition.
There may be two people in this room, not counting learned faculty, who can tell you why you are wearing mortarboards and gowns, or why your tassel is on a different side than theirs. And, I’ll bet there’s not one person in this room who can tell you why universities still have commencement speakers.
The only line anybody ever remembers from any commencement speech is the speaker’s cloyingly modest assertion that he doesn’t expect his words to be remembered. The administration and faculty know this. They didn’t get to their lofty heights without sitting a few times where you now sit. Do they remember what their speakers said? of course not. And yet they go on inviting commencement speakers, knowing that their speeches will have been forgotten before the speakers have doffed their ridiculous robes.
I don’t remember what my commencement speaker said, either—or even who he (or she) was. After all, it happened more than 40 years ago.
And yet, I remember something else that someone had said to me a year before that.
It was the summer between my junior and senior years, and I had managed to find a summer job on this little weekly newspaper in Indianapolis. I was no journalist, I knew, and, in fact, had never given any thought to journalism as a possible career. I took the job because it was available and I needed the money to continue my education. But I did consider myself reasonably bright, and I thought I could learn the work if I put my mind to it.
Well, my first day on the job, the editor, a grizzled old man named Scotty Scott, assigned me a story to do. I did my background reading, conducted my interviews, and wrote my story. I took it to the editor and waited for him to say how surprised he was that I had done so well. I didn’t have to wait long.
He took my deathless prose, folded it in half, tore it into pieces and dropped it in the wastebasket, without even so much as glancing at what I had written.
“It’s your first story,” he explained. “It can’t possibly be any good.”
I don’t remember my commencement speaker, but I remember that. Scotty Scott was not talking to some vague, faceless audience. He was talking to ME. And though I was furious that this man could be so insensitive to a nervous young beginner, and insufferably arrogant on top of it, I will never forget what he said to me, and how he made me so determined to prove to him that I could be a good reporter.
Fortunately, Scotty Scott was not the first adult who had made an impression on me. My teachers, in college and in high school, had made me feel that I was pretty bright, that I was capable. And my parents—my mother in particular—had gone out of her way to build my self confidence. It was her notion that her children, growing up black and segregated in small-town Mississippi, would be knocked down by the outside world soon enough and that it was up to her to make sure that we would not be destroyed psychologically when the cruelty came.
Scotty Scott was right. My first story was not as good as it might have been. But if his idea was to break my spirit, he failed, because my mother was right, too. I was bright and capable. And if my capabilities didn’t as yet include journalism, I knew it was just a matter of time. So while I was learning the craft, I looked around the newspaper office for ways to make myself necessary.
I’m not going to give you a long speech today. I only want to warn you that the world you will shortly be facing is full of Scotty Scotts who will be convinced that because you are young and inexperienced, you cannot possibly be any good. Some of those who will take the winds out of your sails will be right. The chances are excellent that your first work won’t be much good. But I hope that your years at American University, and at home before you came here, also brought you into intimate contact with some people like my mother who made you know that you are bright and capable, that while you may not possess some particular skill, you do possess the ability to acquire it.
In fact, that ability to learn may be the most important thing you have acquired at AU. Let me say it flat out: If your education ends with your graduation, you’re in trouble. You don’t know enough—you cannot possibly know enough—to quit learning now. Even those of you who have worked hard in school and earned top grades cannot know very much of what your employers will need you to know. Am I accusing you, graduates of this fine university, of ignorance? I suppose I am. But I an not accusing you of stupidity.
Think of ignorance as consisting of things you don’t know YET. That huge category includes much of what you will need to know by the time you are my age.
My point is not to discount your education to date, though I will tell you that its chief value will consist of having taught you how to learn.
Somebody told me of a recent college graduate (he didn’t mention any names or schools) who was waiting for the responses to his job applications to come rolling in and decided to take a stroll around Washington, DC. He was near Fletcher’s Boat House, looking for some way to amuse himself when he saw a sign: “Caribbean Cruise, $29.”:
He turned to a man sitting at a card table near the sign and asked, “Okay, what’s the gimmick?” “No gimmick,” the man assured him. “Well what do I have to do?” “Just give me the $29and walk through that door.”
The new graduate did, and just as he passed through the door, somebody banged him across the head with a hammer, knocking him unconscious, then put him on an inner tube and shoved him out into the Potomac.
A short while later, another guy, this one with his master’s diploma in hand, saw the same sign, went through the same procedure and, pow!, woke up to find himself floating downstream on an inner tube.
As it happened, the first guy got caught up in some debris, and though he shortly managed to free himself, he was delayed long enough for the second guy to float abreast of him. They fell to chatting, comparing college experiences, as they floated toward the Chesapeake Bay en route, as they imaged, to the Caribbean.
About noon the following day, they were pretty well famished. The newly minted baccalaureate turned to his companion and said, “You don’t suppose they serve any food on this cruise, do you?”
“I doubt it,” said the second. “They didn’t last year.”
I hope you will not be like the first man, who, though educated, lacked the wisdom to discern the difference between genuine opportunity and a false lead. But I hope even more strongly that you will not be like the second man who found himself unable to profit from actual experience.
You don’t have enough information yet. Much of the information you do have will soon be obsolete. And much of the information you will require doesn’t exist yet. You cannot stop learning now. And most especially, you cannot allow yourselves to fail to transform experience into wisdom.
The truth is, the wisdom you gain from experience will outlast the skills you have acquired here. Many of the latter will prove as obsolete as the teletype skills that launched my career at the Washington Post. Things change that fast.
How fast are things changing? It was 160 years before the first experiments in steam power led to the first steam-powered locomotive. It was 80 years before the development of electrical theories led to the first commercial power plant. It took only 50 years from the time of Einstein'’ original theories until the world'’ first atomic submarine was commissioned, only 10 years between the development of the transistor and its commercial use in satellites and computers, a mere seven years from the initial discovery of laser in 1958 until its commonplace use in medicine and industry. Your parents, your speaker and your faculty—even many of the younger faculty—grew up in a world without the Internet, or when the phrase “interactive games” meant “Pong.” Many of the discoveries that will change your lives haven’t even been made yet.
And I don’t mean just those graduate who will be going into the sciences. Most of you are graduating in communications and international service, and I had planned to offer you some pragmatic advice out of my own experience.
But then it occurred to me that while I know a lot about the way things used to be in journalism, and a fair amount about the way things still are, I don’t know very much about the way things are going to be for you. Our business—our world—is changing that fast.
Did you happen to see the item in the paper the other day about Madeline Albright’s side trip to Bukhara, Uzbekistan during her recent Central Asia trip? Apparently, she was looking for rugs or something when she came across this ancient spice shop—a tiny place that’s little more than a kiosk next to a 16th century bathhouse, where Mirfaiz Ubaydov’s family has been selling spices for 600 years.
Mirfaiz remains faithful to his ancient calling, but he now has a web page. Honest. I just looked it up.
And I guess that odd little fact says about as much as I’m confident to say about your future in the fields you’ve chosen. Any practical advice I could give you will soon be worthless. But as is true for that little Bukhara spice dealer, the ancient values remain.
Bring to your profession those vital essences of ethical standards and personal integrity. Practice it with a zest that says you expect the people you’re dealing with to be your customers, your clients and your trusting audiences for at least 600 years.
And season all you do with the idea not merely of adding to your personal wealth, but also of increasing the amount of good in this world.
If Mirfaiz Ubaydov can look at change and see opportunity, so can you. What you must develop is a willingness to change and grow, a thoroughgoing flexibility, what I call the entrepreneurial attitude: the ability to spot new opportunities as they arise.
Don’t let life have to hit you over the head twice in order to get its message across.
One thing more: You must learn to be necessary. That simple advice is the best I can give you this morning. It is the thing that helped me to survive the Scotty Scotts of this world, that has enhanced my newspaper career, and that has given me some measure of standing in my community. Children focus on what they need. Successful adults learn the subtler skill of being needed.
Be necessary. Be necessary to your employer, to your families, to your communities. Be necessary to your friends, and to the organizations you will join—including your alumni association.
I dare say that if Scotty Scott could see me now, being given a high honor by one of the premier academic institutions in America, he might admit to being proud. I hope so.
And I hope you will leave this place determined to live up to the high expectations your families have placed on you-—and make us all proud.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
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