The close of the academic year was celebrated when presidential biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham delivered the keynote address at the 133rd Undergraduate Commencement Exercises in May. Here are his excerpted remarks.
… I’M WELL AWARE that I’m the only thing between y’all and the rest of your lives … I will be brief, but it is fitting to take a moment to think about where you’ve been and where you’re headed. You’re going to encounter an infinity of joys and sorrows, hopefully more of the former than the latter. But one thing is certain is that you’re going to carry everything you’ve learned here through all the length of days.
I’m a historian, someone who tries to take the chaos of the past—what William James called ‘the blooming buzzing confusion of reality’—in order to make something new and resonant. And, history and tradition are not infallible, but we have nowhere else to begin our deliberations about what we should do, except with the fact of what we have done. And, so, consider this: if the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through superstition and ignorance, through racism and sexism, through selfishness and greed, to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we can, too. …
“The story of the American Journey, for all of its sins and omissions, is ultimately the story of obstacles overcome, crises resolved, freedom expanded.”
The world has already turned over many times since you have been in it, so let’s begin at the beginning. Many of you who are receiving your degrees today were born in about 1996-97, right? Bill Clinton was president. Donald Trump was starring in a Pizza Hut commercial. Whether we’ve made progress is a question that you all have to settle later. …
So, you understand history. You’ve already lived through a good bit of it. The world you’re entering, sadly, is one of division and self-absorption. We stare at screens. We filter our news to our ideological predispositions. We offer reflexive opinions without much thought and ever-increasing fervor and, yet, our common welfare depends not on what separates us, but on what unifies us. And, that may sound like a cliché or something you’d read on a coffee mug or a needlepoint pillow, but is an ancient truth.
St. Agustine once defined a nation as a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love—united by the common objects of their love—. So, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, what do we love in common? The painful but unavoidable answer is ‘not enough.’ Yet history, I’d argue, has the capacity to bring us together or, at least, the possibility of bringing us together. For the story of the American Journey, for all of its sins and omissions, is ultimately the story of obstacles overcome, crises resolved, freedom expanded. We’ve always grown in strength the more widely we’ve opened our arms and the more we’ve opened our hearts.
So, what can we learn from the past in order to engage the present and shape the future, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good?—that compromise is the oxygen of democracy—and that we learn the most from those who came before, not by looking up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly, but by looking them in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not as irredeemable villains or godlike heroes. Arm yourselves for your own hour upon the stage with a sense of entrepreneurial citizenship, a devotion to pursuit of happiness— not only for yourself, but for your families, your friends, your neighbors near and far, known and unknown.
Great change in America comes when engaged and creative people decide that the way things are isn’t the way, always, that they should be, and who then formed dispositions of heart and mind to reflect the virtues of fair play and human decency. The abolitionists who campaigned against slavery, the suffragists who fought for the ballot for women—which, by the way, has not quite hit its century mark: that’ll be next year—the children who rose up from a segregated south and demanded that the Jeffersonian assertion of human equality naturally applied to all, not only to some. These are your models. Study them well. Learn from them. Emulate them. And, if you do, you might just change the world.
Now if that seems overly grand or hopelessly gauzy, remember this: they did it not so long ago, and they were just like you. They were flawed but devoted, imperfect but determined, few in number but strong in spirit. Despite the partisan ferocity of the moment, if we listen closely, very closely, we can hear the music of Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature.’ Your task in all the years ahead is to keep an ear attuned for those notes. Springfield has taught you how to hear that music. Never shut it off.
Now one of the most important sentences ever written in the English language was written by Thomas Jefferson in the late spring, early summer of 1776: that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is a sentence that has changed more lives around the world—and continues to do so—than any other originally rendered in English. …
The greatest obstacle to hearing those better angels, at the moment, is a rising sense of tribalism in America, those motivated by what they see as extremism on the other side. And, this is a universal problem, not about right, not about left. It’s universal. When what they see is extremism on the other side are likelier to see politics, not as a mediation of difference, but as existential warfare where no quarter can be given. The country works best, though, when we resist such tribal impulses. For wisdom, I would argue, generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everyone on your side already agrees with each other and thinks the other guys are beneath contempt. So, quickly, here’s my advice for you from, and it’s at once historically based and, I promise, it’s heartfelt, and it’s from my middle age to your youth: Please, please don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think. Do that for yourself.
“Remember … that a life well lived is judged not by the bottom line but by the big picture.”
A final word: Be curious. Be gracious. Be hopeful. If you’re so inclined, say your prayers and seek the means of grace and the hope of glory. Love your neighbor. Take naps outside on summer afternoons. Read Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and as many detective stories as you can find. Go to the movies, the kinds where you buy a ticket and you go in. Ask your parents if you need to know what that is. Subscribe to newspapers and magazines. Ask your teachers what a newspaper and a magazine are. Vote in each and every election …
Never be embarrassed to put your hand over your heart and join in when the band strikes up the national anthem. This one’s important: write thank you notes on actual paper—they make it from trees, we’ll explain it to you later. And, try to look up from those phones. Above all remember, in hours of joy and of darkness, that a life well lived is judged not by the bottom line but by the big picture. Godspeed to you all.