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Words of Wisdom Fill the Ears of Graduating Students - 2003-06-26


Before he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught at a high school in that country. In his graduation speech to students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Archbishop Tutu welcomed his audience like a teacher waking up a sleepy class. "The class of 2003, all of you dear friends: Good morning. [Silence] You have to agree that was a lousy response. Good morning. [louder response] Slight improvement."

Archbishop Tutu then told students the United States played an important role in South Africa's struggle to end the apartheid system of racial discrimination. He said America would do well to remember its constructive role in South Africa as it confronts unfriendly regimes around the world.

"You in this country helped us to become free. You helped us to become democratic. You didn't bomb us into liberation. We became free nonviolently, and the country demonstrated that there are other ways of dealing with difference, with disagreement, with conflict the way of forgiveness, the way of compromise, the way of reconciliation. And we learned in South Africa that there is no way in which you are going to have true security that comes from the barrel of a gun."

Archbishop Tutu ended his speech with an appeal to students to help create a safer world. "God says I have a dream: all of you, my children, will realize you belong in one family. This is a family in which there are no outsiders. All, all are insiders: black, white, rich, poor, American, Iraqi, Afghanistan. We all belong in this family: Arafat, Sharon, all, and God says, I have no one except you to help me realize my dream."

In the small town of College Station in Texas, James Baker -- a former top cabinet member in the Reagan and first Bush administrations -- confined his sense of family to the "Aggies" of Texas A& M University. "Aggie" is the nickname for students at Texas A & M, which stands for Texas Agriculture and Mechanical University. Mr. Baker, a native Texan, said he felt quite at home in "Aggie" land, even though he had attended college in New Jersey.

Mr. Baker praised Texas A & M for instilling solid American values in its students. But Mr. Baker noted those individual values flourish largely because of the system of democracy established in the United States. "This country of ours may not be perfect," he said, "but it is very good, and its goodness is the product of its values. And at the top of the list are those values embedded in our constitutional system of representative democracy: divided government, limited powers and federalism. Other core American values, of course, are individual freedom and responsibility, the rule of law, free speech, religious freedom and tolerance and a deep love of country coupled with an intense desire to make it a better place."

In the heartland of America, one of the values Mr. Baker mentioned freedom of speech was put to the test. Chris Hedges, a reporter for The New York Times, told graduating students at Rockford College in Illinois that America's military might could spell its end and warned that modern weaponry and advanced telecommunications have made war dangerously easy to wage.

Not all of Mr. Hedges' listeners were happy to hear his message, and when he started to criticize America's glorification of war, some people in the audience began to heckle him. Someone eventually unplugged his microphone. "War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning. Once in war [A man in the audience interrupts and starts talking to the speaker], the conflict obliterates the past and the future. You feel every heartbeat in war, colors are brighter, your mind races ahead of it."

During Mr. Hedges' speech, President Paul Pribbenow took the microphone and implored the audience to be respectful, even if they didn't agree with Mr. Hedges. "If you wish to protest the speaker's remarks, I would ask that you would do it in silence, but he has the right to offer this opinion here."

The audience let Mr. Hedges finish his speech, but then booed him off the stage.

In Atlanta, at Emory University, Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney put the focus of graduation day back on the students. In his commencement address, he gave some advice to Emory's newly minted graduates. To deal with the complications of life, he said, rely on what has sustained others in difficult times great literature. "If literature has a virtue, if the works of human imagination that have been preserved by teachers and librarians for millennia have a virtue, it is surely their ability to make us realize fully and feelingly what is happening to us as individuals and as nations."

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Heaney pointed out that Americans turned to writing poetry for consolation. "It is at the moments of deepest public crisis that we are driven deepest into our private selves. The human condition can, of course, be understood as a series of immense climaxes and cataclysms in the historical record, but equally and intimately the human condition is experienced in the privacy and bewilderment of the individual consciousness."

At a time of uncertainty, when the United States is defending against terrorist attacks at home and waging war abroad, Mr. Heaney said there is good company in those who have pondered human dilemmas before us. "Again, class of 2003, I don't want to unduly darken this brilliant and happy day, but you graduate at a solemn moment in the aftermath of great suffering endured on your shores and grave action taken beyond them. Turn to the poets and writers and visionaries who took the strain and held the line and stood their ground in the hard won decisive place, and then class of 2003 go, you, in your turn, and do likewise."

And with those words of wisdom, America's newest graduates headed out into the world, a bit more aware, perhaps, of the importance of forgiveness, values, dissenting opinions and the written word.

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