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MARK GEARAN

How did this happen?

Four years ago-we both had applied to Hobart and William Smith, prepared an essay and listed what we'd done in life, been interviewed, and been accepted by Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Four years ago we both arrived in Geneva in August-anxious about our next step, excited to meet new friends and explore the rich environment of the Colleges.

Four years ago we packed the car, and with our family arrived on campus. OK, so my housing was a little different than yours in JPR.

In those four years together we've grown and matured, explored new areas of academic interest.

We've gotten to know the talented faculty, committed staff and coaches-and have been grateful for their support and encouragement.

We've attended Chorale and Koshare and Faculty Dance Concerts together-and, yes, we've even had to sit on the floor because of their sold-out popularity.

We've cheered the Statesmen and Herons as they represented all of us on the fields, in the water, on the water, on ice, and on the courts.

We've enjoyed the benefits of a campus community with the rich dialogue of speakers and guests and student activists.

We mourned together with the loss of Hobart's Jonathan Hahn, who receives his degree posthumously today.

We've enjoyed Pizza Wars on the Quad, Folkfest and LAO Extravaganza.

We've seen the majestic Stern Hall rise out of the ground for important new academic space, thanks to Trustee Herb Stern of the Class of '58, whose son graduates today.

We've witnessed the tragedies of 9/11 and felt it close to home as we mourned the loss of three of our graduates.

And we've all enjoyed the birth of the Hobartones and Three Miles Lost.

And so it's a little odd that after all we've gone through together, that at this Commencement, the person who is staying behind gets to make the last speech and offer the last word. And as I look at the program, I see that the only thing standing between you and the party to celebrate your graduation is-me. So I promise to be brief.

My final message to you is a simple one. It's about the importance of civic engagement. It's about what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.

My friend Les Lenkowski, who oversees Americorps, recently shared that of all places, the upscale "Restoration Hardware" was selling a novelty book, titled "The Citizens' Handbook." I bought a copy and read the compilation of civics guides, and scouting handbooks, from the 1920s through the 1960s.

And while the handbook is not representative of our nation's wonderful current diversity or family structures and much else, it does contain many valuable lessons that 21st century citizens should take from this 20th century civics text: the importance of community and citizenship, neighborhood, country and world.

I think it's important to talk about this issue because we, unfortunately, live in a time when cynicism seems to be the prevailing mood in our society, in our politics, and our culture. And in many ways, it's easy to see why some people, young and old, are cynical. We've been disappointed by some of our leaders, in both the private and public sectors. We face a troubled economy. Our nation and our world are divided on many vital issues. Since we all arrived on this campus, the world has changed in ways that we could not have imagined four years ago.

This culture of cynicism manifests itself in many ways. Let me give you a few examples. In 1960, an impressive 60 percent of America's households watched John Kennedy and Richard Nixon debate on television. In 2000, fewer than 30 percent watched Al Gore and George W. Bush debate the future of our country at the turn of the new millennium.

As Harvard's Thomas Patterson has observed, when the Democratic candidates for President conducted their first debate in 2000, four times as many viewers were watching World Wrestling Federation's "Smackdown".

How did this happen? How did we as people transform from what Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" called "a nation of joiners" to what Robert Putnam called in his best selling book, "Bowling Alone," a citizenry that has "become disconnected from one another?"

To be sure, the answer is a complex one. It involves our politicians, the people who spin for them, the media who cover them, the people who give them money, and the parties that orchestrate our political machinery. There is plenty of blame to go around, and we won't determine the ultimate answer today.

Instead, our task is to think about what you, as new college graduates, armed with a diploma from a prestigious liberal arts institution, can do to help overcome this culture of cynicism.

Today, you leave Geneva with a college degree, a privilege that only one percent of the world's population will ever enjoy. And as the scriptures remind us, to whom much is given, much is expected. I would urge that in this new century, with all its promise and opportunity, you must, as Theodore Roosevelt said, "get in the arena" and get engaged in the events of the world in which you live.

Because the world is more complicated;
Because the world is more dangerous;
Because the consequences of public decisions today-in government, in business, in finance, and in art-affect more lives than ever before in our history;
Because our future as a nation, and as people in a worldwide community, is inextricably linked to the wellbeing and prosperity and sense of hope that others envision for themselves;

Each one of you is needed.

Your knowledge is needed to harness the immense power that science and technology afford.

Your compassion is needed, because science can discover what can be done, but not what should be done.

Your leadership is needed because of the 99 percent of people on this planet who have not had the benefit of an advanced education, and have not had the privilege to consider, to study, to learn, and to subject themselves to the complexity of thinking that the issues today require.

So, that's why upon your commencement, I urge you to engage yourselves in a world that needs you. It needs you to vote. It needs you to think. It needs you to join boards and organizations, and to give your time and energies and intellect to serve in ways that will make your community, your country, and this world a better place.

President Ronald Reagan said, "All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children-if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American-let 'em know-and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do."

As examples of what it means to be engaged-productively engaged-in civic life, I offer our three honorary degree recipients today.

You know, it's common for people who have accomplished much in life to pause, take a breath, and decide it's time to "give back something." Lib White, who graduated from William Smith 70 years ago, is a perfect example of someone who didn't wait to begin to give something back. For the past 70 years, she has been deeply involved in her community-this community-and her alma mater since she sat where you sit today.

Thomas Tighe, whose service as a Peace Corps volunteer, public servant, and now as the leader of a major international humanitarian organization, shows us all how one person can unite the dream of a better world with the will to make it happen.

And Andrea Mitchell, whose passion to inform all of us about the major issues of our time has led her around the world. As one of the first women to join "the boys on the bus" covering presidential campaigns, Andrea's work as a journalist has changed forever our understanding of our political process. Her pursuit of the truth has opened a window that enables us to have informed views on issues, decisions, and their far-reaching consequences.

As you think about how you want to live up to your civic responsibilities, remember what Ghandi said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." That is my highest hope for you.

Having spent four years with you,
Having seen your commitment to service and your compassion,
Having been inspired by your energy and your intellect,
Having been impressed by your appreciation of diversity,
And having benefited from your many personal kindnesses to me and to my family over these past four years,

I am confident that Hobart and William Smith have given you all the capacity, skill, and training to be the change that you wish to see in the world. And I know that the world, and all of us, will be far richer for it.

 

INFORMATION

Valedictory to the Classes of 2003

May 11, 2003