Skip to main content

This website is no longer being updated. Visit Dartmouth Now for all news published after June 7, 2010.


Dartmouth News
>  News Releases >   2005 >   June

Dartmouth Commencement 2005

Posted 06/12/05

Commencement Address by Tom Brokaw
Tom Brokaw
Tom Brokaw

Thank you Mr. President.  Thank you members of the faculty and trustees at Dartmouth.  Thank you as well graduating seniors, those of you with advanced degrees and undergraduate degrees, and a special recognition goes out to those of you who are assembled there in the back who are the parents, and the family and the friends of these distinguished graduates. 

When our daughter, Jennifer, graduated in 1993 from medical school we were in the felicitous position of having our middle daughter graduating as well and our youngest daughter graduating as well that year from their institutions.  And so our eldest daughter had a bumper sticker made up for us that we put on our car with great pride - it said "Tuition free in 1993."

I'm especially privileged to be here at Dartmouth - it's a great relief, frankly.  In recent years I've given commencement addresses or class day speeches at Penn, Harvard, and Yale and at those institutions...hear me out...at those institutions I had to speak more slowly and use shorter words than I will here.

Let me just make a couple of observations if I can.  As I was coming down the aisle I said to one of the graduating seniors, whose eyes were, I think, at half-mast at that point - he seemed to be bleeding profusely - and I said, "What is the class motto?" of the class of 2005?  He said, "Sir, it's hung-over in Hanover" that's the class motto today.  We will not require a breathalyzer test, you'll be relieved to know, before you leave here today.

To those of you who are not graduating with honors, let me offer, if I can, a moment of reassurance.  At my alma mater, the chair of the political science department, who's now a man of 95 years of age and has the emeritus position, still talks to the incoming political science freshman with one message: if Tom Brokaw can make it, anyone can.  Most of my classmates at the University of South Dakota thought that my undergraduate degree was an honorary degree.  So it is possible to go forward from here.

I love these occasions, for all the right reasons.  It's an annual ritual of renewal for me to come to a Commencement at a great institution like Dartmouth.  I come to these academies with a sense of awe and humility and envy. 

Awe that the American dream is still so fully realized in these environs where the working class and the privileged mingle in common pursuit of learning and advancement.  Moreover, in my lifetime, I have seen the face of these graduating classes change to the better.  The many hues of color that are among you now is a profound and important change in our lives.  This is a place where immigrants, fresh from foreign lands, have equal claim to the rule of law and opportunity and if they choose, the privilege of taking their new skills back home.

I am humbled by the sacrifices that so many of you have made to help you to this promising place in your lives.  Your family, your teachers, and some that you may not have considered, especially on a sunlit morning here in Hanover in early June.  As we gather here today there are young men and women your age in uniform, in far-off places, in harm's way, dedicating their lives to your security and you must remember them on this occasion as well.

I am envious of what you will carry from here - more than the degree or honors, what you will come to treasure are the friendships and the fellowship, some of which will accompany you all the rest of your days.  I envy you as well, of course, the thrill of exploring frontiers of knowledge while rediscovering and re-examining ancient truths. 

Most of all, I envy you the road ahead on the 21st century, with its transformation technology, emerging democracies, developing economies, shifting power centers and yes, lethal cultural conflicts that demand attention and resolution. 

These are the themes of commencement speeches across a broad spectrum of campuses this spring and I am fully prepared to expand on them momentarily.  But first, I am compelled to offer somewhat lofty, but I hope useful, observations.  You have been hearing all of your life about this moment - your first big step into what you have been called and told is the real world.  What, you may be asking yourself this morning, is this real life all about?  Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2005 at Dartmouth, it's not college - it's not high school.  Real life is junior high.

The world you're about to enter is filled with adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds and the false bravado of 14-year-olds.  Forty years from now, I guarantee it, you'll still be making silly mistakes, you'll have a temper tantrum, you'll have your feelings hurt for some trivial slight, you'll say something dumb and at least once a week you'll wonder, "Will I ever grow up?"

You can change that.  In pursuit of passions, always be young.  In your relationship with others, always be a grown-up.  Set a standard and stay faithful to it.

In this new life you'll have to think of money in a new way.  I know this is strange to realize but now you're gonna have to earn it.  You should also think about how you can hang on to some of it and, if you're fortunate, use the money beyond what you need to save a life, save a neighborhood, save a community, save the world.  You may be surprised to learn that is the use of the money that you will earn over your lifetime that is the most gratifying.

Moreover, while money helps, it is somehow discounted if it doesn't also carry your full personal value. 

A few years ago, in a ceremony similar to this, I declared, "It's easy to make a buck.  It's tough to make a difference."  A father of one of the graduates at that ceremony wrote to me later and suggested a re-write.  He said, "It's tough to make a buck, but if you make lots of bucks, you can make a helluva difference."

A or B?  You decide.  Because there is no wrong answer.

But before you get to that, let's assign your class a marker - and explore the consequences.  The marker, of course, is 9/11, 2001 - the terrorist attack on America, the worst single assault in this nation's history.  You are the class of 9/11.  You had the dizzying experience of entering college as your country was entering a shooting war, as a clash of cultures and ideals was altering political, economic and spiritual landscapes far beyond these leafy environs.

You found sanctuary here at Dartmouth on this green and the comforting  certainty that if you played by the rules, this important passage in your life would be successfully concluded in four years.

Alas, there is not a comparable orderliness about the other passage, the rough ride resulting from the horrific events of 9-11.  We, as a nation, wherever we live, whatever we believe, wherever we've been educated, whatever we do - we're still working our way across open water, forced to navigate by the stars as the old navigational charts now are of little use.

Our destination remains uncertain.  Some seas have been rougher than we expected them to be.  Certain forecasts proved to be perilously wrong.  Unexpected currents keep pushing us close to dangerous shoals or in directions not of our choosing.  It is time, as they say at sea, for all hands to be on deck, for this is a common journey and it requires common effort and the collective wisdom of crew and passengers alike.

Your individual hopes and dreams will be seriously compromised if the ship of state is allowed to drift on a hazardous course.  We cannot pretend that simply because there has not been another 9-11 the world is as it once was.  We are not yet near the end of an epic struggle between the Western ideal of rule of law, tolerance, pluralism and modernity and the advocates of a jihad vision of Islam.

We cannot wish away the complex set of conditions that fuel a rage across a broad band of the globe where too many young men and women your age are caught in a crossfire of claims on their faith and another way of life playing out on the wider screens that reflect the images of our world - a world of unveiled women, material excess, secular joy disconnected from their lives of deprivation and uncertainty.

These young men and women are not incidental to the world that you are entering.  They are the fastest growing population in a world already over-crowded, especially in that part of the globe where self-determination remains at best a work in progress.  Or at best, a faint rumor or a distant promise.

Many of them, as I know from my recent travels there again just this spring, love our culture and speak our language but we show, in their eyes, no interest in returning the favor.  Too many of them love the idea of America but hate our government, envy our freedoms and deeply resent what they see as our sense of entitlement, our determination to tell them how to live their lives.  The worst among them had to be punished and the fight goes on, but no army can conquer them all or force them to change.

So as you leave here in pursuit of your dreams, try to imagine theirs.  Stand tall.  Don't apologize for what you have or what you believe in, but get to know what they don't have, and why.

Take the lead in establishing a common ground between generations, a common ground of appreciation and understanding, a shared destiny of self-determination and economic opportunity - and racial equality.

I'm humbled by the presence that I'm in here today with these honorary degree recipients.  One of them is an old friend, Andrew Young.  I was a young reporter in the 1960s and when I was graduating from the University of South Dakota it was a far different world for black Americans than it is now thanks largely to the courage of Dr. Young, and Dr. King and all the others.  Black Americans were still riding at the back of the bus and forced to go to separate restrooms and drink from separate water fountains.  They were denigrated every day about their fundamental human values, they were not allowed to vote, and they certainly couldn't dream that one day they would have a man among them who would be the UN ambassador to the United States or twice mayor of Atlanta.

Now we must look beyond our own borders and take that same call.  We must see the ancient Arab culture as something other than just a pipeline from their natural riches to our insatiable appetite for energy.  This is a place to begin, but fair warning, it will be hard work - challenging, stimulating, frustrating, dangerous, and hard.  For this common ground cannot be found in a piece of software, it is not hidden in the settings on your toolbar.  There is no delete button for intolerance, no insert button for understanding.  This new technology that so defines your generation is a transformational tool but as a tool really must be an extension of your head and your heart. 

It will do us little good to wire the world if we limit our vision.  It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls.

No, the world that you inherit now requires personal, hands-on, be-brave, speak-out courage.  We, as the most powerful military, industrial, political super-power ever imagined, require citizens who understand that patriotism means to love your country and to always believe that it can be improved - and that improvement comes not just from the far right or from the far left, but much more often from the center.  From the arena of public debate and participating, where ideology always has a place, but where there is no room for ideological bullies.

Our best efforts will be for naught if we fail on another front.  If we fail to love our mother - Mother Earth.  It will do us little good to achieve peace on earth if earth becomes a dead planet. 

So as you leave here - I hope with a renewed sense of citizenship and passion for immersing yourself in the human struggles that define our time - remember as well that individually and collectively you're also stewards of the air we breathe, the water that we drink, wild lands and creatures large and small.

Develop a sense of proportion about your personal and professional needs.  Eschew excess and embrace moderation in your consumption habits.  Sackcloth and kelp soup are not required, but the Buddhist reminder of the need to live lightly on the earth is a helpful guide to the daily habits and needs of us all.

Become a missionary in this great, common cause - at home, at work, among friends.  What could be more noble or worthwhile than to save a forest, preserve a wilderness, protect a wetlands?  To save the world?

And remember as well to honor those who have gone before you.  Sixty years ago this spring and summer Dartmouth men were returning from a long, ferocious struggle that defined their lives and their time - World War II. What the British military historian John Keegan has called the greatest single event in the history of mankind.  Fought for seven years on six of the seven continents, in all the skies and all the seas and before it was over 50 million people had perished.  Those Dartmouth men who preceded you and millions of other men and women their age, your age, had been formed first by the deprivations and the common sacrifices of the Great Depression - when they learned the fundamental difference between need and want, when they shared meals, jobs, clothing, shoes, when their expectations were borne of hard realities and faint hope.

And just as they were emerging from that dark and difficult time they were summoned - in uniform and out - to answer one of history's most noble calls.  To save the world from the madness of Hitler and Japan's equally deranged imperialism.

They became overnight history's greatest military and civilian force for good, going from the prairie to the high seas, from the inner city to the front lines, from the small towns to the cockpits of new bombers and fighter planes, from the Ivy covered campuses to the murderous beaches of Europe and the Pacific, to the bitter winters and suffocating heat of the battlegrounds for four long years.

At home everyone was involved, growing more food and eating less so those in uniform would have enough.  Rationing gasoline and foregoing sweets, designing new weapons and new medicine to meet the challenge. 

When it was over - when, in fact, the world had been saved - they came home to do something that had never been done before in the history of warfare.  They rebuilt their enemies, they married in record numbers, they went to college in record numbers, they gave us new industries and art, new technologies and new laws to expand the freedoms of those who had been left behind for too long.

They did not lay down their arms and say, "I've done my share."

They were, I believe more every day, the Greatest Generation.

They were your grandparents and your great-grandparents.  They were your age when they did all of that and all they asked is that you have a better life.  The life that you have today.

You have that life and in their lives, you inherit a priceless legacy of duty, honor, country and citizenship. Cherish it.  Carry it from here to your new world, return here some day to say, "I did my share" and make your own claim to greatness.

Good luck and Godspeed.

Return to Commencement 2005

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

Recent Headlines from Dartmouth News: