Tom Brokaw's UM Commencement Address
Delivered Saturday, May 14, 2011, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium
“Thank you, Mr. President. Members of the faculty and deans, graduates, and especially parents and those who are here today, congratulations to you as well. You're not losing a child; you're gaining a bank account, so try to keep that in mind.
“I'm very happy to be here. I must tell you that given that glowing introduction, it needs some perspective. I barely got out of the University of South Dakota. I came out of high school a whiz kid and kind of went off the rails pretty seriously for a couple of years. But in fact I did make it, with the help of the chairman of the Department of Political Science, Bill Farber, and one of your former provosts, Don Habbe. Later in life, when I began to achieve some recognition, Washington University in St. Louis decided that they would give me my first honorary degree, and they called the University of South Dakota and asked Dr. Farber what he could tell them about my academic background. And he said, 'Well, to be perfectly honest, we always thought the degree that we gave him was an honorary degree.'
“There are people that I have been greeting since I got here who thought that I might open with some disparaging remarks about your great rival to the east, Montana State; I'm not going to do that. I know you're the Grizzlies and they're the Bobcats. The fact is, I went the University of South Dakota. We were the Coyotes. Coyotes don't take on grizzlies and bobcats. In fact, we like roadkill. Our motto at the University of South Dakota was 'from your grill to our grill.'
“I am very happy to be here this morning in the land of the grizzly, also back in Montana, the home of the noble elk, the majestic Rocky Mountain sheep, the wolves and wolverines, the bobcats, the badgers, the sleek rainbow trout and brown trout. I'm always renewed when I come here by the presence of so much of the natural wonders of our time. And I especially like these occasions, because they represent the great tradition of renewal in our country. In no other nation in the world in the springtime are there as many young people completing the work to get a higher education degree and to take their place as citizens and productive members of our society.
“Your parents and grandparents, siblings and friends are looking on with great pride – and in the case of some of you, with utter astonishment – that you made it, and we are prepared to welcome you into a world in which we need your help. So you should savor this moment. After all, you occupy a special place in the history of this institution and in the history of this country. And it won't be that long before you too are sitting in the stands and being acknowledged on your 20th or 25th or even your 50th anniversary of graduation.
“Your college years have steeled you in unusual ways for the unexpected turns of history, and the consequences, and I invite you now to help us all work through it. For those of you who earned your degree in four years, you entered here in 2007 when the world was still booming with economic prosperity. There were no uprisings in other parts of the world. But in the past four years you have been personally witness and, in too many cases, some of you have felt the pain of the most devastating economic recession since the Great Depression. Some of you may have parents who lost jobs or lost their homes or wondered about their retirement years.
“You must also not forget on these occasions that while you are here celebrating your achievement and preparing to take your place in a civil society, others your age at this moment, your fellow Americans, all volunteers, are putting on Kevlar vests and locking and loading weapons and getting into Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars are not yet over and every week they bring the painful news of the loss of limbs or life or traumatic brain injury. We all – all of those young volunteers, representing less than 1 percent of our population, so the other 99 percent of us can go on with our lives – we owe them more than a yellow ribbon on our cars or trucks, more than the singing of 'God Bless America.' They can't be with us today, but they must never, on this day and every day forward, be far from our hearts and minds. And when we see them come home, we have to welcome them, embrace them and help them through their reintegration to the lives that we enjoy.
“You've also been witness to a startling turn in the Middle East that is not yet over. Millions of young people your age took to the street and risked their lives to say to their autocratic leaders: Enough! Enough economic corruption and political and physical oppression. We demand our rights and we are making a stand by risking our lives and we are determined to embrace democratic values for our generation and for generations to come. We've not yet seen the end of the transition in the Middle East, but I can promise you it will be profound.
“You've also seen the cruelty of natural disasters in the American South, recently in Alabama, and in Haiti and in Japan, a critically important ally deeply wounded by an earthquake, by a tsunami and by that modern nightmare, a nuclear meltdown. There is no joy this morning in the news of those devastating acts.
“So you are leaving this institution of learning and innocence in a season of uncertainty and some anxiety. Daily there are painful reminders that the economic model that defined our lives for so long turned out to be no more than a house of cards. Indeed, in too many places it was quickly a shambles and it will not be easily repaired. And even when it is repaired, it will have different shapes and it will evoke different expectations. We did lose our way. We allowed greed and excess to become the twin pillars of too much of our financial culture. We became a society too absorbed in consumption, dismissive of moderation.
“A friend, a successful businessman who nonetheless lives a temperate life, says appropriately, 'From this day forward, we must remind ourselves that we should live our lives by thinking of what we need and not just what we want.' Something fundamental happened in the last five years, and there will be long-term consequence when it comes to risk and debt and economic assumptions. That does not mean that you will be assigned to a life of deprivation and struggle. America remains a land of unparalleled opportunities with a standard of living that even in these constricted circumstances is well beyond the hope of hundreds of millions of people in much less developed countries.
“It is not a perfect world well beyond the economic conditions, of course. Our institutions of governance at the highest levels recently have been defined by paralysis and polarization. Rogue nations with nuclear arms, or the potential for acquiring them, show no signs of good behavior. The vital signs of your mother – Mother Earth – have taken a turn for the worse. And the prescribed treatment is complex and controversial. How we fuel our appetite for energy – for consumer, industrial and technological technical power, for vehicular power – without exacerbating global climate change is an urgent question for our time. In short, how we live on a smaller planet with many more people is a reality that will test your generation and mine for the rest of our lives.
“But what more could a generation and a society ask? We may not have given you a perfect world, but we have given you dynamic opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy as a generation fearless and imaginative, tireless and selfless in pursuit of solutions to these monumental problems, a generation that emerged from this financial tsunami and rebuilt the landscape of their lives with an underpinning of sound values and an eye for proportion, knowing, in fact, that less can be more. It will not be easy, but I can promise you it will be rewarding in ways that a Wall Street bonus or a shot on 'American Idol' cannot compete.
“These are the tests that imprint generations for the long curve of history's judgment. Those who take the inventory of our time a hundred years from now or a thousand years from now will not measure our success or failure by the actions of President Obama or the Tea Party or any of the other political special interests. We'll all be on their scorecard, and we cannot escape the judgment of them by evasion or prevarication.
“So where to begin? That is a decision that this institution has prepared you to make. It will be the most rewarding if it is rooted in personal passion and carried out with purpose, even when the first steps are small. You have an assortment of nimble and powerful tools that can assist you, and the Internet, with its vast universe of information and a capacity for research and communications playing out on ever-smaller devices across an ever-widening spectrum of choices. But those are tools; they're not oracles. They complement your mind and your heart, but they do not replace them.
“By the way, historians like to talk about the winds of change. They talk about the winds of change in a metaphorical sense. I say to those historians, come to Missoula and feel the real winds of change on Commencement day. Part of the winds of change, of course, are those transformative technologies to the which I have just referred. But remember this: It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls. Remember, too, that somehow before BlackBerrys and iPhones and laptops and video games, great and welcome change was achieved.
“This state of the ancestral home to the tribes that we saw represented on the stage today, and also to the raven and the crow, to immigrants who came here in the 19th century and laid the railroads and opened the mines and built ranches, they survived by their ingenuity, by their hard work, but most of all by their cooperative spirit. They're in this together and there wasn't one iPhone or iPad or Internet access among all of them.
“In the lifetime of many in this audience there have been other trials and tragedies and triumphs that go well beyond anything that we're experiencing at this moment. There are people in these stands today who came of age in the Great Depression, when everyday life was about deprivation and sacrifice. When the economic conditions of the time were so grave and so unrelenting it would have been easy enough for the American dream to have been washed away. Instead that generation found common cause, first in their economic struggle, and then in their call to arms, World War II, the greatest event in the history of mankind. When it was over, it would have been easy enough for them to come home and say 'I've done my share,' put down their arms and retreat to their families or their communities and never lift another finger to help society. But they didn't do that. They went to college in record numbers, got married in record numbers, gave us new industries, built states like Montana and institutions like the university. It was a time of sacrifice, but it was also a time of public service, of stepping forward.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just a few years older than some of you in this audience today when he began a historic moral crusade against racial injustice, armed with elegance, passion, courage, conviction, the power of his oratory, a belief in the rule of law and in the tenets of Mahatma Gandhi that you can move worlds in a nonviolent fashion. He did that and he liberated us all in this country from the unconscionable reality of racial segregation. Somehow he managed without a cell phone, without a BlackBerry, without a website.
“In 1989, a lone and still anonymous Chinese student stood unarmed in front of a Chinese tank and gave the world an enduring image of the Chinese young that changed our nation. He didn't send a text message to that tank crew or share a YouTube. He stood in front of it. He put his feet on the ground and risked his life.
“Those are the young people that I remember and the people who have changed our history. Idealistic, courageous, many of them gifted members of your age group, the foot soldiers in the long march to ease human suffering. These kinds of commitments need not consume every day of your life, but they will enrich it if you make a conscientious effort to dedicate some of your time on this precious planet to helping your fellow men and women who are not as fortunate. And you are graduating 50 years after John F. Kennedy said to the nation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And that can become your mantra, the Class of 2011.
“You've recently been told that you're about to enter the real world; that too is misleading. Your parents and I do not represent the real world. Neither does this institution, for all of its obvious qualities. I have news for you: the real world was junior high. You will be astonished by how much of the rest of your lives will be consumed by the same petty jealousies you encountered in junior high, the same irrational juvenile behavior. You notice the faculty is applauding. The same dumb jokes, the same hurt feelings. You will leave here with a degree, but it does not confirm maturity or judgment. Most of all remember this: You cannot get through this world alone. You need each other. We need you to celebrate one another in a common cause of restoring economic justice and true value, advancing racial and religious tolerance, creating a healthier planet, and most of all, hoping that at some time in our life we can achieve world peace.
“Let me conclude with a small anecdote rooted in Montana that will be with me for the rest of my life. About five years ago at this time of the year, I was at our ranch between Livingston and Big Timber. The water was high in the West Boulder River and I went to an overlook to check its condition. And out of a grove of aspen down below me emerged a small herd of mother elk, accompanied by their three- and four-week-old calves. They paused for a moment on the sandbar and they looked at me 200 yards away and thought I probably posed no great threat. The water was high and swift, the forebank was loaded with hawthorn bushes, very thick. The cow elk led their offspring into the spring to get across to the greener pastures, and all of them made it except one. That poor calf couldn't get through the hawthorn bushes, and he was caught by the water and swept downstream just below me. I wondered for a moment about what to do. And then he found his way into an eddy, he got back on the sandbar, tried again, failed a second time. Then he failed a third time. The herd of cow elk stayed on the far bank, watching, it seemed to me, nervously. And his mother made her way down to the far bank, looked at him – trembling and exhausted on the sandbar across this raging river – and as God as my witness, she nodded her head, waded into the river, led him upstream and helped him across. I was renewed by that moment and I think about it often because as so often happens, we are instructed by nature. We'll come to a lot of raging rivers. We won't always make it across, but we must be there to help each other during times of turbulence so that we can get to the higher ground.
“So to the Class of 2011 from The University of Montana, I say to you, go forth and make a difference. God knows we need your help. Thank you all very much.”