Commencement Addresses Around the Nation 2004
—Barbara Ehrenreich, Author
I had another speech
prepared for today—all
about the cost of college and how the doors to higher education
are closing to all but the wealthy. It was a good speech—lots
of laugh lines—but 2 weeks ago something came along that
wiped the smile right off my face. You know, you saw them too—the
photographs of American soldiers sadistically humiliating and
abusing detainees in Iraq.
These photos broke my heart. I had no illusions
about the United States mission in Iraq, but it turns out that
I did have some illusions about women.
Of the 7 US soldiers
now charged with the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, 3
are women: Harman, England and Megan Ambuhl. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked.
Certainly not about the existence of abuse. Reports of this
and similar abuse have been leaking out of Guantanamo and immigrant
detention centers in NYC for over a year. We know, if we’ve
been paying attention, that similar kinds of abuse, including
sexual humiliation, are not unusual in our own vast US prison
We know too, that good people can do terrible
things under the right circumstances. This is what psychologist
Stanley Milgram found in his famous experiments in the 1960s.
Sabrina and Lynndie are not congenitally evil people. They
are working class women who wanted to go to college and knew
the military as the quickest way in that direction. Once they
got in, they wanted to fit in.
And I shouldn’t be surprised either because
I never believed that women are innately less aggressive than
men. I have argued this repeatedly—once with the famously
macho anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. When he kept insisting
that women are just too nice and incapable of combat, I answered
him the best way I could: I asked him if he wanted to step
I have supported full
opportunity for women within the military, in part because—with rising tuition—it’s
one of the few options around for low-income young people.
Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would
eventually change the military, making it more respectful of
other people and their cultures, more capable of genuine peace
another thing that died for me in the last couple of weeks—a
certain kind of feminism or, perhaps I should say, a certain
kind of feminist naiveté.
It was a kind of feminism that saw men as the
perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims, and
male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice.
Gender equality cannot,
all alone, bring about a just and peaceful world. Women do
not change institutions simply just by assimilating into
them. But—and this is
the “but” on which all my hopes hinge—a certain
kind of woman can still
do that—and this is where you come in.
We need a kind of woman who can say no, not just to the date rapist or overly persistent
boyfriend, but also to the military or corporate hierarchy
within which she finds herself. We need a kind of woman who
doesn’t want to be one of the boys when the boys are
acting like sadists or fools. And we need a kind of woman
who isn’t trying to assimilate, but to infiltrate—and
subvert the institutions she goes into. You can
be those women. And as the brightest and best-educated women
of your generation, you better be. I’m counting on
you. I want you to
be the face of American women that the world sees—not
those of Sabrina or Megan or Lynndie or Condoleezza.
Don’t let me down.
Take your hard-won diplomas, your knowledge and your talents
and go out there and raise
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art
Kushner, Playwright & Author
I’m a playwright not a politician or a scholar
or a preacher and so speaking publicly isn’t something
I do easily. There’s always fear involved, all the more
fear the more intimidating the assemblage, and this is an intimidating
assemblage. I don’t kid myself that I could have done
whatever it was you people had to do to get into Cooper Union.
I’ve never even known anyone who graduated from Cooper
Union. There aren’t that many of you around and so I’ve
had opportunities to obsessively cultivate and detail my own
private mythology of your brilliance.
think you are lucky…I think this is a time when America,
the world will hear you speaking.
I don’t know what to tell you to do with
the rest of your lives but from now till November the path
seems clear enough to me…stay active, stay vigilant,
and stay progressive. Because the humanly possible is what
you leave this vertical and fabled womb of adepts to go forth
into the fallen world to achieve. You are meant, I think, to
discover what is humanly possible and even to make sure that
what is humanly possible, years from now when you are done
with your work, is a good deal worthier of celebration than
the humanly possible you inherit today.#
DeFrantz, Olympic Winner
I loved my time here at Connecticut College. I
was introduced to a new world of opportunity. And there were
no constraints for me in becoming involved in new and different
challenges. My professor in freshman American History presented
one of my first and quite memorable challenges. The class was
given the assignment of writing a 10-page paper in two weeks.
I am certain that for all of you, that would be a snap! However,
at my high school, I had never written anything over three
pages. Ten pages seemed like a book to me. Using the ingenuity
that is a hallmark of Connecticut College students, I wrote
the paper. Needless to say, I used rather wide margins.
A few days later, the
paper was returned to me. Written on the top were the words
that my housemates in Branford remind me of to this day; “You tend to ramble and digress,
but reach sound conclusion.” It is the “sound conclusion” part
that I use as I go forward every day. And now I offer to you
two words: “Critical Thinking”. I believe that
critical thinking is the key to our past, our present and our
The ability to ask “why?” if
something appears to be inconsistent is an essential skill
for the 21st century. In 1974, my senior year at Connecticut
College, I was demoted to junior varsity. How humiliating!
During the same conversation in which I was told of my JV
fate, the Coach told me that he thought I could make the
1976 Olympic Team! Now, that was seriously inconsistent.
I applied critical thinking. After working to see how these
two concepts could fit together, I came to understand why
the Coach made that statement to me. He had to make certain
that I would continue to row that season so that there could
be a JV boat. Without me, there were not enough athletes
to fill a JV boat. It worked! I had a great time in that
boat and our record was identical to the Varsity that year!
After graduation ceremonies, to the delight of
my parents, I moved to Philadelphia to attend the University
of Pennsylvania Law School. I was interested in law because
I believed it to be the language of power. I wanted to be able
to use that power to unveil other inconsistencies that prevented
our nation from fulfilling its destiny.
In July of 1976, I entered a unique community,
the Olympic Village in Montreal. From the outside, it seemed
to be a normal housing development with grand buildings dressed
with multicolored ribbons from top to bottom. But inside was
a community where each member had experienced success. Each
athlete, coach or administrator had been successfully chosen
to become a member of his or her National Olympic Team.
And you could feel the
success and respect for one another throughout the Olympic
Village. We all knew that we would be competing for rare
distinctions, medals of gold, silver and bronze offered once
every four years. We knew how hard we’d worked to come
this far. And we knew that there were too many of us for
the few medals offered.
We were women and men of every size, color and
shape. We would sit down at any table in the dining hall, which,
by the way was open 24 hours a day, and share a meal with an
athlete from a country remote geographically as well as politically.
We were joined together in the spirit of mutual respect. At
the end of the day, it did not matter whether you were a champion
or whether you had only made it through the first round. We
were Olympians each with our own story. And we left with a
new respect for those we met, those we competed against and
those we watched in competition. We left as ambassadors for
a world at peace.
challenge is to live the final stanza of a song you have
heard or sung hundreds of times.
We must live up to the
promise in the final line of that anthem. I challenge all
of us to make this true. Make it so that we live in…‘The land of the free and
the home of the brave!’ Class of 2004, it is your choice!#
American University: School of Communication/Kogod School
—Judy Woodruff, CNN Senior Correspondent
the class of 2004, will always look back on a tumultuous
college experience. And it won’t be just the fire alarms at 3 o’clock
in the morning. Being at a college in the nation’s
capital has shaped your experiences in more ways than you
ever dreamed. Those of you who entered college in the fall
of 2000, had barely found your way around campus, when you
were witness to the closest Presidential election in American
history. Then, as you were settling in to your sophomore
year, 19 young men from the other side of the world changed
the United States forever by piloting four commercial jetliners
into New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon,
and an empty field in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t long
before the nation sent thousands of our young men and women—most
your age—to Afghanistan to launch a war to change that
country, and one year later, to Iraq. As we sit here celebrating
this morning, we should take a moment to remember the brave
men and women wearing the uniform: whatever we think of those
wars, they are serving our country.
and quality matter; you know that because you’ve learned
it here, at American University. By the way, whatever your
field, if you don’t have a job yet, don’t worry;
it will come in good time. My advice: think about using the
time while you wait, to do volunteer work that will make
a difference in someone else’s life. And keep on doing
that, in some form, throughout your life.
Speaking about the arena
I know best, journalism, I can tell you it is an exciting
time to be in our field. It is exciting because of the proliferation
of opportunities. When I was in your shoes—back in the dark ages—the
options were few. I drove to Atlanta during the spring break
of my senior year at Duke University, to interview with the
news directors of the three TV stations there—offering
my services as a secretary. Two dismissed me; I had no newsroom
experience at all; but the third, who badly needed a receptionist,
said he’d bring me on board to answer the phones and
clean the film. My heart swelled with pride as I stood up to
thank him for the job offer, and as I turned to walk away,
he added: “Besides, how could I not hire someone with
legs like yours?” With just those few words he had dashed
my aspirations, and he had reminded me of a double standard
I pretended didn’t exist. The good news is, much has
changed. Today, you have
far more options.
Go into television or
news papering. But don’t
go into it with the notion of being one of those big TV stars
in what is charitably called the argument culture; don’t
go into it expecting to bring down the powerful. Go into journalism
to be one of those who champion that notion that quality, irrespective
of what the bean counters and management consultants say, is
rewarded. My message is: come on in, but don’t join the
crowd. Set your sights high. Fight for integrity. And don’t
be afraid to be a lonely voice. It is now clear that America
began a war fourteen months ago on a flawed premise: Saddam
Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction that the
U.S. government assured us he did. This presidential campaign
will debate the government’s performance in that matter.
But let’s not overlook that most of the press put aside
skepticism; we were enablers. There were a handful of exceptions,
most notably Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. So when
you plot your career path in the months and years ahead, let
me urge that the Walter Pincuses, as well as the Jim Lehrers,
Ted Koppels, Bob Edwards and the late Mary McGrory, more than
the hyperventilating talking heads of my business, be your