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JUNE 2004

Commencement Addresses Around the Nation 2004

Barnard College
—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 system.

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 outside...

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 keeping.

But there’s 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 hell!

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art
—Tony 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.

I 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.#

Connecticut College
—Anita 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 future.

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.

Friends, our 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 of Business
—Judy Woodruff, CNN Senior Correspondent

You, 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.

Standards 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 role models.#



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