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Winter 2001 Commencement
American University Trustee
Roger W. Ireson
Forty years ago this year, I sat where you sit now, and I don’t remember who my commencement speaker was. I’m not sure I even remember what he said. But I remember he was good. So forty years from now—I hope—you probably won’t remember my name, and you probably won’t remember a lot of what I’ve said, but I hope something that I’ve said will spark a dream in you, will motivate a generous spirit in you, as you work through your career. So it’s an honor for me to accept and to be a part of your commencement as one of the speakers.
Now the world is fixed on the beginning of a new century, and you are fixed on the beginning of a new life, and the two are somehow inextricably bound up together. I’m sure you have great expectations, and probably a little anxiety as you move into a new world. The challenges before us are profound; the opportunities before us are immense, but at times almost overwhelming. The explosion of knowledge is staggering, and the complexity of relationships is really daunting. But it’s a year you will always remember, the year in which you really officially started your pilgrimage, a significant year for you and for us.
I travel a lot, as you’ve heard, all over the world, but one of the most amazing experiences happened to me in New York City. I came out of LaGuardia Airport, and naturally you take the first taxi they give you, and I did that, and noticed that I couldn’t see my driver. And then I noticed my driver was a very short man. So short that he had to crouch down to hit the accelerator pedal. And as we pulled away, I noticed one other very important fact, that he couldn’t touch the accelerator pedal and see out of the window at the same time. This was rather unnerving for me, because we would speed up and go ahead of all of the cars on both sides. And then as he went up to see where we were going, we would slip back. And I saw the same people about five times and waved to all of them. I thought of that man as a parable of why we are trying to get more graduates to leave American University and go out into the world, because we have too many people in the world that either know how to turn on the power but don’t know where they’re going, or they can see where we ought to go, but they have no idea how to motivate and move the power sources in this world. And we need somebody like you who has vision, who sees what the world needs—but also, like Kim [Williams] has already done, knows how to mobilize with the sources of power, to make significant things happen.
There’s an old image that’s throughout the Biblical accounts—all the New Testament, it’s also in a lot of the world religions because so many of them were in the Middle East—of the vine and the branches. And it becomes almost a parable for us, this ancient symbol with its deep truth, that somehow branches spring out from the vine and reach places that the vine could never reach, but which are always connected. It could be a vision of your family, it could be a spiritual reality for you; it could also be this university and its graduates. Because the vine and the branches, as a symbol, speak of a life that is not insular, that is not marked by purely selfish endeavor, but rather, a life that is inter-related to other persons and marked by a calling to vocation, to serve, and to make life better, and to create community where there is fragmentation. This reminds us of the importance of community in almost all of the world’s religions and historic traditions. They remind us that our lives are not our own, but that they are marked by deep purpose, which comes from a source. I hope you’ve found your life at American University to be one that is true, and real, and reliable. Our education at the university—this university—as a Trustee, I would say is true, and reliable, and of inexorable value.
The center of life is not money, but you will be tempted to think so. The center of life is not fame, but it can become very attractive. And the center of life is not power, but it has a seductive influence over you. The center of life is rooted in something much deeper than that, something of meaning and purpose. And so these ancient symbols remind us of possibilities in a new world. Here you’ve become part of a family, and you’re leaving this family for new opportunities, but you will soon discover that this family is so much larger than just university community. And maybe even, you will come to the understanding of the old saying in Africa: “In the end, we have all, we will all gather under the same tree. In the end, we are all grafted into the tree of life, and are connected to each other.” And you bring this reality, this insight, this shared experience to a world that is lonely, is fragmented, is isolated. Education is about more than making a living and fulfilling our egos. Education is about becoming a branch in this world, which is tied to more than itself, and which seeks to transmit the richness of life to other people.
Someday, others will summarize your life, probably forty years from now. They’ll speak about your gifts; they’ll speak about your accomplishments. What will they say about you? Will they say that you were given much in life, but that you gave little in return? Or will they say that your life was really a blessing to many, many people, many organizations, and that our world is enhanced because of the quality of your gifts? You are now beginning to write that history in earnest. At the heart of the university lies the question of the essence and meaning of education. And I do think that the answer is found in community, in building and knitting together community. The world is hungry for expressions of community. Five hundred years before Christ, everybody was talking about community. [greek name?] who thought that all was changed, still thought that a rational principle that he called the “Logas” would draw people together. At about the same time, Pythagorus was teaching his semi-monastic community not only about the theorem, but also that our lives the way they related were somehow mirrored in the relationship of numbers. And that by studying numbers, we could understand something about our relationships. Plato and Aristotle, shortly after that, talked about how our goal was to serve the community, to serve the common good—that was the real meaning of education. And the Stoics had a vision that would come true 2000 years later, of a world community. They coined the word “cosmopolitan.” Fellow citizens of the universe, cosmos polis, the Hebrews, with their understanding that a covenant rich in meaning would bind people into a community that could create and do great things. And the New Testament Christian community with its idea that the coynanea would be drawn together by a new spirit.
Now, two thousand years later, we have a history of conflict and pain, and the world still looks for expressions of community which will fulfill these ideals. We seek forms that will be wholesome and good. We’ve seen the kind of communities that exclude and destroy, which isolate and discriminate. The world is ready for you, to help create a new kind of community. There are publications that suggest this may be one of the most pressing needs of the next century. Many people have reflected upon it. But the great challenge really arises for you. What does it mean to live together in the twenty-first century with so many cultures, so many religions, so many languages? We will not be united by McDonalds. We won’t even be united by everyone who speaks English. We will only be united when we really understand the nuances of each thing that each community holds precious.
That’s why this university is so important. The School of International Service, and all of these different schools in American are really attuned to helping our graduates understand the world, so that you can lead us to meet this great challenge before us. Your education, we hope, will bear fruit. Shared life is only possible when you understand the traditions and the context of others. That’s why we started this university as a church, in the last half of the nineteenth century. And that’s why we’ve become so proud of American University—as all of the people of this country have—for what its graduates have done. So the challenges before this university: will our graduates be prepared for a world of multiplicity? Are educational processes somehow geared to build on global experience and greater understanding of the things that shaped our world? What will be the future of community, of … it’s always been a community, gathered around a teacher. But it’s also a community that moves out to change the world. A new century, a new generation, of leaders.
I was speaking in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to a gathering of Catholic and Protestant students who we had brought to this country, under an agreement with the government of Northern Ireland. The purpose was to get these students out of Northern Ireland and the conflict, and pair them up as Catholic and Protestant students in our institutions, where they had to talk to the public about what it meant to be Catholic and what it meant to be Protestant in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. And they had had a life-changing experience here, and now they were back in Belfast. And I said you know, I read a book by one of the leaders who had worked so hard behind the scenes to bring about peace and died before he saw any of the initiatives that we have now seen come to any kind of fruition. But before he died, they asked him, do you have hope and why do you have hope, and he said, “I do. Because I believe in a resurrection generation, a new generation that can change this country and our world.”
You are a resurrection generation. Can we believe in the future of the world? I’m asked that a lot. I speak to students in Russia, and China, and North Korea, Africa, South America—all around the world—and they ask me sometimes, “do you believe in the future?” And I say yes. I say yes, because I believe in you. I really do. I believe in you and thousands of students like you that still have ideals, that still have motivations that go beyond personal gain and still care about the future of their world. It is your vision, your creative energy, and your commitment which will change our world. The graduates of American University have a superior education, and it will enhance their personal gifts, and we hope that they will be employed for service in the world, that your life will be more than your own, and your accomplishments will be more than personal gain. For you are branches, branches that go out from the center of this great place to derive, and contribute to the richness and power and possibility of life in our world. We’re very proud of you—American University’s proud of you, all of these parents are proud of you, I’m proud of you. But forty years from now, we will be even more proud because you used your life in ways that made a significant difference for our world. Congratulations to each of you.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
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