Last Updated June 20, 2008

2007 Commencement

American University
College of Arts and Sciences
Commencement Address
Diane Rehm, executive producer and host of the
nationally syndicated NPR program, 'The Diane Rehm Show'
May 13, 2007
[as delivered]

Thank you, Dr. Kerwin, members of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, honored guests, but most of all, honored graduates.

I am thrilled with this honor and to have been invited to speak with you today, as you take the next step in your journey.  I’m particularly honored because I know how important this institution is and has been in my own life.   American University is a mighty vehicle for instilling in young people the values and beliefs you have gleaned here and will take with you well in the wider world.                                       

You’ve spent the last four years hearing lectures from your professors, debating issues with your peers, and attending seminars.  Now as you move out of the classroom, I would suggest that the real listening, the real education, must begin.

I was born to parents who regarded education as dangerous.  They both arrived in this country in the early 20th century – my father from Beirut, Lebanon, with a high school education; my mother, from Alexandria, Egypt, with an eighth grade education.  Her inability to speak English was a great embarrassment to her.                                                

My sister and I were raised hearing a single message: that we should learn to become excellent stenographers, and eventually first- rate secretaries--which we both did.  But most of all, that we should marry and have children and remain within the Arab community.  The opportunity for college education was totally out of the question.  Long after they were gone, I came to realize there was fear on their part – a fear that education would separate us from them, and create a world where our interests and dreams would not be theirs.  Ours was not a world in which higher education was considered an option for girls.                                             

My learning – both as a child and now as an adult – has become, for me, one that comes, though, from listening to others, each and every day.  In particular, to teachers, from kindergarten on, whom I remember with such fondness, to athletic and drama and music coaches, to friends, ultimately to my spouse, and our children, all of whom have taught – and continue to teach me -- great deal.

For the last 27 years, I’ve had the privilege of working in public radio, listening to the guests and callers on my program.  The hallmark of the program has been from the outset to offer an opportunity for civil and civic debate over the important issues of our day – allowing all to hear the various sides of the large and small questions of the world from different perspectives.

One factor, I believe, sets superior guests apart from others and that is their willingness to listen.   I wonder if you remember the theme that was around when you were in grade school?  It was: Reading is Fundamental    Well, the slogan I would like to see for the coming decades is:  Listening is Fundamental. [applause] …Thank you  

In this day and age of television, email, voicemail, office memos, text messaging, we hardly ever hear each other in real time anymore, much less listen to each other.  In fact, I believe many of us may have forgotten how to listen, not only to those politicians whose views may be different from ours and with whom we disagree.  We’ve forgotten how to listen to our friends, to our colleagues, even to our spouses.  We ask ourselves, especially on this Mother’s Day, why the divorce rate is so high?  Why is there so much litigation in this country?  Why is there so much violence?  Why do we miss the signs that people are sad, miserable, and may even have the potential for violence, and then wake up only to find that – because we did not listen ­-- some horrible catastrophe has occurred?
On a major scale, after 9/11 we heard that agencies of the federal government refused to share information that might have helped us realize the threat of disaster.  Each agency kept its secrets, refusing to talk, refusing to listen.  Now there is debate over whether we should be engaged with Syria and Iran; whether we should listen to what those countries may have to say about the state of the world.  Might we not try to improve this endangered and fragile world of ours and take it toward a more stable “axis of cooperation” rather than shut out of our hearing those we label the “axis of evil?”  [applause]                                          

On a more personal level, I believe each one of us can achieve progress, one relationship at a time.  By quieting our inner voices of disagreement, of competitiveness, and attempts at one-upmanship, we honor the voice of the speaker.  The act of listening, itself, becomes an expression of generosity and compassion, which can lead to the creation of a new and more harmonious society.  True listening is a form of spiritual hospitality, by which we open ourselves to the ideas of others.  We invite strangers to become friends, and friends to become even better friends.  I am currently reading Kurt Vonnegut’s book, "Cat’s Cradle", and in one sentence he says it all.  He says, “At no matter what stage we are, we need to go back to kindergarten; we need to learn again from the beginning.”

Listening is a form of engagement, of opening the mind and the heart to another.  I would suggest that by listening instead of talking, we may become more attentive to the whole person, and by that very engagement, learn more about ourselves.

Today’s world involves taking the education you have so rightly earned and the talents that God has given you and going out into the world to use them, to display those gifts to the fullest. 

But I leave you with this thought: What the world needs now – more than great talkers – are great listeners -- great listeners who are teachers, students, friends, spouses, parents, children, and citizens. 
Thank you so much for listening. [applause]

I’m honored to have had the opportunity to speak with you and be part of the graduating class of 2007 from this great American University.  Happy Mother’s Day to the parents and congratulations to all of you.  Thank you. [applause]