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The Last Word

Commencement speeches by movers and shakers cap off graduates' education -- and give us all something to chew on

June 13, 2004

SPRING is a time of celebration for graduates of the nation's colleges. It is also a time for speeches. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice, former President Clinton, President Bush and financier George Soros were among those offering advice to this year's crop of graduates. What follows are excerpts from their remarks. In the interest of readability, we haven't indicated where material has been omitted, but we have provided website addresses for full texts of the speeches after each excerpt.

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This world 'was built by optimists, not pessimists'

Condoleezza Rice

Vanderbilt University, May 13

I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., before the civil rights movement -- a place once described, with no exaggeration, as the most thoroughly segregated city in the country. I know what it means to hold dreams and aspirations when half your neighbors think you are incapable of, or uninterested in, anything better.

I remember the bombing of that Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate, Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.

But those fears were not propelled forward. Those terrorists failed. They failed because of the poverty of their vision, a vision of hate and inequality and the primacy of difference. And they failed because of the courage and sacrifice of all who suffered and struggled for civil rights. Those brave men and women asked America to make a choice between living up to our founding ideas or perpetuating state-sanctioned racism.

Because America is now closer to its ideals, your birthright, your inheritance, is a freer, more just, strong, confident and wealthy nation in which you can make your way according to your talents and your dreams.

That privilege is enhanced by the access to higher education that you have had. Education is transforming. I first learned this from the stories of my paternal grandfather. He died before I was born, but he was a huge figure in our lives.

Granddaddy Rice was a sharecropper's son in Ewtah, Ala., and one day he decided he was going to get book learning, so he asked in the parlance of the day how a colored man might get to college. They told him about 50 miles down the road there was this little Presbyterian college called Stillman, and if he would go there he could get an education.

So he saved up his cotton, and he took off for Tuscaloosa, and he finished his first year of college. And they said, "Now, how are you going to pay for your second year?" He said, "Well, I'm out of cotton." They said, "You're out of luck, you'll have to leave Stillman." And so he said, "Well, how are those boys going to school?" And they said, "Well, you see, they have what's called a scholarship, and if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister then you could have a scholarship too." And my grandfather said, "Well, you know, that's just what I had in mind." And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since.

Now, with that privilege of higher education in hand, you also have certain obligations. The first is to be optimistic. The world you live in today, this world in which it is possible for you to attend a great university like Vanderbilt and then go on to whatever you will do, that world was built by optimists, not pessimists. And the people who built it for you did not sacrifice and sweat so that you would wallow in cynicism.

Second, you have an obligation to work to close the cultural gaps that divide our nation and our world. The intellectual foundation of terrorism, like the intellectual foundation of slavery and segregation, rests on arbitrarily dividing human beings into friends and enemies, even into human and nonhuman. The perpetrators of Sept. 11 believed that difference was a license to kill.

Your third obligation is to work to further the same democratic progress here and abroad that has made your own opportunities possible. All people are bound together by several common desires. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not share your desire to live freely, to think and believe as you would like to see fit, to raise a family and educate children.

In my professional life, I have listened as some explained why Russians would never embrace freedom, that military dictatorship would always be a way of life in Latin America, that Asian values were incompatible with democracy, and that tyranny, corruption and one-party rule would always dominate Africa.

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