Distinguished Professor Address: 1990-1991
President Herbert, platform party, distinguished guests, faculty, students, parents, ladies and gentlemen!
The merits of a commencement address are judged not by its contents but by its brevity. You may not realize it, but no one appreciates this more than a faculty member.
You may attend one, perhaps two commencement addresses in your life. But the faculty participates in two or three graduation ceremonies every year! Just think how much we welcome brevity!
When my colleagues learned that the honor of addressing you tonight fell to me, one of them remarked with a malicious glint in his eye, that this was my chance to get even for all the many speeches I sat through in the past two decades.
It was a tempting thought, but I would rather seize this opportunity to say what I have wanted to say for many years to an audience just like you.
And I will try to be brief.
What are my qualifications? I have been a classroom instructor for nineteen years, a librarian for twenty-nine, and I have been around for... well, for a long time. I lived through a World War and a Revolution, the Nazi occupation and the Russian occupation - in short: I have a lot of varied experience behind me. As the saying goes, experience makes even fools wise, so I would like to share with you some of the wisdom I have acquired over the years.
But first, I would like to dispel some assumptions new graduates tend to make.
As you receive your diploma, do not assume that the sole objective of your education was to find a job and earn a living. Becoming, and being, an educated person will enrich your intellectual, spiritual, social, and economic life.
Do not assume that your education is now complete, that graduation signals the end of your education. In school you have only acquired the tools, laid the foundation for what lies ahead. Your education by life and for life is just beginning.
Do not assume that wisdom comes with age. A young fool becomes an old fool - unless he learns.
You should have an open and receptive mind; observe and absorb, synthesize information into knowledge, use and utilize what you have learned. And remember: a wise man learns from the mistakes of others so that he will commit fewer of his own.
Do not assume that you can start at the top and then work your way up. Instant gratification exists only in candy shops.
Understand that experience only comes with time and there is no such a thing as instant experience.
Do not assume that wealth will earn you respect. People may envy you for what you have -they will respect you only for what you are. Material wealth should be the byproduct and not the objective of a career.
Don't be blinded by success - yours or of others.
Shun mediocrity. Anything you touch should bear the mark of your best effort. It was George Washington who said "...it is a fixed principle with me that whatever is done should be well done."
Have a clearly defined set of values. Determine early on what is important and what is trivial.
Have a sense of humor - and that's no joke! You should know how to put things into perspective: what and whom to take seriously - including yourself.
Maintain your objectivity and don't be influenced by biases or prejudices. A prejudicial man is a defective human being: erratic, unreliable, and dangerous, for he will make wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, for himself and for others. Discrimination of any kind - religious, racial, ethnic, or age - is destructive and humiliating, for it diminishes our freedom and harms our society.
Don't consider only what's best for you, or even for your town or state - consider what is best for your country.
Be generous - be a giver, not a taker. Generosity is a hallmark of the American national character. According to the latest annual statistics, student scholarships reached $4.8 billion dollars, charitable giving was at $104 billion, and foreign aid to other countries at $13.6 billion. These are staggering amounts by any standard.
Why is it always the United States to whom others turn for help?
Because American democracy has proven itself superior to all other forms of government in the world today. The United States, a country barely more than two hundred years old, has eclipsed all others in growth and accomplishments in most areas of human endeavor. The key to that is our freedom, and the people who share that freedom.
Less than 5% of the world's population are Americans. And yet, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of Emma Lazarus' immortal sonnet yearning to breathe free brought glory and prosperity to this country and lifted it high, like the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
For the statue of liberty is not a tourist attraction but a symbol for the entire world. Just as the Declaration of Independence is not only a historical document but the embodiment of the spirit of a free nation.
The twentieth century has been an American century, an epoch that cast this country as the leader of the free world, the beacon of democracy for a world in turmoil, a nation that shapes global destiny. The United States is now an economic giant, a social and political force, a military power, a source of hope for the enslaved, oppressed, and impoverished people around the world. It is a country that strives to improve, that continuously improves. Progress may not always be as speedy as one might wish, but this dynamic nation always changes - and tries to change for the better.
Operation Desert Storm ended in January, and soon after, victory celebrations began. We had large parades in Washington and New York City, and on the Fourth of July, an officer, a former POW in Iraq, was interviewed on CBS. His concluding words were: "It's great to be free in America. I will never take that for granted again."
Most of you are in this country by birth. Political oppression, deprivation, state-sanctioned violation of human rights, the absence of freedom are alien to you. Foreign-born citizens are here by choice. This choice affords a different perspective, a better, greater, deeper understanding, and a profound appreciation of what this country is, what this country has, what this country stands for, what it aspires to be. It is this basis of comparison that makes a newcomer want to be a good citizen, want to become a good American.
I simply cannot help but to give an intensely personal twist to my message to you.
I am a foreign-born American. I escaped from my country of birth after the Russians crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I came here alone, without a diploma, without a profession, without any money, without a piece of luggage. This country gave me the opportunity to study, to work, to assimilate, to be accepted, and to become a productive member of our society. I know what freedom means - because I experienced life without it.
I certainly don't take it for granted.
Some time ago someone asked me where I was born. I whimsically said: I was born in New York City, at the age of twenty. Don't laugh - that is the way I feel. I feel a deep gratitude toward the United States, admiration for its towering achievements, affection for its people. And now, as I stand before you, it is with humility that I call this flag, this land, this country my home. I hope that all of you, native born and adopted sons and daughters, feel the same way.
American democracy is the greatest social experiment in the history of mankind. It is the only, possibly the last hope of a better, more human, more humane future. Lead your life as if its very survival depended on you, because it does! It depends on every one of you, every one of us, to uphold its tenets, to obey rather than violate the laws, to contribute rather than abuse, to create instead of exploit, to build rather than destroy. You are a vital entity, a living cell in the organism of this country, so don't merely be alive - live! Live your life to the fullest of your natural gifts and attributes.
Learn - learn all you can, beyond your immediate personal or professional needs. Knowledge is the intellectual capital that pays dividends forever.
Listen - listen to others with ideas, listen to those who know more than you do, listen and learn, listen to learn.
Read - read for knowledge, read for pleasure, and enjoy the pleasure of reading.
Expand your horizons - travel. Travel at home, travel abroad. Travel with your eyes and mind open, to see how other people live, to have a better understanding of the world you live in, and a greater appreciation for the country you live in.
Conduct yourself according to the Ten Commandments - but not because Judeo-Christian ethics dictate it. You don't have to belong to any religion to understand that "thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not bear false witness against your fellow man" are universal standards of ethics that should speak to all of us, in all lands, independently and apart from all religions.
Be receptive to new ideas - without discarding time-tested values.
Be able to judge without being judgmental; have opinions without being opinionated; have dreams without becoming a dreamer; have a vision without becoming a visionary.
Be guided by facts - but have a set of beliefs too!
Believe in the nobility of character, the genius of the mind, the immortality of the soul, and the indomitability of the spirit. Above all: believe in yourself! Because only you hold the key to your own success, your own fulfillment, your own happiness. Try to become more than your parents and grandparents were before you. Encourage your children to scale greater heights than you have, help them to achieve more than you did.
My father never attended school. He worked from the time he was seven until his retirement at the age of seventy-nine. But he insisted that I should study, and took great pride in my becoming the first of his line to attend college and to graduate from a university. He wanted his son to have a better future.
You, at the dawn of your career - or perhaps a career change - each and every one of you, are a part of the future, because you will shape that future. You will facilitate, contribute, create and build - or you may hinder and detract, violate or destroy. The choice is yours! But you, all of you, new graduates, you are the future.
Use the time allotted to you wisely.
And as you reach and pass the midpoint in your life, the midpoint of your career, you should be able to look back on your accomplishments. Should anyone ask you: "What have you done with your life?" you ought to be able to point with pride: this, this, and this - and that too! You should strive to be if not the best, then the best you can be. Not everyone is gifted enough to become a super-achiever, but everybody has an optimum. Strive to attain what is optimum for you, and you will succeed.
You've got your head, your mind, your education, your diploma - now use them! You have even got this graduation address - as a bonus.
There will be no test, no quiz on this speech. It is a take-home exam. You will receive your grades in twenty, thirty, maybe forty years. You will then find out if you have passed or failed. And then, if you have earned a good grade in the course of life, pass on what you learned to another class of graduates.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share these thoughts with you.