TOPICS: Commencements and Education
Saturday, June 4, 2005
Knox College Commencement
Good morning President Taylor, the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents,
family, friends, and the Class of 2005. Congratulations on your
graduation, and thank you for allowing me the honor to be a part
Well, it's been
about six months now since you sent me to Washington as your U.S.
Senator. And for those of you muttering under your breath "I
didn't send you anywhere," that's ok too - maybe we'll hold
a little Pumphandle after the ceremony and I can change your mind
for next time.
So far it's been
a fascinating journey. Each time I walk onto the Senate floor, I'm
reminded of the history, for good and for ill, that has been made
there. But there have also been a few surreal moments. For example,
I remember the day before I was sworn in, when we decided to hold
a press conference in our office. Now, here I am, 99th in seniority
- which, I was proud wasn't dead last until I found out that the
only reason we aren't 100th is because Illinois is bigger than Colorado.
So I'm 99th in seniority, and the reporters are all cramped into
our tiny transition office that was somewhere near the Janitor's
closet in the basement of the Dirksen Building. It's my first day
in the building, I hadn't taken one vote, I hadn't introduced one
bill, I hadn't even sat down at my desk, and this very earnest reporter
Obama, what's your place in history?"
I laughed out
loud. Place in history? I thought he was kidding! At that point,
I wasn't even sure the other Senators would save me a place at the
cool lunch table.
But as I was thinking
about what words I could share with this class, about what's next,
what's possible, and what opportunities lay ahead, I think it's
not a bad question to ask yourselves:
be my place in history?"
In other eras,
across distant lands, this is a question that could be answered
with relative ease and certainty. As a servant of Rome, you knew
you would spend your life forced to build somebody else's Empire.
As a peasant in 11th Century China, you knew that no matter how
hard you worked, the local warlord might take everything you had
- and that famine might come knocking on your door any day. As a
subject of King George, you knew that your freedom to worship and
speak and build your own life would be ultimately limited by the
And then, America
A place where
destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped
and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that,
against all odds, they could form "a more perfect union"
on this new frontier. And as people around the world began to hear
the tale of the lowly colonists who overthrew an Empire for the
sake of an idea, they came. Across the oceans and the ages, they
settled in Boston and Charleston, Chicago and St. Louis, Kalamazoo
and Galesburg, to try and build their own American Dream. This collective
dream moved forward imperfectly - it was scarred by our treatment
of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation
of women, shaken by war and depression. And yet, brick by brick,
rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, people kept dreaming,
and building, and working, and marching, and petitioning their government,
until they made America a land where the question of our place in
history is not answered for us, but by us.
Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail
when you embark on your own American journey? Surely. But the test
is not perfection.
The true test
of the American ideal is whether we are able to recognize our failings
and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether
we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether
we act to shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstance decides
life's big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where,
at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead,
and reach their dreams.
We have faced
this choice before.
At the end of
the Civil War, when farmers and their families began moving into
the cities to work in the big factories that were sprouting up all
across America, we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow the
captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the
economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wage
at the worst working conditions?
Or do we try to
make the system work by setting up basic rules for the market, and
instituting the first public schools, and busting up monopolies,
and letting workers organize into unions?
We chose to act,
and we rose together.
When the irrational
exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came crashing down with the stock
market, we had to decide: do we follow the call of leaders who would
do nothing, or the call of a leader who, perhaps because of his
physical paralysis, refused to accept political paralysis?
We chose to act
- regulating the market, putting people back to work, expanding
bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement
- and together we rose.
When World War
II required the most massive homefront mobilization in history and
we needed every single American to lend a hand, we had to decide:
Do we listen to the skeptics who told us it wasn't possible to produce
that many tanks and planes?
Or, did we build
Roosevelt's Arsenal of Democracy and grow our economy even further
by providing our returning heroes with a chance to go to college
and own their own home?
Again, we chose
to act, and again, we rose together.
Today, at the
beginning of this young century, we have to decide again. But this
time, it's your turn to choose.
Here in Galesburg,
you know what this new challenge is. You've seen it. You see it
when you drive by the old Maytag plant around lunchtime and no one
walks out anymore. I saw it during the campaign when I met the union
guys who use to work at the plant and now wonder what they're gonna
do at 55-years-old without a pension or health care; when I met
the man who's son needs a new liver but doesn't know if he can afford
when the kid gets to the top of the transplant list.
It's as if someone
changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered
to tell these people. And, in reality, the rules have changed. It
started with technology and automation that rendered entire occupations
obsolete -when was the last time anybody here stood in line for
the bank teller instead of going to the ATM, or talked to a switchboard
operator? Then companies like Maytag being able to pick up and move
their factories to some Third World country where workers are a
lot cheaper than they are in the U.S.
As Tom Friedman
points out in his new book, The World Is Flat, over the last decade
or so, these forces - technology and globalization - have combined
like never before. So that while most of us have been paying attention
to how much easier technology has made our lives - sending emails
on blackberries, surfing the web on our cell phones, instant messaging
with friends across the world - a quiet revolution has been breaking
down barriers and connecting the world's economies. Now, businesses
not only have the ability to move jobs wherever there's a factory,
but wherever there's an internet connection.
India and China realized this. They understood that now they need
not just be a source of cheap labor or cheap exports. They can compete
with us on a global scale. The one resource they still needed was
a skilled, educated labor force. So they started schooling their
kids earlier, longer, and with a greater emphasis on math, science,
and technology, until their most talented students realized they
don't have to immigrate to America to have a decent life - they
can stay right where they are.
The result? China
is graduating four times the number of engineers that the United
States is graduating. Not only are those Maytag employees competing
with Chinese and Indonesian and Mexican workers, now you are too.
Today, accounting firms are emailing your tax returns to workers
in India who will figure them out and send them back as fast as
any worker in Indiana could.
When you lose
your luggage in a Boston airport, tracking it down may involve a
call to an agent in Bangalore, who will find it by making a phone
call to Baltimore. Even the Associated Press has outsourced some
of their jobs to writers all over the world who can send in a story
with the click of a mouse. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair
has said, in this new economy, "talent is 21st century wealth."
If you've got the skills, you've got the education, and you have
the opportunity to upgrade and improve both, you'll be able to compete
and win anywhere. If not, the fall will be further and harder than
So what do we
do about this? How does America find our way in this new, global
economy? What will our place in history be?
Like so much of
the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there
are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this
as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund
on their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand
it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their
own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care,
education, and so forth.
they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has
been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman
for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require
much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health
care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck.
It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job
- life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child born into poverty
- pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting
because each of us believes that we will always be the winner in
life's lottery, that we will be Donald Trump, or at least that we
won't be the chump that he tells: "Your fired!"
But there a problem.
It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that
it has been government research and investment that made the railways
and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive
middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools
- that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance
has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market;
but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each
other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that
we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity
- that has produced our unrivaled political stability.
And so if we do
nothing in the face of globalization, more people will continue
to lose their health care. Fewer kids will be able to afford this
diploma you're about to receive.
like United won't be able to provide pensions for their employees.
And those Maytag workers will be joined in the unemployment line
by any worker whose skill can be bought and sold on the global market.
Today, I'm here to tell you what most of you already know. This
isn't us. This isn't how our story ends - not in this country. America
is a land of big dreamers and big hopes.
It is this hope
that has sustained us through revolution and civil war, depression
and world war, a struggle for civil and social rights and the brink
of nuclear crisis. And it is because of our dreamers that we have
emerged from each challenge more united, more prosperous, and more
admired than ever before.
So let's dream.
Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions,
let's imagine what we can do to give every American a fighting chance
in the 21st century.
What if we prepared
every child in America with the education and skills they need to
compete in this new economy? If we made sure college was affordable
for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers
and told them that there old job wasn't coming back, but that the
new jobs will be there because of the serious job re-training and
lifelong education that is waiting for them - the sorts of opportunities
Knox has created with the strong future scholarship program?
What if no matter
where you worked or how many times you switched jobs, you had health
care and a pension that stayed with you always, so that each of
us had the flexibility to move to a better job or start a new business?
And what if instead
of cutting budgets for research and development and science, we
fueled the genius and the innovation that will lead to the new jobs
and new industries of the future?
Right now, all
across America, there are amazing discoveries being made. If we
supported these discoveries on a national level, if we committed
ourselves to investing in these possibilities, just imagine what
it could do for a town like Galesburg. Ten or twenty years down
the road, that old Maytag plant could re-open its doors as an Ethanol
refinery that turns corn into fuel.
Down the street,
a biotechnology research lab could open that's on the cusp of discovering
a cure for cancer. And across the way, a new auto company could
be busy churning out electric cars. The new jobs created would be
filled by American workers trained with new skills and a world-class
None of this will
come easy. Every one of us will have to work more, read more, train
more, think more. We will have to slough off bad habits - like driving
gas guzzlers that weaken our ecomony and feed our enemies abroad.
Our kids will have to turn off the TV sets and put away the video
games and start hitting the books. We will have to reform institutions,
like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time.
Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities,
even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend
the old programs.
It won't be easy,
but it can be done. It can be our future. We have the talent and
the resources and the brainpower. But now we need the political
will. We need a national commitment.
And we need you.
Now, no one can
force you to meet these challenges. If you want, it will be pretty
easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to
towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face. There is no community
service requirement in the real world; no one's forcing you to care.
You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after
the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that
our money culture says you can buy.
But I hope you
don't. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty
of ambition. It asks to little of yourself. You need to take up
the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own,
not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate,
although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt
to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you
do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who
are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. You need
to take on the challenge because you have an obligation to yourself.
Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.
Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger
than yourself that you will realize your true potential. And if
we're willing to share the risks and the rewards this new century
offers, it will be a victory for each of you, and for every American.
how you'll do this. The challenges are so big. And it's seems so
difficult for one person to make a difference.
But we know it
can be done. Because where you're sitting, in this very place, in
this town, it's happened before.
Nearly two centuries
ago, before civil rights and voting rights, before Abraham Lincoln
and the Civil War, before all of that, America was stained with
the sin of slavery. In the sweltering heat of southern plantations,
men and women who looked like me would dream of the day they could
escape the life of pain and servitude into which they were sold
like cattle. And yet, year after year, as this moral cancer ate
away at the American ideals of liberty and equality, the nation
But its people
would not stay silent for long.
One by one, abolitionists
emerged to tell their fellow Americans that this would not be our
place in history. That this was not the America that had captured
the imagination of so many around the world.
they met was fierce, and some paid with their lives. But they would
not be deterred, and they soon spread out across the country to
fight for their cause. One man from New York went west, all the
way to the prairies of Illinois to start a colony.
And here in Galesburg,
freedom found a home.
Here in Galesburg,
the main depot for the Underground Railroad in Illinois, escaped
slaves could freely roam the streets and take shelter in people's
homes. And when their masters or the police would come for them,
the people of this town would help the escape north, some literally
carrying them in their arms.
Think about the
risks that involved - if they were caught abetting these fugitives,
they could have been jailed or lynched. It would have been so easy
for these simple towns people to just turn the other way; to go
on living their lives in a private peace.
And yet, they
carried them. Why?
Perhaps it is
because they knew that they were all Americans; that they were all
brothers and sisters; and in the end, their own salvation would
be forever linked to the salvation of this land they called home.
The same reason
that a century later, young men and women your age would take a
Freedom Ride down south, to work for the Civil Rights movement.
The same reason that black women across the south chose to walk
instead of ride the bus after a long days work doing other people's
laundry, cleaning other people's kitchens.
Today, on this
day of possibility, we stand in the shadow of a lanky, raw-boned
man with little formal education who once took the stage at Old
Main and told the nation that if anyone did not believe the American
principles of freedom and equality were timeless and all-inclusive,
they should go rip that page out of the Declaration of Independence.
My hope for all
of you is that you leave here today with the will to keep these
principles alive in your own life and the life of this country.
They will be tested by the challenges of this new century, and at
times we may fail to live up to them. But know that you have it
within your power to try. That generations who have come before
you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time.
And that though our labor, and God's providence, and our willingness
to shoulder each other's burdens, America will continue on its precious
journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day.
Thank you, and
congratulations on your graduation.