Commencement Address 2006
Phillip Shaw Paludan
May 13, 2006
Prairie Capital Convention Center, Springfield, Illinois
Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2006 and to the families and friends who made this day possible.
We are participating in a ceremony that goes back about 800 years. Masters and students in robes gathering to certify to the larger world that the students are ready for responsibility. Eight hundred years is a long time to keep up a ritual – why do we keep on doing that – and in robes? Why robes? Traditionally, only three groups wear robes to perform their duties: ministers, judges and academics. I think they do so to remind themselves, as well as their audiences and clients, that they are engaged in serious and abiding things. I would hope that these robes would help you and all of us remember the responsibility to serve values that abide and matter even as we move day by day in our jobs and our recreations.
I think one reason we keep on repeating this ritual is that we recognize the importance of the past in making sense of the future. No new generation goes forward alone. Part of the educational process, the most important part, I’d say, is to link you to the past, to ways that great men and women thought and acted, and to the ways that ordinary people survived and made their world what it was. Education should teach not only how to do a job but how to live your life as individuals and as citizens of a challenging world. You should have learned not only what’s new, but also the news that stays news – humanity’s response to life and death and love and god and suffering and triumph.
That’s the education we celebrate here and we celebrate in robes.
Everyone remembers their graduation, if not the words said by speakers. I remember in particular two statements made at graduations. The first is from a story about Winston Churchill. He was invited to give a commencement address. The person who introduced him went on and on about his accomplishments – this was Winston Churchill, after all. Finally, Churchill walked to the podium and looked out over the crowd and said. “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” and turned around walked back to his seat and sat down. That’s not a bad commencement speech. [But this one goes on a bit longer.]
The other statement I remember personally. It was made at the University of Kansas in the early 1980s. Dennis “Boog” Highberger spoke; he was president of the student body. I don’t remember much about the whole speech but Boog concluded by repeating a Navaho saying – also three times: “Try to understand things; try to be good to each other. Try to understand things, try to be good to each other. Try to understand things, try to be good to each other.” Maybe I’m a little slow: I need to have things repeated, but I never forgot those words, or haven’t yet.
Those two phrases are memorable – things we might learn by heart and repeat often. But they feel a little contradictory. “Never give up” seems to speak of a battle, a struggle where you get to the top no matter the obstacle, no matter who or what is in your way. Understanding things and being good to each other has a softer tone-it says the game is not for you alone – it matters how you play, and what you learn along the way and who else will be affected by what you do.
Can we reconcile the two ideas, these two admonitions? One way we do that is to see if we can find that harmony in a person we admire. You should be ready to do that. One of the reasons for an education is so that you will know a good person when you see one. No surprise that the person I’d pick would be Abraham Lincoln. I hope that the name might occur to you also. So let’s look into Lincoln’s life to reconcile the need never to give up and the need to try to understand things and to try to be good to each other.
Lincoln’s life was full of struggle. He began with the backbreaking life of a subsistence farmer, and then he moved to a town and then a city to find a new way of life. To help him move up he read every book he could touch, he memorized speeches, parts of the Bible, long sections of Shakespeare-he got in touch with the news that stays news. He taught himself how to be a surveyor, and then he studied geometry to learn to think logically. He became a storekeeper and then failed in the business, but spent years paying off his debts, calling it his “national debt.” And he began to study law and read it by the hour, day and month until he became one of the most successful lawyers in Illinois. All the time he was running for office – starting at age 23. Occasionally he lost, but he got up and ran again and again and won, until he reached his highest goal.
As president, Lincoln continued his efforts: worked 15-hour days, years with no letup, feeling the pain of knowing that he could stop the war if he wanted to, but believing that a Union saved and a nation without slavery were worthy, if bloody, prizes. And finally the war was won: 4 million slaves freed, a nation held together – able to meet the challenges of wars to come in the 20th century against tyrants around the world. A nation with its faith in the democratic process sealed, secured.
At such a moment the temptation was strong to celebrate the triumph of northern righteousness, to see Lincoln’s, and the North’s, persistence blessed with victory. As he had said before the war, “Let us have faith that right makes might.” After four years fought to the last desperate inch, northern might had prevailed; it was easy to believe that its cause was right. I’m convinced that that cause was right. But by the time the war had ended Lincoln had moved beyond simply celebrating the hard-won victory of northern righteousness.
His persistence was surely an indispensable quality, in that victory. But beside it were other qualities: He tried to understand what the war meant. And at the same time he sought to establish an environment where caring replaced killing, where humility replaced sectional egotism. He did that by treating his opponents not as enemies, but as people caught in a web of circumstances woven by forces that transcended easy understanding. That made triumphalism untenable, if not sinful.
While he fought the war he never claimed that the enemy was evil, that the people of the white South were an evil empire or that their leaders were bad people. He never claimed that only the North was on God’s side. Slavery was evil, but northerners had once sailed the slave ships into southern harbors; racism thrived both above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Both North and South were implicated in the sin of slavery.
Lincoln had opponents behind the lines, too, but he challenged them with civil language, avoiding the name calling and the polarizing rhetoric that we have become too familiar with. He seldom took political opposition personally, rarely acted as if opponents were attacking him when they attacked his policies. That didn’t mean that he relented in seeking his goals; it meant he could respect others and still persist. The goal he kept going after was ending slavery and saving the union. But he recognized the need to try to do so in a spirit of humility, not self-righteousness. “I shall do nothing out of malice,” he said. “What I deal in is too vast for malicious dealing.” Lincoln was saying here, I believe, that it was not always clear what God wanted, but advancing toward the good that God seemed to want with humility, trying to understand things, trying to be good to each other, was a goal worth pursuing. Never giving up on the goal, but also never giving up the sense of charity, recognizing that we’re all in this together – involved in, and responsible for, something larger than ourselves.
I hope that, with the preparation you now have, you are ready to seek some worthy goal and that you seek it persistently but humbly. Never give up. Try to understand things. Try to be good to each other.
Again, my congratulations.