|Penn Commencement 2013
May 21, 2013,
Volume 59, No. 33
<< Back to Baccalaureate/Commencement Index
Penn Commencement Address given on Monday, May 13, 2013 by Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the 47th Vice President of the United States.
A Chance to Write a New Chapter
Thank you. Thank you Provost Price. Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be with you today. Thank you all. Please be seated.
Madame President, the last time I was in Franklin Field, I was watching my oldest son before a crowd of hundreds play lightweight football against Harvard, and I believe they won. And as I was saying to my co-honorees today, this is a much cheaper way to get a degree, isn’t it?
Madame President, thank you, thank you for the honor. I have the dubious distinction of not having—well let me put it this way—there’ll be no U-Haul truck behind my casket. When I did my financial disclosure as Vice President the first time, the Washington Post said, “it’s probable no man has assumed the office of Vice President with fewer assets than Joe Biden.” I hope they were talking financial assets! Then there was all this discussion about why I had no money. I’ll tell you why I had no money: four years of Penn, three years of Syracuse, four years at Georgetown, three years at Yale, two years at Tulane, two years at Penn, and now a granddaughter at Penn. I was asked why I wore a Penn tie. My answer is “I earned it.”
Faculty, distinguished guests, parents, grandparents, friends, all graduates: congratulations, and special congratulations and thanks to those of you who are going to be commissioned in the United States Military today. You are about to join the finest group of warriors the world has ever seen. Ever, ever seen. My hat is off to you.
To all the parents, I offer you special congratulations today. Not only have your sons and daughters completed an education at what my daughter and my granddaughter and my son say is the finest university in America. Not sure how my son who went to Yale feels about that, but I happen to agree with my other son. Ladies and gentlemen, parents, you’re also about to get a pay raise, unless your child is going on to graduate school. As I indicated, two of my children have graduated from this great university, and my granddaughter who is here with me today, just finished her first year and survived pledging at Penn. So your pride is justified. Not only because it took an awful lot of hard work for all of you to get to this day, I promise you all of you graduates, it’s worth it.
I read the headlines today on the way up… the Associated Press has said “Biden to Offer Advice to Penn Graduates.” I have gained too much wisdom to offer any advice. I’ve been around too long to know that’s not useful. But I would like to make a couple of observations. No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate. Every graduating class faces unique challenges. Every class enters the history that up to this point has been written for you. But few enter at a point where they genuinely have a chance to write a new chapter, to bend history just a little bit. I would suggest your class has that chance, and I acknowledge it creates anxiety, probably more—and I mean this seriously—among your parents than you. I understand, because my generation faced the same kind of questions and uncertainties. All you have to do is look at the headlines. When I graduated in 1968, and now. And today you see headlines in the Washington Post, January 2, 2013 saying “The world is baffled by the ‘fiscal cliff,’ sees it as a sign of American decline.” The July after I graduated in ’68, the same publication declared, “Pollsters report decline in US standing abroad.” When you see the headlines in the Wall Street Journal of November this past year about “widespread fiscal and economic uncertainty,” I remember the headline in April of ’68, the same publication that said, “US in worst fiscal crisis since 1931.” My generation heard the same voices of doom and despair that your generation hears today. “American decline,” “America’s lost its way,” “whither America?” What those voices do not and did not understand is that in both instances—yours and mine—we graduated into a world that had changed: the world of William Butler Yeats. Writing about his Ireland in a poem called “Easter 1916,” he said, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
Old answers, the policies of the previous generation that has served my generation so well, have little applicability to the world into which I was graduating. On the eve of my graduation, Dr. King had been assassinated, the Vietnam War was raging, and in the shadow of my convocation, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Our political system was in chaos. But as we strode across that stage to receive our diplomas, to a person we were absolutely confident that the naysayers were wrong, and that there were significant possibilities available to us. We ended the war in Vietnam, we ended the nuclear stalemate, the Soviet Union secured civil rights, fundamentally altered women’s rights for the better, began an environmental movement that’s far from finished, ushered in an information age that shrunk the world beyond recognition and in the process lay the foundation for a period of technological innovation that generated the world’s strongest economy in the 70s, 80s and the 90s. Today, you’re all graduating into another world that has changed equally and profoundly. Different dangers and different possibilities. Climate change left unattended by people with whom I work, and I marvel at whether they got an education. I’m serious. To deny climate change today, as my brother Jim would say, “go figure.” International terrorism, stateless actors, pandemic disease, a political movement that can be organized from your cell phone, Twitter can literally unleash a revolution, and ground-breaking journalism can be transmitted around the world from your kitchen table. Today’s technology has transformed the way we interact with the rest of the world and among one another. There are more voices today than ever influencing governments and the course of events, so it should be no surprise why those who understand this world less well than you do feel uneasy.
But I’m not at all surprised by the confidence you all feel today as you graduate from this great University. You are so much better prepared and you’ve already begun to change things significantly, even before you’ve stepped off this field. Just look at what’s happened since you’ve entered college. The fundamental shift that’s taken place in America with regard to the LGBT community, fundamental—now an absolute majority of the American people are fully supportive of extending all rights to the LGBT community, including the right to choose who they marry. Eleven states have already moved on marriage equality. That’s you! On immigration, there is now overwhelming support among the American people to bring 11 million undocumented men, women and children out of the shadows, on the path to earn citizenship. And that’s all changed within the last four years. We’ve ended the war in Iraq and we will end the war in Afghanistan. And economically, we regained our footing. Today, we’re better positioned than any nation in the world to lead the 21st century. I love to hear people tell me—now to use the vernacular—“China’s going to eat our lunch.” China’s a great nation, and we should hope for the continued expansion, but ladies and gentlemen, their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have.
We have the best universities in the world, we have a legal system that is open and fair, we have the most agile venture capitalists in the world, we lead the world in innovation and technology, all for a simple basic reason. Steve Jobs, speaking at Stanford, was asked by a young man “how can I be more like you? How can I become like you?” Steve Jobs famously answered “think different.” You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy. And what you’ve learned at this great University and throughout this system is to challenge orthodoxy. That’s why today, our economy is still two and a half times bigger than any other in the world, our workers are three times as productive as any worker in the world, high-tech manufacturing is coming back to the United States and your generation has already joined the ranks of those who are leading the world in innovation and job creation.
We’re about to enter an era of breathtaking change and progress. We’re on the cusp of innovations that will literally change the world, and some of the people who I had the honor of being honored with today with degrees can tell you more about this than I can because they’re already changing the world we live in. A world where there’d be superconductors capable of performing a million trillion calculations per second, which is one-hundred times faster than any computer on Earth today. It will revolutionize science, medicine, applied technology. 3-D printers able to restore tissue after traumatic injury and restore skin damaged by fire to unblemished skin. The ability to regenerate organs and limbs that have been damaged or lost, saving tens of thousands of lives and restoring our wounded warriors to their full capabilities. The ability in the near term of being able to engineer your white blood cells to attack cancer tumors and leave healthy cells untouched, allowing cancer patients to live out their lives without undergoing difficult and painful chemotherapy and radiation procedures. The ability to sequence the entire human genome in under an hour, delivering rapid, personalized medicine. Prosthetic legs that are able to climb mountains, prosthetic arms able to play the piano. I’ve watched just in the last four years, visiting well over 1,500 amputees, the radical change that is taking place, restoring them to full capacity, and it’s only now just beginning.
An era when utilities will make as much money saving a kilowatt hour as generating a kilowatt hour. Electric vehicles, travelling 300 miles and filling up on electrons cheaper than gasoline. Strong, lightweight materials now used by NASA cheap enough to use in cars, trucks and wind machines. Solar energy as cheap as coal and natural gas, generations before the end of this decade. Microbes and nanotechnology lowering the cost and time required to clean waste by 50%. Real-time speech translation allowing you to talk with anyone in any language at any time. High-fidelity holographic video conferencing, dramatically reducing the need for air travel. Automatically precise manufacturing allowing us to create materials that are stronger than steel and a fraction of the weight. Self-driving automobiles reducing traffic fatalities by 80% while freeing up our commute time. A world in which hunger is vanquished by crops that don’t need soil, water, fertilizer, or pesticides to thrive.
I’m not making this up. The Office of Science & Technology, the President’s group—every President has a group of brilliant scientists, part of which are headed by your President, who come and advise us on those things that are just on the cusp. By the time you stand before your children graduating from this great University, much of what I said will already have happened. All these things are on the horizon, and all of it will not only change the way we live but will create millions upon millions of new, good-paying jobs. And you’re a part of it. In fact, you’re gonna build it. You will take advantage of it. So today, for all the uncertainty you may feel, never forget the future is within your control. Don’t listen to the cynics—that’s the only piece of advice I will give you and of which I am absolutely certain. They were wrong about my generation and they’re wrong about yours.
Graduates, there’s the statement of history, it’s never ever been a good bet to bet against America, and it’s a very bad bet to bet against your generation. You’re the most competent, capable, caring generation this country has ever produced, and I’m confident you’ll write a new and better chapter of American history. So have faith. Do what you feel in your heart. The possibilities are unlimited. I spent ten days with President Xi, the new president of China, at the request of then-President Hu and President Obama, to establish a personal relationship. Tip O’Neill made famous the expression, “all politics is local.” Far be it from me to improve upon my friend Tip O’Neill, but I think all politics is personal, including international politics. Ladies and gentlemen, I looked and listened to the questions he had to ask, and the interest he had. And the President asked me, what did I think after ten days, five in China and five here? And I said, he’s a strong, bright man, but he has the look of a man who’s about to take on a job he’s not at all sure is going to end well. I mean that seriously. We are so well-positioned, we are so well-positioned to lead the world in the 21st century, that we have to take advantage of it. And you—this is not hyperbole—you, all those receiving your graduate and undergraduate degrees today, are the people that are gonna make it possible. So I say to you, congratulations and very good luck, Class of 2013. Show us what you can do, because you will be able to do more and live through a period of change more rapid and exhilarating and exciting than any generation in the history of the world. I’m just happy I’m gonna be along for part of the ride. God bless you all and may God protect our troops.