End of the Beginning

 

 

An insistent west wind pulled the pennants taut above Franklin Field as the University conducted its 252nd Commencement exercises on May 19. After promenading down Locust Walk, over 6,000 graduates spilled into the stadium with hopes that no rain would test the colorfastness of their fluttering black gowns. In that respect, at least, fortune smiled upon the Class of 2008. Bands of sunshine and shadow swept across the infield all morning, and the ceremony ended just ahead of a light afternoon shower.

But even if that ending was what many of the newly degreed men and women had been celebrating since the night before, Penn President Amy Gutmann exhorted them not to use it as a rationale for disengaging from the social and civic pursuits that have occupied many of them as students.

“Something unprecedented in recent American history is happening, on this campus and across the country,” Gutmann declared after welcoming the crowd. “Yours is the first generation of young adults in over 40 years to turn on to civic action, tune in to public affairs, and turn out to mobilize and vote in huge numbers—and all without the threat of a military draft, which mobilized many of my generation.

“You’ve transformed Penn’s campus into an essential destination for presidential candidates,” she continued. “You’ve set new records for voter registration and voter turnout in this year’s presidential primary. You serve communities here at home and abroad in sustainable, replicable ways. I invite anyone who thinks that today’s young people cannot sustain their engagement to come to Penn and take a long, hard look at the evidence.”

Yet the drive and commitment on display throughout the University’s schools and centers must not end as this year’s class departs campus, Gutmann urged. “I can’t stop the cynics from stamping an early expiration date on your engagement. They predict that you and your generation will grow disillusioned and soon become disengaged by the inevitable disappointments of democracy. Only you can prove the cynics wrong. That won’t be easy.”

Emphasizing that social networks and civic participation carry personal rewards as well as societal ones, Gutmann implored the Class of 2008 to join groups and embrace interconnectedness if they want to leave the world “better and healthier than it is today.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sounded a similar theme in his keynote address—after becoming perhaps the first graduation speaker in history to follow a Benjamin Franklin quote with a few “immortal words” by the rap star Ludacris. But although the founder of Disturbing tha Peace Records may have predicted that “it’s all piña coladas … from here to the Bahamas,” New York’s chief executive advocated a slightly different set of ambitions for the future.

When Bloomberg signed on to speak at Penn’s Commencement ceremony, the rumor mill was awash in speculation that the renowned businessman and philanthropist was considering a bid for the U.S. presidency. He subsequently put an end to that talk, and used the rostrum at Franklin Field as part of a broader effort to “try to influence the country that my two daughters will inherit by speaking out as a concerned citizen, rather than a candidate.”

Observing that the upcoming presidential election may go down as one of the most important in American history, Bloomberg reminded the assembly that the duties of citizenship extend well past the ballot box. “It’s going to take all of us, together, standing up and demanding more from Congress and those who would lead our nation, demanding real change—not words, but deeds, and demanding real results, not next year, or after the next election, but now.”

Purposely echoing Ben Franklin’s list of “Thirteen Virtues to Live By,” Bloomberg offered his own “Four Values to Lead By” as a kind of template against which to judge those pursuing the nation’s highest office.

The first, he said, is independence—the lack of which is “paralyzing our federal government and causing our leaders to shy away from commonsense solutions.” 

The second is honesty—particularly the kind of intellectual honesty that has been under explicit federal attack in recent years. “Today, we see people at the highest levels of government manipulating the facts to fit their own agendas—especially when it comes to science. You can see it at work in the decisions to restrict federal funding for stem-cell research, or to refute proven methods that stop the scourge of AIDS here and around the world,” Bloomberg said. “We should never—never—stifle scientific investigation or ignore the facts for the sake of ideology or short-term political gain.

“There’s a saying I like,” he continued: “‘In God we trust. All others bring data.’”

Third on the mayor’s list was accountability. “In Washington, there’s no meaningful action—just talk of meeting goals in 2050 or 2070,” he said. “Do any of you graduates feel like putting off your goals for 30 or 40 years? I don’t think so.”

Finally, there is the value of innovation—which the mayor linked closely, in the American context, to immigration. “Every year, Congress shuts the door to hundreds of thousands of doctors, scientists, engineers, and artists from around the world who want to work here. It’s the greatest case of national self-sabotage and attempted suicide I can imagine. If our country’s future is going to be as great as our past, we have to start realizing that immigrants have always been—and always will be—one of our greatest economic and cultural assets.”

Then Bloomberg brought an end to the main event with a piece of straightforward advice about new beginnings. “Find something that teaches, humbles, and exhilarates you. And don’t despair if your career path doesn’t follow a straight line. Plenty of successful people are doing things that are radically different from where they started.”

And with that, the mayor of New York indulged in a campus tradition that clearly brought him a measure of exhilaration—or at least amusement. “A toast,” he proclaimed, “a toast to dear old Penn,” flicking a pair of crisped bread slices into the first few rows of the Class of 2008.—T.P.


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