Bono to Grads: Wield a “Blunt Instrument”—Your Diploma

Commencement | The last time Bono was on Franklin Field, in 1997, he emerged from a 40-foot-high revolving lemon for a concert with his rock band, U2.

On May 17, the Irish rock star and humanitarian appeared there again—this time wearing the medieval robes of an academic procession. As the speaker at the University’s 248th Commence-ment, he addressed graduating seniors and their families and friends with a jolt of irreverent humor and a serious message about the health and economic issues facing Africa.

“I don’t think there’s anything more unseemly than the sight of a rock star in academic robes,” he quipped, gazing through his pale blue sunglasses at the graduates in their colorful regalia, including a handful holding balloons that spelled out his name. “It’s a bit like when people put their King Charles spaniels in little tartan sweaters and hats. It’s not natural, and it doesn’t make the dog any smarter.”

He also professed some mystification at the honorary degree Penn had just bestowed upon him. “Doctor of Laws? All I can think about is the laws I’ve broken.”

Besides having a rock star for a graduation speaker, this year’s Commencement distinguished itself with a farewell from outgoing President Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04, the recipient of an honorary degree and a standing ovation. Rodin told the graduates that she felt four overwhelming emotions on this occasion: “Amazement at all this great University is accomplishing across so many fields of scholarly endeavor; gratitude to our faculty, staff, and alumni for supporting our shared vision to make Penn a truly great University and a powerful force for integrity, progress, and humane leadership in the world; admiration for our students, who don’t wait until they graduate to start making a positive difference in society; and sadness at saying good-bye. But my faith in you turns that sadness into hopefulness and joy.”

Rodin also noted that Penn’s graduation coincided with the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, “which, as the history books tell us, ended racial segregation in our public schools.

“Yet, all the courageous, hard work that went into winning that case was merely a prologue to the struggles and battles that have since ensued. Who could have foreseen, for example, that the spirit of the Brown ruling would be more faithfully and energetically pursued in the world of higher education, which has been strengthened beyond measure by its embrace of diversity?”

Half a century later, many public schools remain racially segregated, she noted, “underscoring the truth that documents carrying the full force of law—including your well-earned Penn degrees—don’t mean a thing if you fail to keep swinging into action on behalf of your ideals and values.

“I know you can change the world, because you have changed Penn as surely as Penn has changed you,” Rodin said. “And I am confident that many solutions to the world’s greatest challenges will have your fingerprints all over them, because, to borrow from William Wordsworth, your minds are well on their way to becoming ‘a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which [you] dwell.’”

Of all places on earth, Africa is the ultimate “proving ground” for equality, Bono said. He asserted that our indifference to disease and poverty on the continent make it impossible to “conclude that we actually consider Africans as our equals before God.”

He went on to describe his experience volunteering at a food station in Ethiopia soon after performing in Live AID, a hunger-relief concert held simultaneously in Philadelphia and London in 1985. One Ethiopian man pleaded with Bono and his wife to take his son back to America so the boy wouldn’t starve and could go to college.

“At that moment I become the worst scourge on God’s green Earth, a rock star with a cause,” Bono said. “Except it isn’t a cause. Seven thousand Africans dying every day of preventable, treatable diseases like AIDS? That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency.”

Though events like Live AID are important, “Africa needs justice as much as it needs charity,” said Bono, who founded Debt, AIDS Trade, Africa in 2002 to deal with the problems he saw. “Equality for Africa is a big expensive idea—I see the Wharton graduates [figuring] out the math on the back of their programs.” Because of the scale of the suffering, it’s possible to be numbed into indifference, he acknowledged. But we can make changes, such as lifting Africa’s debt burden.

“It might take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty,” Bono said. “It’s an expensive fact, but cheaper than the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from Communism and fascism. And cheaper, I would argue, than fighting wave after wave of terrorism’s new recruits.

“Whether it’s this or something else, I hope you’ll pick a fight and get in it,” he told the graduates. “Get your boots dirty, steel your courage with a final drink there at Smokey Joe’s, make one last primal scream, and go.

“The world is more malleable than you think, and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape,” he concluded. “That’s what this degree of yours is, a blunt instrument. So go forth and build something with it.” S.F.

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04


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