U-M sealUniversity of Michigan
Spring Commencement Main Address
April 29, 2000          Michigan Stadium

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author David Halberstam


Fellow classmates:

First some housekeeping. At my own college graduation exactly 45 years ago, our speaker was Konrad Adenauer the chancellor of West Germany. He had clearly wanted to come to America for a very long time. It was very hot and he was very old—his nickname was der Alte, the old man—and he had a lot to say and he spoke very slowly. In fact, he spoke very slowly in German. In addition his words had to be translated into English and the translator obviously enjoyed his moment in the limelight and translated at what I would call a languorous pace. So I will be brief—20 minutes, I hope and with luck there will be no need for President Bollinger to translate into English.

For those of you who have not exactly prospered academically let me give you with a second bit of good news—you are being addressed by someone who was in the bottom half of his class at Harvard. Or, in fact, if you want to be didactic about it, the bottom third of his class. So there is life after college. I'm proof of it. And so might I add was Henry Ford II, the grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, who went off to Yale in the late Thirties where he proved to be a devoted playboy but regrettably, an indifferent student. In time with a critical paper due in an English course, he paid a classmate to write the paper for him, was caught in the act, and was unceremoniously bounced from Yale without his degree. Still the future was not that bleak for him, he managed to get a job after college—with the Ford Motor Company of course, he was wise enough not to change his name, and he soon rose to the top, becoming in almost record time, the President of the company, and thereby one of the most powerful and richest industrialists in the country. Much later, a somewhat rueful Yale, always on the lookout for a new building or two&#$151;the Henry Ford School of Business Administration perhaps—invited him back for an honorary degree. That day Henry Ford stood, held up his beautifully written speech, looked at the assembled Yale officials, waved the speech in front of them and said, "And I didn't write this one either"

I wrote this one. A graduation speech is a part of the rites of passage—the platitudes of June, Emily Dickinson once called them. As a commencement speaker I am supposed to do what our parents, your most cherished faculty members and other people crucial to your lives have failed to do in the previous 22 years, set you on a course of happiness and prosperity and away from a life of indolence and crime. All in under 20 minutes. So consider yourself warned.

What an extraordinary moment for you, receiving your degrees at the start of a new century, and the new millennium—the country as well as you starting out with a clean slate. There is nothing before you but the future and rarely for young talented, educated Americans has the future seemed so promising. For you receive your degrees at an uncommon moment, a rare moment of peace and prosperity: even the Cold War is over, America stands alone as a superpower, and there is a rare sense of new economic possibilities—bringing with it not just promise of greater economic riches, but ever greater social and cultural possibilities.

Rarely has the future seemed so bright. The other day there was a cartoon in the New Yorker which I loved. It showed the front page of a newspaper called the Daily Bugle, and the top headline in giant type blared out, "$165 billion" And under it, it said, "Huge Amount of Money." And under that was written: "No doubt about it." Under that and lower on the front page was a slightly smaller headline: "$80 Billion." And the subhead: "Not as impressive as it once was." And then an even smaller one which said: "$5 Billion" and under it, "Yawn," and so forth until at the very bottom of the page it said "$100 million," and under it, "Nobody Cares." So these are in general, good optimistic times, the dawn of a new age in technology with all kinds of great possibilities for you.

The truth today, which I suspect you already know, is that you are among the fortunate of the world. Let me correct that—the very fortunate of the world. You have been given a priceless education at an exciting time when an entirely new kind of economy beckons, and so you are uniquely advantaged. An education like yours from a school as distinguished as Michigan sets you apart not merely from most of your fellow Americans, but from most of the people on this planet. You, the young men and women of the dot com and cell phone and e-mail age, live at a time when education more than ever before is an economic advantage, when brains rather than muscularity drive the economy. America, the country which most of you are fortunate enough to inhabit, is not merely a military superpower, and a political superpower, and an economic superpower, but perhaps at this moment, most critical of all, it is an educational superpower. This more than any thing else may be the source of our strength in the coming century, the one quality which makes our national strength so renewable, and makes us so much a beacon to the ambitious of the rest of the world—America, a special place where ordinary people can transform themselves into extraordinary people.

Let me at this moment pay special tribute to this university and the great state universities like it in America, for this is what sets us apart from so many other countries in the world, this is what makes our economic strength so exceptional, and gives us our remarkable social fluidity. It is Michigan and other great land grant universities like it—well perhaps not quite as great as Ann Arbor—which represent something relatively new in the world, the idea of a great education to be conferred not just on the children of the elite, not just on the children of the wealthy, not just on the children of those who have already gone there, but on the deserving talented sons and daughters of ordinary working people, with of course, a great deal of the cost to be born by the state, and by that I do not mean the federal government, but by the taxpayers of Michigan. The men and women who envisioned this great university in this century did not envision a normal school—a place to train some teachers and some agricultural experts and some mining engineers—that is, a place to train functionaries for business. They wanted something better, a great university which would enrich and ennoble people. If any stranger, any foreigners who are puzzled about America, about why what our secret strength is, and why we seem so vibrant and resilient a society, so perpetually young and hopeful, I have a suggestion of two places for them to visit—first let them go to Ellis Island and sense the importance of our immigration policy, and then let them come to Ann Arbor.

For I believe it is the land grant universities like this which set us apart as a nation. Every country after all has its great elite schools, its Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, Sorbonne and Ecole Polytechnique, designed originally to make sure that the children of those running the nation will themselves one day also run the nation; what sets us apart is the concept of distinguished land grant colleges, here, Madison, Champaign Urbana, not just good schools, but great schools, with faculties that can rival those of any private university in the world. And that came to pass here in the last century, particularly at mid century when the land grant concept and the idea of the G.I. Bill were married up—social engineering I guess you could call it—creating a university so great and dynamic and meritocratic, that it forced our elite private colleges until then by their very nature a good deal more oligarchic, to be more meritocratic, less they be quickly passed over by schools like this. The nation thanks you—you helped get them up to speed.

I would like you to think of this great university and the degree you receive today as representing a hope in the as yet unborn. And I hope you will remember this when you become older and are faced with questions of education and public policy and validating for others a comparably great education as the one you have received, an education which will perhaps be bestowed on the children of people whom you do not know and who are perhaps newer to America than you, and whose immigrant parents come from places that seem terribly alien to you. By saying a hope in the unborn, that I refer to the decisions of which you are the beneficiaries, decisions made much earlier in this century by the part of the architects of this school and others, that it should have a faculty second to none, and that it should be open for the children of people whom they would never know. They were quite practical men—they assumed that there would be an immense economic benefit to educating as many people as high a level as possible--and they believed as well, for there is an idealism built into their concept, that it elevated every one in the process—in fact that it ennobled those who were a part of it. And that it does. Just look around you.

For it is critical to something which we now almost take for granted, the ascent to the good life in this country, and it critical to something that I believe still sets apart from other societies, a belief that for all our flaws and failures, and myriad short comings, that we in America more than any other society, give ordinary citizens a chance to reach their fullest potential.

I speak of more than economic advantage of course. For you have been part of a rare academic community where the intellectual process is valued not just for what it can do for you economically, but as an end in itself. Learning is not just a tool to bring you a better income; learning is an ongoing never ending process designed to bring you a fuller and richer life, to help you understand the people around you, the world around you, the events around you—and to help you understand among other complex organisms, yourself.

You are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest but the freest society in the world. In this country as in no other that I know of ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams, and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. We have the right to choose: to choose if we so want, any profession, a venue to live and work in, any name. As much as any thing else this is what separates us from the old world, the old world across the Atlantic and the old world across the Pacific, where people often seemed to be doomed to a fate and a status determined even before their birth. We have the words of the great physicist I. I. Rabi to remind us of that special freedom, of the privilege which comes with choice. When he received the Nobel Prize, Rabi was asked by a journalist what he thought: I think he said, that if I had lived in the old country I would have been a tailor.

I do not think the stunning success of this society took place by happenstance. Both by chance—and by choice—I have become something of a historian of the second half of the twentieth century. I graduated from high school in 1951, and from college in 1955, and my professional career, throughout the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam took me through the stormiest years of much of the last 50 years. And if there is one great truth which categorizes that period in America it is that this nation has systematically become more and more inclusionary in race, gender and ethnicity—that we have made a constant and increasingly successful effort to make the playing field as level as possible, and to open doors once firmly closed.

When the question of inclusion or exclusion, one of the most basic to the concept of a state, has arisen over the years—when the status quote has been challenged—not every one has been in accord with the premise of a more inclusionary society, whether in sports, in the military or in the economy. There have always been doubters and they were always convinced, that the old ways were the best, that this impulse to open America up, much of it court-driven would somehow weaken us, that newer Americans were not as worthy as old and that the different groups hungering for a fairer share of the good life were not as worthy as those who had held power before them.

I am old enough to remember when a great many influential Americans were absolutely convinced that Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays would fail in the great arena of sports, and that our military would be significantly weakened by the integration of the armed force. You might like to wonder that when you think of Michael Jordan or Colin Powell, and their respective brilliant careers. These doubters, those who favored the status quo (in many cases it should be noted, because it favored them) also believed that the descendants of slavery who had worked so hard for so little for so long and who had been voiceless in our society for so long would somehow weaken our economy, if given a fair place in it.

The truth is, not surprisingly, that this effort to be inclusionary has made us in all ways a better, fairer and stronger society. And as for the economy being weakened by being more inclusionary I should mention to you that the year that I graduated from high school, 1951, the Dow stood at 250. Yes, that's right, 250.

I believe that this great American ideal, to be more just, to be more inclusionary, to offer to the children of others the educational possibility we would want for our own children, has given us not just strength but much of our common purpose. We still believe that we can improve ourselves and make this a better and more complete nation: we may argue with each other about the rules in the social contract, we can dispute each other's arguments, we are often cantankerous. But slowly steadily we are on our way to becoming the world's first universal culture. No wonder then that our popular culture has such power throughout the world—it is something that people all over the world can understand.

And now on to the mandatory part of the speech—words of direction from the young to the old—the requisite geezer wisdom. In the few minutes remaining to us I would like to talk briefly about the uses of the uncommon degree of personal freedom which we celebrate today. For your education greatly adds to one of the most elemental American rights—one which we often take for granted, but which does not so readily exist elsewhere—the freedom to make choices in life, a freedom often missing for those less privileged educationally. So what do you do with all that freedom? Freedom after all does not come without burden and without responsibility—for if we make the wrong choices, we have no one to blame save ourselves. We cannot rant against an authoritarian government which deprived us of our rightful possibilities.

So how do we handle the burden of being responsible for our destinies? For you are at the threshold of one of the most important choices that most of you will make in you lives, the choice of your careers. We have after all in this country an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Notice that wording, for we are not guaranteed happiness—merely the pursuit of it. Notice, as well that the wise people who authored that phrase did not say pursuit of wealth," for the pursuit of happiness and pursuit of wealth are by no means the same thing, nor do they by any stretch of the imagination generate the same inner sense of contentment, and personal validity.

This is a critical decision for you. For other than the choice of a lifetime partner, nothing determines happiness so much as choosing the right kind of work. It is a choice about what is good for you, not what is good for others whom you greatly respect, your parents, an admired professor, your friends, a significant other, whom you suspect may be dazzled by a greater or loftier choice of profession. The choice is not about what makes them happy, but about what makes you happy. Not what seems to show that you are successful by the exterior standards of the society. Not what brings you the biggest salary—particularly in the beginning when those things seem so important—and the biggest house, or the greatest respect from Wall Street, but what makes you feel complete and happy and makes you feel, for this is no small thing, like part of something larger than yourself, a part of a community.

So the choices for you out there are not simple. It is, for example, possible to be immensely successful in your chosen field, and yet in some curious way to fail at life, to get to the top and yet fail to enrich yourself. A few years ago my colleague Russell Baker, the distinguished New York Times columnist and humorist was asked by the Times in-house magazine to write a piece about a colleague who had just been promoted to a powerful new position. Baker went to see his own great mentor James Reston, then the Times bureau chief. He mentioned the colleague's name to Reston. "Tell me about his life," Baker asked Reston. "That's not a life—that's a career," Reston said with great disdain. He meant that the colleague had at once done everything right, but had somehow missed the point of what he had done; he had covered the requisite big stories, had made the front page the requisite number of times, but he had in some way failed in the elemental human involvement so necessary for real pleasure in this career. He won all the prizes save the real ones, the friendships and all the fun that are at the core of what we do.

So how can one tell the difference between a life and a career, between the authentic and the inauthentic? How do you seek out a life when so many others tell you to have a career.

There is no sure plan to it. There is no clear path for any of us, you cannot simply sit down upon graduation and chart your career, come up with some fool-proof mathematical graph, and have it work out on schedule: such and such a title and salary by 30, an even bigger title and salary by 35. Etc. It doesn't quite work out that way. Let me suggest that by now you should know something about your inner self, what is fun, what you're good at and what makes you feel good about yourself. And I am suggesting as well that that often has very little to do with the society's external reward system.

Let me give you an illustration. I recently went back to the college from which I graduated and visited the undergraduate newspaper, and I visited with a few of the graduating student editors. A number of them wanted to be reporters but two of them had already decided to go to work for a consulting firm which was going to pay them around $85,000 a year, about three times the beginning, salary for reporters. Leaving aside the bizarre question of why anyone 22 or 23 years old should be going around consulting and giving advice about anything to anyone else, I had a sense that they did not particularly want to consult, but this was the best offer and seemed to connect them to something from which I and most of my generation were luckily spared, the dreaded fast track. And I who had headed off after my own graduation to the smallest daily newspaper in the state of Mississippi for the grand total of $46 a week asked them, "Did it ever occur to you that the salary you are being offered reflects the fact that this is a choice you might not make were it not for the size of the salary? And that in some way that you do not yet entirely comprehend, you are being manipulated." So perhaps there is a rule or a law of some sort here—if you are at too young an age being offered too heady or large a reward, perhaps it is not being offered with your best long term interest in mind.

So try and use your lives wisely, and try and make choices—even in our professional lives—that are of the heart. Do not be too readily caught in the material snare of this society. If you want to be a botanist, poet, actor, teacher or nurse, if that is what your heart tells you to do, do not go to law school or some other graduate school on the theory that it is a great ticket, and that it will get you to a higher level in the society, that you'll make some money for a while, and then you can go on and do the things that you really wanted to do in the first place.

It doesn't work that way. You will, I suspect find it surprisingly hard to escape the life you have chosen and go back to the career you originally intended. For you will almost surely become a prisoner of a lifestyle that you did not particularly seek out in the first place: an ever larger house, a fancier car, a more luxurious vacation.

Do not be afraid to make some mistakes when you are young. Do not be afraid to try and fail early in your life. We often stumble towards the things we will end up doing best; Do not be afraid to take chances when you are young, to choose the unconventional over the conventional. Often it is experience in the unconventional which prepares you best for the conventional. Be aware that it's all right to make mistakes, and it is all right to try at something and fail. The price of failure when you are young is much lower than when you are older. I suspect that you in the audience may look at us upon the stage and see people who seem like we have always succeeded, men and women who have led professionally flawless lives. Would that it were true. What you do not see is our own anxieties, not just when we were your age, but throughout our careers, when again and again—in our own minds—we seemed to be on the edge of some new failure.

You do not see me, at the moment a few days short of my 22 birthday when the editor of that small daily in Mississippi came to me and told me it was time for me to leave, that in fact he would pay me for that last day and that he wanted me to be gone from the office and from the town by the next morning. He had already hired my successor who was scheduled to show up the next afternoon and he did not think it a good idea if we overlapped. Fired as it were from the smallest daily in Mississippi after less than a year. What an auspicious start to a career.

In all things in life, choose your conscience and trust your instincts and lead your lives without regrets. It's simply easier that way. I mention that because life under the best circumstances, even if you're lucky, as I have been to choose the right profession, is very hard. First you have to choose the right profession—and then you have to work hard for the rest of your lives to sustain yourself in this choice which you happen to love. As the noted philosopher, basketball player and sports commentator Julius Erving—Dr J—once said, "Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days when you don't feel like doing them."

So I congratulate you, my classmates. I ask you to choose wisely in the days ahead, trust your heart, stay off the fastrack, and live happy and full lives. Thank you very much for having me here and letting me share this day of celebration with you. All Hail to Michigan—the champion of the West



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