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Heard at Commencement 2010 Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 17 May 2010

Dear Class of 2010, I come before you today in some trepidation. . . . Sorry, let’s start that again. (Your president warned me not to use big words.) I’m nervous about having to give you advice as you go out into the world. I once heard a graduation speaker, poor man, say that he believed it was good to be “many-minded” like Shakespeare (an English writer who lived a long time ago), but he also thought it was “a gift to be simple” (reference unclear). And he couldn’t decide which was better. I wanted to jump up and say: complex is good for what’s complicated, and simple is for the basics. But you shouldn’t interrupt a commencement speaker. As you know. I hope.

He also praised diversity and commended the university for being so open. If you’ve never really gotten the diversity thing, let me put it colloquially – uh, in simple terms. Think of it like a rap lyric: “We’re the university/ of our own diversity.” As you go home to your families, you may notice that there are many very different ideas and people out there than you’ve encountered on campus. And they don’t qualify, officially, as diverse. Don’t let this confuse you. I visit a lot of colleges and I’m struck by how much progress we have made in standardizing diversity. There used to be diversity of institutions: strict religious colleges, proud regional institutions, offbeat liberal arts and artsy schools. If you can believe it, they didn’t have diversity officers back then. And they didn’t report to government offices about diversity programs.

Of course, the government didn’t pay universities and offer large student loans back then either. And the universities would have protested violently if the government dictated the kinds of students or programs the schools should include. All that is mostly gone now, since government and universities formed a mutually beneficial partnership. You can see the results in some very simple statistics. In the past twenty-five years, the cost of a college education has grown four-and-a-half times the rate of inflation. Even healthcare only increased 250 percent. Our government has contributed to explosive economic growth in both sectors. The president has just reformed health care and is now talking about making college more affordable – which should also help make it more diverse, too, which is really what education’s all about.

Universities used to have this odd idea that their mission was universal knowledge, as if there were one truth, or something. Maybe that was because universities were originally founded by the Catholic Church, which I’m sure you learned in your classes thinks it knows it all. We’ve gotten rid of that medieval narrowness thanks to modern, enlightened government partnerships. No institution of higher learning today will ever think it’s independent of government-mandated diversity and openness again.

A case in point: A Catholic university in Wisconsin just decided not to hire a lesbian dean, but carefully explained it was not because she is a lesbian, since that would violate federal guidelines and jeopardize funding. We’ve made things like that the rule. Even the schools themselves are now mostly on our side.

But this is your day. Let’s talk about your personal role in the future. Progress does not come cheap. You know the old joke: going to college shows how you can go broke by degrees. Yeah, that’s a good one, heh? You’ve got loans coming due. And as the saying goes: From those whom much has been given, much is expected –

– What? –

– Oh, my mistake. –

I’m told I just made a sectarian religious reference in a public event, for which I am deeply sorry. Please don’t hold this fine institution responsible. It was an unconscious slip, I don’t really think in those terms anymore.

Let’s put that differently. It’s only fair that we all pay our share. The government expects everyone to be responsible and has made quite clear what responsibility means. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s quite reasonable. Finding jobs in this economy won’t be easy. But you are the best educated, really the most wonderful young people ever, as you know. And the country and the world need you – and your contributions to ongoing efforts to provide poor relief, social security, and health services at home – to say nothing of education for those coming after you. Your contributions in these areas will be unprecedented, according to Congressional Budget Office projections.

And on a global scale, the possibilities are literally endless. You will make a difference by your labors, not only for the poor in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but even in the developed world, including that birthplace of democracy, Greece. We all owe Greece so much that we cannot fail to show the descendants of Plato, Aristotle, and Sophocles our deep, abiding debt to them. . . .

Hunh? . . . They were ancient writers. . . . Let’s talk after.

There are those who will tell you that it is unfair to make you pay for the lavish benefits of others. That it is unjust for one generation to saddle you with its debts, in advance, and without even asking your permission. That it is somehow servile to give all these functions to the state, probably forever, and not to count the cost. (Oops.) Some who say this even compare themselves to our revolutionary forbears who threw tea into Boston Harbor rather than to allow unfair taxes on a free citizenry.

Do not listen to these stingy and retrograde voices. Class of 2010, you are entering a braver, newer world than ever existed. Proudly assume your responsibilities within it and do not become discouraged even if the contributions demanded of you never cease to grow. Remember instead the words of that young and charismatic leader who – if memory serves – once said: “Ask not what the government can do for you, but what you can do for your government.”

 

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is

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