Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Thank you, Richard, for that generous introduction, and I commend you for your impressive leadership as President of the College. It’s great to be with a President I agree with.
Over the past seven years, the students, faculty and staff, the Greater Springfield community and the entire Commonwealth, have all benefited from your leadership and your vision for the future.
I’m grateful to the Class of 2006 for inviting me to be a part of this commencement, and I’m very grateful for this honorary degree. I congratulate each of the new graduates and your families. Your good work and many sacrifices have made this day possible, and you deserve great credit.
My brother Jack spoke at the commencement here 50 years ago, about to the day. He emphasized in 1956 that our country was, he said, “embarking on a path to change.” He was speaking during a time of dramatic transformation that would redefine how Americans saw each other and themselves. Television sets were selling at a rate of 7 million a year, making us all eye-witnesses to history and expanding our common heritage in ways unimagined at the time. The Federal Government at the time was about to embark on what the Secretary of Commerce called “the greatest public works program in the history of the world” – an interstate highway system with 43,000 miles of new highways. Jonas Salk had just discovered the vaccine that ended the scourge of polio. IBM had introduced a computer that could play checkers and perform 230,000 operations a second.
In a sense, that’s the story of America – change and progress – and I’m sure even Jack would be amazed at the massive transformation we’re seeing all around us today. Miracles of medicine seem to be coming once a week instead of once a generation. Instead of building highways for people and products to travel throughout our country, we’re building an information superhighway to move ideas instantly around the world. Computers can now perform a million times more operations per second than the IBM horse and buggy model of 1956. The seed of the idea that technology could evolve to meet the changing needs of society was planted firmly in the 1950’s, but it’s in fuller bloom than ever today.
These revolutions aren’t just happening here. They are transforming the world and allowing peoples to communicate and share ideas instantly, regardless of nationality, race, income, or education.
As in any era, the changes and advances have not all been positive. For many citizens, the American dream is in danger, with global forces causing the economy to shift against them. It’s as true here in Springfield as it is in the rest of the nation. The Pioneer Valley has endured substantial hardships in recent years. But we have a great deal to be proud of, and an obligation to make sure that our strengths are widely known. And one of those great strengths is this wonderful institution that you graduate from today.
As we face these new challenges, we have a choice. We can be driven by the harsh winds of the global economy. Or we can think anew, and guide the currents of globalization with a new vision that strengthens America and equips our people to meet the future with confidence. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Springfield College Commencement of 1964 he said, “I would like to suggest that we are challenged more than ever before to achieve a world perspective. Anyone who seeks to live in isolation, or any nation that seeks to live in isolation, is sleeping through a revolution.”
To quell the revolution created by this shrinking world, we need to revitalize the American Dream, so that if people work hard and play by the rules, they can succeed in life, be better off than their parents, live in good neighborhoods, raise strong families in safe surroundings, work in decent jobs with decent pay and decent benefits, and have a decent retirement. But to do this, we must make a much greater commitment to education – to lifelong education, virtually from cradle to grave.
It’s a frequent joke in Democratic circles, as you may have heard, that for Republicans, life begins at conception and ends at birth. We know it’s not true, and it’s certainly not true for education.
From our earliest days as a nation, education has been the engine of the American dream. Time and again, when we faced obstacles, our leaders looked to education to provide the means to overcome them. In the mid-1800s, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, we created free and mandatory public schools long before most other nations did. At the end of that century, we established public high schools to keep pace with the new industrial revolution. When our soldiers returned home from World War II, we enacted the GI Bill of Rights and sent millions of veterans to college. That single step may have been the one that turned their generation into what we’ve called “The Greatest Generation.”
A year after my brother spoke to the graduating class of 1956, the Russians launched Sputnik, and with it a new level of the Cold War. In response, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress enacted the National Defense Education Act, and almost overnight we doubled the federal investment in education, especially in math and science and engineering. It’s a source of huge consternation to me that we have a White House and Congress today that are bent on reducing support for education to fund larger and larger tax breaks for the well-off.
From the beginning, Massachusetts has rejected that priority as wrong. We’ve embraced education as essential to our democracy. John Adams wrote it into our State Constitution in 1780, saying education of the people is “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” We’re proud to have the oldest public high school in the nation, the oldest college in the nation and one of the first career and technical schools. Horace Mann led the effort to create the first public school system, and Massachusetts was the first state to enact a compulsory education law.
Perhaps more than ever today, we need a renaissance in education. To stay competitive, we must invest in improving access to education at all levels – for the youngest children through all our working years.
Each and every one of you graduating today will help shape America’s destiny in your generation. The excellent education you’ve received here at Springfield has supplied you with the skills and knowledge you’ll need to help keep America strong and prosperous.
But you’ll need a federal government that does its part as well, by guaranteeing that all of America’s talented youth have the opportunity to celebrate a college graduation as you are today. That means doing much more to enable students and families to afford the cost of college, so that graduates like you are free to turn your passions into careers – unburdened by concerns about paying off college loans.
What happens at Springfield and on other campuses and communities throughout the country is of enduring importance for the well-being and future of the nation. Those who will play the greatest role are the people like yourselves, rising to the challenges and opportunities waiting to be met. You did not make the world you live in, but you have the chance to change it, to help us face the global challenges head-on and leave the world better than you found it. That’s the true spirit of the American dream and the true purpose of education.
E.B. White put the choice beautifully and succinctly:
“It’s hard to know when to respond to the seductiveness of the world, and when to respond to its challenge. If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise every morning torn between the desire to improve the world and the desire to enjoy it. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I urge you to realize that you can enjoy the world while changing it. You’ve already begun that journey at Springfield College. From its earliest days as an institution educating YMCA professionals, the College has developed a mission “to educate students in spirit, mind, and body for leadership in service to others.” My brother spoke about that to the Class of 1956, and praised the commitment to community fostered here at the College. As he put it, the students graduating had surely derived a “sense of inspiration and idealism -- a desire to serve others, an urge to contribute to society, a deeply-felt feeling that you could help make the world a better place in which man might live at peace.” And if he were speaking today, he’d have said “in which men and women might live in peace.”
This idealism and commitment to community is the College’s greatest strength. In education programs such as America Reads, or volunteering in the Springfield Public Schools, or neighborhood development programs like the Partnership for Renewal of Old Hill, or the thousands of students that participate in the “Action Day”— lending a hand to over 70 local schools, shelters, senior citizen facilities and community organizations, the College has been an example to us all over the years of the important role that higher education must have in the life of a community.
I hope as many of you as possible will make this wonderful state your home. It’s the best educated state in the nation. Household income is among the highest in the country. We’re a leader in health care, high tech industry and the life sciences. Some of the most productive companies on Wall Street are located here. There is no state where it is easier to make a real difference in your community or that offers greater opportunity to pursue your dreams and improve the world around you. Massachusetts has something to offer everyone, whatever your dreams and goals may be.
I’m confident that the Commonwealth will continue to prosper and lead the nation in the years to come. But we need you. We need your optimism and enthusiasm, and your commitment to the Commonwealth. We need your skill and ability to restart the engines of growth.
Wherever you reside, remember that it is the hard work of the past that has brought the opportunities of the present, and the future. Be thankful for your teachers and your families, especially for the sacrifices they have made to bring you safely to this threshold of the future.
It is easy to find excuses to justify apathy and indifference in the face of opposition that seems too strong or issues that seem too complex. These impulses of frustration, futility and fear are only natural. But the times need your talent. You can be the voice for the voiceless, the help for the helpless, the home for the homeless.
As my brother, Robert Kennedy, liked to say, it is the individual who makes the difference. He told the students at the University of Capetown in South Africa in 1966:
“Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Congratulations for all that you’ve accomplished here, and for the ripples of hope you will send out in the years ahead.
Thank you very much.