News & Policies >
For Immediate Release
May 7, 2004
Dr. Rice Speaks at Michigan State University
Remarks by Condoleezza Rice Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Michigan State University Commencement
East Lansing, Michigan
As Prepared for Delivery
It is wonderful to be here in East Lansing. I am honored to have been asked to join you for this ceremony. The academic in me is pleased to be at a university like MSU, respected around the world. The football and basketball fan in me is thrilled to be at the home of the Spartans.
Peter McPherson, President of MSU -- Thank you for the work you did in Iraq, helping to build a free economy there. Members of the Board of Trustees -- Faculty and Staff -- Distinguished Alumni and Guests -- Graduates and Students -- Family and Friends.
I will always remember my undergraduate commencement at the University of Denver. I remember the pride of my family. I remember the closeness I felt to my classmates and friends. I remember the thrill that comes with reaching any important goal. I do not, however, remember a single word that my commencement speaker said. You probably won't either - and I promise not to take it personally. I just wanted the speech to be over.
This restlessness is understandable because the end of a long, and often difficult, journey is finally within sight. And it is understandable because you are not the same person you were when you first arrived here. Education is transforming. At a minimum, education imparts knowledge and expands your horizons. At its best, education can make you a better, wiser, more compassionate person. It can wipe away the differences of circumstances of birth and the confines of class. It allows you to remake yourself anew.
That is why people work so hard to become educated. And that is why people not fortunate enough to receive an education themselves are willing to sacrifice so much so that their children can have what they could not.
I first learned about the transforming power of education from stories about my paternal grandfather. Granddaddy Rice was a poor farmer's son in Ewtah, Alabama. One day, he decided to get book-learning. And so he asked, in the language of the day, where a colored man could go to school. They said that a little Presbyterian school, Stillman College, was only about 50 miles away. So he saved up his cotton to pay for the first year's tuition. After the first year, he ran out of cotton and he needed a way to pay. Granddaddy asked the school administrators how those other boys were staying in school, and he was told that they had what was called a scholarship. And, they said, "if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, you could have a scholarship too." My grandfather said, "That's just what I had in mind."
Despite all that my grandfather had to endure - including poverty and segregation - he understood that education is a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility.
The first responsibly of the educated person is to be optimistic. Cynicism and pessimism are too often the companions of learning. There have indeed been dark chapters in the human story - and the more we learn about history's failures and cruelties, the more our minds can be tempted to despair. But for all of our problems today, and by just about every measure, the world is a better, more hopeful place than it ever has been.
The advances that have been made during your lifetimes alone - from breakthroughs in health care, to the spread of prosperity, to the progress of democracy - have been pushed along by optimists, not pessimists. America's founders were not pessimists. Nor were the Wright Brothers, or Jonas Salk, or Martin Luther King. Nor is any man or woman of real accomplishment. The reason is simple - pessimism is the easy way out. It is characteristic of those content to stand on the side lines and watch the march of history. Optimism requires work.
It requires examination and objective thought. Optimists move and shape history because those with a vision of a better world have the energy and discipline required to make those visions real. With all that you now know, you have no excuse not to be optimists. You should know that progress is not only possible, but an unfolding story in which you have an obligation to play a part.
Second, you also have an obligation to remember those who weren't as lucky as you. It is natural - especially among the educated - to credit one's good fortune to one's intelligence, hard work, and judgment. And, in fact, it is certainly true that all of you are here today because you possess these qualities. But it is also true that merit alone did not see you to this day.
There are many people in this country - many from your home town ... some, even, from your own high school - who are just as intelligent, just as hard-working, and just as deserving. But, for whatever reason, they did not enjoy all of the opportunities that came your way. Don't ever forget that. Don't ever forget that just because you deserve something does not necessarily mean that you will get it. Don't ever assume that just because you got something you necessarily deserved it.
With all that you've been given, you should never bemoan the fact that you have less than someone else. Be grateful that you have more than so many others. Commencement is an opportunity to graduate to the wisdom of humility.
Third, the educated have an obligation to work to close the cultural gaps that divide our nation and our world. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, it would have been easy, in our grief and our anger, to retreat behind a wall of defeatism and discrimination. But that is not the American way. We did not close our borders to the tens of thousands of students from Muslim countries seeking to study here. Even as we have done the necessary and important work of improving our visa screening, we have continued to welcome people from other nations and we need to do more to let people know that they are indeed welcome. This response says a lot about our Nation. At a fundamental level, it underscores our faith in diversity and individual rights.
The intellectual foundation of terrorism - just like that of slavery and segregation - rests on arbitrarily dividing the human race into friends and enemies, even human and non-human. The perpetrators of 9/11 were people who believed that differences are a license to kill. One of the great benefits of the years you have spent on this campus is the extraordinary diversity you have been exposed to. You know better than most of the world that differences should not be a source of fear, but an opportunity to learn.
Whatever field or profession you choose for your life's work, you will continue to meet people from different areas, different backgrounds, different cultures, and different religions. Because of what you have learned here, you will always carry with you the obligation to help bridge divides in culture and understanding.
Fourth, you have an obligation not to let your education and good luck lead you into false pride or condescension. All people are bound together by several common desires. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not share your desire to live freely ... to think and believe as they see fit ... to raise a family and educate their children. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not desire the freedom to chart their own courses in life.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, before the Civil Rights Movement - a place that was once described, with no exaggeration, as the most thoroughly segregated city in the country.
I know what it means to hold dreams and aspirations when half of your neighbors think of you as incapable of, or uninterested in, anything higher. In my professional life, I have listened with disbelief as some explained why Russians would never embrace freedom ... that military dictatorship would always be a way of life in Latin America... that Asian values were incompatible with democracy ... and that tyranny, corruption, and one-party rule would always dominate the African continent.
Today we hear these same doubts about the possibility of freedom in the Middle East. President Bush rejects this view - I reject this view - and so should you. There are no cultures or peoples on this earth who do not deserve the freedoms we take for granted. To think otherwise is a condescension unworthy of an educated mind.
Finally, let me close with the obligations you have to yourselves. In a few minutes, these ceremonies will be completed and your next adventures will begin. As you embark upon them, I encourage you to do two things: First, do not to rest until you have found your passion. I don't mean merely something that interests you - but your calling; your life's work. Not something you have to do each day, but that thing which you can't do without each day. Something that you love enough and care about enough that it makes you glad to be alive. Perhaps some of you have found it.
For those who have not, don't despair. Many people have not discovered their passions by their graduation date - just promise yourself that you won't stop looking. You should sample many different things with an open mind and with the courage to be led to places you might never have considered.
For reasons that I do not understand, my passion became Russia and things Russian. It was supposed to be music. I could read music before I could read. But in college, I was confronted with the incontrovertible fact that I was good but not great. I realized that I lacked prodigious talent and didn't like to practice - a particularly unfortunate combination. I realized that I was destined to end up teaching 13 year olds to murder Beethoven, or playing show tunes in a piano bar.
One day, a wonderful thing happened. I wandered into a course in international politics. It was taught by a Czech refugee who was a Soviet specialist. I was hooked and nothing has ever been quite the same since. If this has not happened to you -- keep looking -- it will -- and life will never be the same.
Whether you have found your passion or not, I ask that you consider the contributions you could make to your nation and the world through serving in one of the components of our national security - in the foreign service, in our intelligence agencies, in the military, in public diplomacy, or the Peace Corps.
The need for idealists eager to do the work of peace, justice, and democracy has not been this great in decades - and neither has the opportunity to do good and change the world. With all the images of troops and tanks and military operations, it is sometimes difficult to remember that we are engaged primarily in a war of ideas, not armies. It will be won by visionaries who can look past the moment ... see a world in which freedom is not only the birthright of all, but a reality for all ... and work to make that vision come true.
I remember serving on the National Security Council staff a dozen years ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and the Soviet Union gave way to a free Russia. It was, of course, exhilarating to be in government at such a time. But those events were the fruit of seeds sown by the giants of an earlier age - Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson ... Konrad Adenauer .
Who knows? One day you too could find your passion sowing the seeds that in future years could benefit the world. And if you are lucky enough to be present when the fruits of those labors are harvested, I assure you that you will know no greater satisfaction.
You now join the thin ranks of those throughout the world privileged with an education. It is a club that you may never quit, and from which you can never be expelled. And membership confers responsibilities that you must fulfill. You have the responsibility to better your world - a task that requires optimism; You have a responsibility to those less fortunate than you - to mentor them and support their efforts to better themselves. You have a responsibility to close the divides between cultures.
In these ways, you will satisfy the obligations of education. And in the process, you will bring your privilege to bear on the challenges of our world. H.G. Wells said that history is a race between education and catastrophe. Congratulations and welcome to the starting line.