June 02, 2012
President Amott, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, parents, alumni, friends, and members of the Class of 2012, good morning. And thank you, Professor Sunderland, for that gracious citation and for presenting me for this degree. We honorary recipients prize the connection we now will forever have to Knox and to this graduating class. You in the class have worked toward today for four long years, and here comes the speaker who is the last thing standing between you and the parchment attesting to your hard-won achievement, and he gets parchment too, just for that! What is that about? Not to fear, though, as I understand well the terms of my degree. Your Board wisely awarded it on the unwritten condition that I keep this ceremony moving along to the main event and attraction. For all of you, and for each one of you individually, that is surely your own walk across this stage and then, diploma in hand, into the arms of those who are here to celebrate this milestone with you. You also can thank my dear second generation Italian immigrant mother, who reminded me that as your speaker I'm kind of like the corpse at an Italian wake: it's important that you have one, but you shouldn't expect to hear a lot from him.
It is a special pleasure to see my sometime adversary in court, sometime ally in court, but always respected colleague David Schulz here today. When David -- Knox alumnus, esteemed Trustee, and zealous defender of First Amendment freedoms -- raised the possibility of my participating in your commencement, I was instinctively drawn to the concept because of the sharp contrast it seemed to embody: aging soldier and attendee, three decades ago, of a government-run military academy and engineering school addressing newest young graduates of pre-eminent private liberal arts college and center for civic activism. Then, having signed up -- and, frankly, struggled to decide what I should tell you -- it was this very notion of seeking out contrasting worlds and trying to bridge them that provided the kernel for what follows. In case you're thinking, by the way, that when I say "kernel" I am referring to some military rank, I am not. I'm talking here of kernel with a "k" -- the most vital or essential part of an idea.
To flesh out the example of contrasting worlds I just suggested, our military academy's mission was to educate and train us to be officers in the Army. The focus was on development of leaders in the physical as well as the military and academic domains. I recently confirmed that these fundamentals of that world are unchanged when I attended my son's graduation at West Point last week. Newly commissioned as a lieutenant, he'll report later this year to an infantry division.
Juxtapose Knox, which is foremost a vibrant community of scholar teachers and students, as related to me by those who have inhabited this unique world. Whereas we cadets were pressured to hone skills that would be demanded by an Army (and my good and professional sergeants repeatedly demonstrated why, in my stubborn case, every bit of that pressure was necessary), Knox pledges that everything happening here -- inside and outside of the classroom -- gives students the freedom to flourish as individuals. Knox particularly values each person's independent exploration of ideas, the stretching of intellect and talent, and the fusion of imagination with initiative. The value of debate is central to the college's identity. Its history as one of the first colleges in the United States open to both women and people of color, and as the place where Lincoln first denounced slavery on moral terms remains alive in a pervasive commitment to diversity and equality not primarily associated with any national military academy. At those academies, gender and racial integration have certainly occurred, but when and as mandated by Congress. Meanwhile, differences in rank there are institutionalized and functionally directed toward fighting and winning the nation's wars. Knox's egalitarian spirit, by contrast, infuses graduates who have been prepared for a myriad of mostly peaceful occupations.
Were I to have submitted the foregoing mini-essay on contrasting worlds to my professor for English 101, I suspect she would have given me an "incomplete." Because almost as soon as these two worlds can even be outlined in contrast to one another, we can't help noting that they have been bridged, and I want to point out today that it is invariably humans who do such bridging. You who are educated here in Galesburg value free inquiry and independent thought, but you are not merely dreamers: you are called upon to be dreamers who do, following in the footsteps of individuals who have sparked and fueled concerted action in the real world as relentlessly as a field army on the move. We who attend military school on the Hudson or at Annapolis are not merely drilled to be contributing parts of a whole: we are given a broad liberal education sharing much with the Knox tradition and called to join forebears whose imagination, creativity, and initiative as leaders exemplify very nearly the same individual traits that are extolled right here. As social movements originating at Knox have become the law of the land, our national academies too have become more fully integrated and diversified. My fellow Academy graduate and former helicopter pilot wife, with us here today, personifies that. And while not typically described as egalitarian -- Kate, for instance, has always outranked me -- ours is an Army in which officers are expected to lead from the front and by their example; they are to inspire and mold the soldiers of a pluralistic and open society into units that are reliable in battle. The fact that George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell are a West Pointer's models, rather than Caesar or Napoleon, is reflective of a bridge toward greater equality that leaders associated with Knox were prominent in building. Also reflective of that bridge are the direct experience in military ranks of distinguished Knox students of bygone eras, such as recently retired Lieutenant General David Fridovich, the 1,586 Knox alumni and Galesburg air cadets who served in World War II, and, even further back in history, a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, Brigadier General John Buford. I am indebted to Owen Muelder for bringing to my attention that Buford, raised in nearby Rock Island, Illinois, was one of fifteen students who matriculated at Knox College in 1842 and attended school here in Galesburg for a year before joining West Point's class of 1848.
However unconvincing even my completed essay-in-contrast-and-comparison would have been if I had submitted it as undergraduate homework, I nevertheless offer its central idea to you as a key to fulfillment in life. That key is this: look for contrasting worlds, and be a bridge to them. We have all received substantial exposure to something like this methodology, at least on an academic level, in our common college curriculum. In classical studies and English literature -- which the forty-two among you who have majored in these disciplines know far better than I -- we learned that sharp contrasts are the source of dramatic action, and that the compelling resolution or bridging of those differences through the experiences of the protagonist is how masterpieces are produced. In art and music -- which I confess my tin ear always made harder for me to appreciate, and I'm afraid not even Sir Andrew Davis could have helped me much -- we discovered that dissonance resolving or bridging into a consonance is often what arouses empathy in viewers or listeners. In scientific theory -- and given the well-known cadet struggles with chemistry, even Professor Joseph Francisco would have been challenged to teach us this -- we eventually came to understand that knowledge is advanced by confronting a hypothetical explanation with the contrasts posed by empirical reality, and then by bridging to an explanation that better aligns with experience. And in one entertaining class on how humor works -- perhaps not quite as amusing as Knox degree holder Stephen Colbert but still pretty amusing -- we even learned that it is the surprise of an incongruous or contrasted pairing that makes something funny, with our laughter providing a necessary bridge or release. For what it's worth, we also learned in that class that unless you're really talented, there are few things you can do that are less funny than formal and studied attempts at humor. I for one am grateful to friends who broke that to me gently, by urging me not to give up my commission in the infantry.
Academic studies can help us learn to think clearly and to appreciate what needs bridging. I submit, though, that seeking out worlds in sharp contrast and then building bridges between them should be far more than just a theoretical exercise. Make this a habit in small and big things. Applied to small things, it gives us interesting company on our daily journeys and keeps us curious about what's over the next bridge. Applied to big and important things, the bridging of contrasts provides a pathway for service and sacrifice, and through them, a life of meaning.
What are some of those important things requiring bridges? Knox graduates of the past have sought out disparities in the availability of medical care, offering the sick in underserved areas more than just hope for better health. They have bridged ignorance and knowledge, bringing books and teaching to the illiterate. They have helped the poor cross over into greater economic opportunity. They have leveraged their familiarity with different cultures gained from classmates at Knox's International House to form diplomatic connections with peoples around the globe. And of course they have spanned one of the most extreme contrasts of all, literally providing slaves their road to freedom.
There are sharp and important contrasts today everywhere, if you look for them. Many of these can be beneficially bridged. Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of serving with hundreds of recent college graduates, civilian and military, doing field work in Iraq and Afghanistan. There, these members of what General David Petraeus has called the "New Greatest Generation" to highlight their achievements have lent their talents to bridging another of the sharpest and most important contrasts in the human condition, that between war and peace. Having witnessed firsthand the tragic violence, the sadness, and the waste of human potential that afflict societies lacking the pressure-releasing bridges that individual expression and free association provide, these sons and daughters of the nation have come to an outlook that is very, well, Knox. You might consider it a form of distance learning, but you can definitely consider these young men and women your brothers and sisters. I don't want to portray this as principally a philanthropic endeavor: these efforts have been taking place in regions of instability regarded by our government as threatening to our own national security. When fighting a bloody insurgency, one learns that supporting the establishment of legitimate local governance and promoting the rule of law -- however imperfect and halting -- is the most efficient route to stability and drawdown of outside forces. Yet whether undertaken officially out of a humanitarian or security impulse, the building of bridges from armed conflict toward peace is undeniably good and meaningful work.
It is also hard and often unglamorous. Being a bridge can tend to leave you exposed between worlds. Long after the initial attraction has worn off, but also long before any solid spans have been built, there may be temptations to move on, perhaps just to relieve the tension, perhaps to pursue new worlds that present flashier contrasts to one's own existence. Most of bridge building is not instantly gratifying. Nor is it for the fickle or the faint of heart. Although modern inventions may be invaluable in blazing the trail, bridges that bring real change require more links than are achieved through a few visits and a twitter feed. As with many things worth doing, bridging is several parts determination for each part imagination. You often don't know it until you've committed, but sometimes a bridge may be a bridge too far, at least on the first nine tries. And in order to bridge effectively to anything, you must have a firm core from which to reach.
But for those prepared to take on such challenges, the rewards are great. There is nothing that activates and applies the formal learning one has acquired more than having to stretch and grow to connect two contrasting worlds. Because bridging is communicating, those who undertake it will routinely master and adapt languages, even as they consolidate old skills and gain entirely new ones. To be sure, bridging entails sacrificing the comforts and safety that a single world may seem to offer, yet those who bridge to new worlds almost never regret it. And the gains are great regardless of where one begins or whether one has been disciplined or focused early in life; anyone can aspire to bridge, even -- or maybe even particularly -- those who were, shall we say, rambunctious in their youth. I am surely proof of that. Society benefits, too, from the new connections and knowledge. It gains leaders who are both selfless and principled. And veteran bridge-builders, having spanned extremes in the real world, perhaps have less appetite for rhetorical extremes, and may be thus more tempered and constructive in their interpersonal style.
It is also true that world-bridging citizens bring our nation greater security, and this is a particular interest of mine. In spite of recent successes against them, our main security threats remain lethal, patient, and adaptive, even if those threats cannot fairly be described as existential. We face irregular, shifting, non-state actors who purposefully attack civilian populations, cleverly employ widespread new technologies, and carefully plot in the shadows of international boundaries and ungoverned terrain. While not menacing to our very survival, their mode of fighting tests who we are and defines us in how we respond. Because they scorn our way of life and yet also cynically expoit its freedoms and protections to do harm, our modern enemies tempt even peaceful peoples to respond outside the law and to risk short-sighted and misdirected power moves.
As Professor Sunderland has reminded us just this morning, such responses are serious mistakes, and while I cannot scientifically prove it, my sense is that those with experience connecting worlds are less likely to panic and commit them. Despite our enemies' tactics, the past decade has taught us anew that we must operate in the space defined by our values. It takes active and outward-looking bridge-builders to devise and implement, or as citizens to demand, a security approach that is empirical and pragmatic, while never abandoning our ideals. Every instrument of our national power and authority, including law enforcement, diplomacy, intelligence, and economic and military means are part of such an approach. So are the very same cherished civil liberties that have taken so much bridge-building to secure equally and indivisibly for all.
It is by looking for contrasting worlds and seeking to bridge them -- and in this way pursuing a life of service -- that you in the Knox College Class of 2012 can thus also contribute to an incalculable good. That is the good all of us gain with greater peace and security. As you now step up to that task, and get past your commencement speaker and on to the rest of your lives, let me be the first person to extend my congratulations. Thank you for the honor of addressing you and for connecting me and Kate to you and to Knox in such a meaningful way.