As prepared for delivery.
Thank you, President Cummings. Trustees, faculty and alumni, families, and friends, it is a pleasure to be with you today.
Members of the Class of 2015, congratulations! You did it! Thank you for inviting me to be part of this very special moment in your lives.
And to the University of Maine at Augusta—happy 50th birthday! From a modest start in 1965, UMA has grown to become the third-largest institution in the UMaine System. With campuses here in Augusta and in Bangor, and with University College centers and Community Learning Sites throughout our State, UMA truly lives up to its motto: “Stay Close, Go Far.” This school has become Maine’s leading university for supporting students of every age and is nationally renowned for its outreach to our military personnel and veterans. Its remarkable 50 years have enriched our State.
Over the years, I have learned two things about giving commencement speeches. The first is to be brief. I am well aware that this ceremony is the last thing that stands between you graduates and a celebration with family and friends.
I have an added incentive for brevity today, for following my remarks I will be presented with an honorary degree. I am deeply grateful for this recognition and for the service and commitment of the others being recognized today.
The second thing I have learned is to try to leave you graduates with a message that I hope will be part of your graduation day memories and possibly even somewhat helpful in your journey through life. But I approach this goal mindful of the fact that I remember nothing about the speaker for my own college graduation—not even his name, much less what he said. So here goes.
America has a maritime tradition of branding each ship with its own motto. One ship in our nation’s fleet bears this distinctive motto: “Find the Good and Praise It.” That ship is named the “Alex Haley,” after an acclaimed African-American author. Mr. Haley wrote the famous novel and television miniseries Roots, which told the story of his ancestors who were kidnapped from the Gambia in Africa and brought to this country as slaves.
“Find the Good and Praise It” was Alex Haley’s personal motto, and it is a message that seems particularly relevant to our times.
We live in an era where the way that we communicate is changing at a pace that was unimaginable even a decade ago. Unfortunately, there has also been a rapid decline in the quality of some of our communications as well.
Let me give you an example. In our political discourse today, some people seem to have forgotten Mr. Haley’s powerful message. People in our State and throughout the country have made it clear that they are fed up with the incivility and gridlock that have prevented congressional action on far too many of the serious problems facing our nation.
But that divisiveness and animosity raise a larger question: Is the gridlock that paralyzes Washington a symptom or the cause of the incivility that we see throughout our society? The “symptom or cause” question may seem to be a variation on the famous “the chicken or the egg” dilemma. When it comes to the role of civility in all aspects of life, we do well to remember that we get a chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it. Too often today, people choose not to pursue the positive but make the choice to attack, to belittle, and to accuse.
And we see this divisive, ugly trend throughout society, from bullying in schools to the anonymous, crude insults that fill the vast expanses of the Internet. The Internet has the potential to bring people together by making new information and different points of view available to all. Ironically, it all too often has the opposite effect. Studies have found that the Internet is displacing face-to-face contact and that Websites devoted to political and social issues increasingly are tending to the extremes, where alternate views are either ignored or misrepresented and ridiculed. Rather than finding the good and praising it, online commentary more often is devoted to negativity and insult.
Last month, after I gave a speech on civility at Colby College, I read the online comments to a newspaper story on that event. One called me a “traitor,” and another a “hypocrite.” Those were some of the nicer comments.
Ultimately, whether the decline of civility in Washington has led to the decline of civility in the rest of the country, or vice versa, is irrelevant.
We each have a responsibility to turn back this destructive tide. We each have a stake in a society that can work together to solve problems. We each must do our part to elevate the tone and respect one another as part of our greater community.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize evil in the world or speak out against injustice and wrong-doing. But we must not lose sight of what is good. To Alex Haley, “the good” wasn’t simply what is pleasant. It is what is worthwhile, what makes us better people, better citizens, a better nation.
So my challenge to you graduates, adapted from Alex Haley, is to “Find the good, praise it, and join it.” I know that some 70 percent of the members of this class are “non-traditional” students who pursued college after joining the workforce or the military. Whether that describes you or whether you came here directly from high school, your UMA education has prepared you to be part of that great Maine ethic of people working together to build up, rather than tear down. You can make a difference in your communities by elevating the level of discourse and helping to create a climate where people with opposing ideas are treated with mutual respect and civility.
Graduates, the diplomas you receive today represent a great deal of hard work on your part, but they also represent a great debt you owe to those who made it possible. To quote another of Alex Haley’s favorite sayings, “Anytime you see a turtle up on top of a fence post, you know he had some help.” Many of you undoubtedly feel a bit like that turtle today. You wouldn’t be here without that help. Don’t forget to thank those who helped you achieve this accomplishment. And I urge you to apply your talent, energy, and enthusiasm right here in our great State.
Whether you grew up in Maine, or came here from another state or country, whether it is at the beginning of your career or later on, Maine needs what you have to offer. We need the entrepreneurs and computer technology experts who will create the businesses and jobs of the future. We need the nurses, teachers, and musicians who improve our quality of life. So please: stay in Maine.
There is so much good at this University, in our State, and in our country. Find it, praise it, and join it. Class of 2015, let that be the choice you make, let that be the way you lead your life. Congratulations and good luck.