Condoleezza Rice

Commencement Address at Stanford University - June 16, 2002

Condoleezza Rice
June 16, 2002— Stanford, California
Print friendly

It is really wonderful to be back in Palo Alto on this glorious day. This is the first Stanford commencement I've attended since 1999 and I know that a lot has changed since then. But it's awfully good to see that the Wacky Walk is not one of the things that has changed!

President John Hennessy. Provost Etchemendy. Former Presidents Casper, Kennedy and Lyman. Members of the Board of Trustees. Fellow faculty members. Distinguished guests. To all the family and friends out there -- without whom today would not be possible. To all the dads in the audience -- Happy Father's Day! And to you graduates -- thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is a tremendous honor.

I will always remember my own commencement. I remember the pride written across the faces of my family members. I remember looking at my classmates and wondering whether I would ever know such good friends again. I do not, however, remember a single word that the speaker said. And you won't either.

So it is my duty today not to say something that you are going to find profound 20 years from now. I will be lucky if I can say something that you will find interesting for the next 20 minutes. I will take anything else as a bonus.

Today I am here as a member of the Stanford faculty -- and the Stanford family. This is the first time I have spoken at a Stanford graduation, but it is not the first time that I have spoken to you, the Class of 2002. I spoke to you during your first week here, on Sept. 19, 1998. A lot has changed since that day -- for you, for me and for the world. That week the Stanford Daily reported that the Band Shak was coming down. eBay conducted its IPO, at a time when 20-somethings were becoming millionaires. And I do remember quite a few of my graduate students asking me if they were making a good decision to stay in school.

During your time here you have seen the renovation of dining halls, Y2K and the theft of the Tree by students from a certain public university across the Bay. But, come on, they had to steal the Tree -- because every year that you were here, Stanford won the Big Game!

In my talk to you and the incoming graduate students, I gave you some unsolicited advice. And because I was provost, you had no choice but to listen. It seems that now you are going out the same way that you came in.

Back then, I said that your job here was to find your passion. Not just something that interested you, but something that you couldn't live without. I encouraged your parents not to panic if you found a passion, such as Etruscan art, that might not get you a job but would glorify your soul. For those parents out there whose children took my advice, and perhaps found a passion but have not yet found a job, I ask you just to hang in there, it will happen.

I also urged you four years ago to try many paths; try something hard; and to take time to get to know those around you -- particularly those beyond your ethnic, religious or ideological background.

I suspect that you have done all of this and more. And it is good that you have. Because today, you are stepping into a world that is quite different than the one that existed when you arrived. It is a world that is more sober and sadder -- clearer about its vulnerabilities -- yet stronger, more conscious of our differences and yet more aware of our humanity.

This is a world that needs the skills, the values and the experiences that you will bring to it as educated people. In a moment, you will receive the degree for which you have studied, and President Hennessy will admit you to its "rights, responsibilities and privileges." Now I know that you are looking forward to those rights and privileges. But since I have you captive here, let's concentrate for a few minutes on the responsibilities. The most basic of these is that you act on the habits of mind that you have developed here.

First, as educated people, acknowledge that you have an obligation to search for the truth. Ideas matter and they must therefore be subjected to scrutiny and to examination. You have learned how to inquire, how to assess and how to conclude. You have learned the value of reasoned debate and the role of doubt in reaching a judgment.

You have a responsibility to seek out those who do not think like you do. An "Amen" chorus is satisfying in the short term, but not really edifying in the long term. And you may even be forced to rethink some of the ideas you think sacrosanct. By acting in this way -- consistent with what you have learned here -- you will help advance the search for the answers to hard questions that we face.

Second, you have a responsibility to be optimistic. Many people just as talented and just as smart as you did not get to where you are sitting today -- often through no fault of their own. So never ask why someone else has been given more; ask why you have been given so much.

And anytime you feel powerless to affect your world, remember all you have learned about the history of our world. That history teaches that it takes just a single, determined individual to bring profound change.

I will never forget meeting a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer when I was a teenager. She came to the University of Denver to speak to my father's class. She was not sophisticated in the way we think of it, yet so compelling that I remember the power of her message even today. In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer refused to listen to those who told her that a sharecropper with a sixth-grade education could not, or should not, launch a challenge that would dismantle the racist infrastructure of Mississippi's Democratic Party. She did it anyway.

And Ms. Hamer reminds us that heroes are not born -- they are made; and they often come from unlikely places. There are countless other everyday heroes whose deeds are less dramatic but no less important. Perhaps your parents -- or your roommate's parents -- have spent years toiling for 12 to 14 hours a day so that you could have the gift of an education they never had. That's heroism. Everyday, quiet acts of dignity surround us; and they should inspire us.

One of my heroes growing up was my paternal grandfather. Granddaddy Rice was a poor farmer's son in Ewtah -- that's E-w-t-a-h -- in Alabama. One day, he decided he needed to get book-learning. And so he asked, in the language of the day, where a colored man could go to school. They said a little Presbyterian school, about 50 miles away, named Stillman College, might be the place.

So he saved up his cotton to pay for his first year's tuition and he took off for Tuscaloosa. After the first year, he ran out of cotton and he needed a way to pay his tuition. My grandfather 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 if he wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, then he could have a scholarship too. My grandfather said, "You know, that's exactly what I had in mind." And my family has been Presbyterian and college educated ever since.

What my grandfather understood, and what I experienced years later, is the transforming power of education. And just as education transforms individuals, one by one, it can transform whole societies. Education is, as the American philosopher John Dewey believed, "the fundamental method of social progress and reform."

Your third obligation flows directly from the fact that you have had this transforming experience.

In the months past, we have been reminded in dramatic and terrifying ways of what happens when difference becomes a license to kill. Terrorism is meant to dehumanize and divide. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I saw the "home-grown terrorism" of that era. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was meant to suck hope out of the future by showing that hope could be killed -- child by child. My neighborhood friend, Denise McNair, was killed in that bombing, and though I didn't see it, I heard it a few blocks away. And it is a sound that I can still hear today.

Those memories of the Birmingham bombings have flooded back to me since Sept. 11. And, as I watched the conviction of the last conspirator in the church bombing last month, I realized now that it is an experience that I have overcome but will never forget. And so it will be for all of us, you and me, who experienced Sept. 11.

The story is repeated -- time and again -- in the Middle East, in Latin America, in Africa -- and it came home to America. Innocents are killed to send a message of hatred and to propel old fears into the next generation.

Some have declared this most virulent form of hatred a clash of civilizations. Taken literally, that is a very dangerous idea. Cultural differences do exist, they are real, not imagined -- and they are part of what makes the human race vibrant. Tradition and modernity do sometimes collide and common values must find expression in institutions and practices that can reconcile them.

But there are demands of human dignity that are universal. I do not mean the ones that come easily to mind. Yes, people want to be free from want and to escape daily struggle for survival. But this is not what stirs the human soul or bridges the seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide. That bridge is the burning desire for liberty.

Given a choice between tyranny and freedom, people will choose freedom. People want the best for their children and they want their creativity and their hard work to be rewarded. People want the freedom to speak their minds, to choose those who will lead them and the right to embrace their faith.

We seem to need reminders from time to time. We were reminded when old people in South Africa stood in line for hours to vote for a better South Africa that they would likely never see. We saw it when liberty survived in the spirit of Poland for 50 years. And now in Afghanistan when people flooded into the streets to rejoice in simple freedoms -- to listen to music, to shave their beards and to send their daughters to school.

You do not have to be an educated person to crave freedom. But you have had experiences here that are a powerful rejoinder to those who would divide us and diminish that which is common in our humanity.

Stanford's diversity should have served you well in this way. You have studied with and lived among people different than you are -- from scores of countries and numerous backgrounds. Some came as fourth-generation Stanford legatees, others as sons or daughters of immigrants, some as citizens of places geographically and temperamentally a world away from Palo Alto. But now you share a common bond.

In 1904, Jane Stanford said, "I could see a hundred years ahead when all the present trials were forgotten, and all the present active parties gone -- I could see the children's children's children coming here from the East, the West, the North and the South." Mrs. Stanford could not have known that you would come not just from those parts of the United States -- but from East, West, North and South of the globe. As she could not have known how crucial it would be to the 21st century that people from the corners of the earth find a place to learn how to seek common ground.

For the good of us all, use the positive experiences here with cultural difference and bridging divides to good effect. The world needs those who truly believe in our common humanity and understand and affirm the universal longing for freedom.

Die Luft der Freiheit weht -- "The wind of freedom blows." This is Stanford's motto and a new reality in many places long stifled by tyranny. You will find ways to serve purposes greater than yourself -- through public service, through politics, through protest. But never forget the habits of mind that you have learned here. And now, with freedom's wind at your back, may you find personal fulfillment and strength in the days ahead.

God bless this Class of 2002, today and throughout the rest of your lives. Thank you very much.

Speech from