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2014 Commencement Address

Madeleine K. Albright
Dickinson College Commencement
Sunday, May 18, 2014

President Roseman, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, distinguished guests and parental units – but most of all, Class of 2014, good morning. I’m so happy to be with you.

As a former professor and current mother and grandmother, I confess to loving graduation days.

I love the ceremony. I love academic settings. I love the outfit—seriously!

And although it will be difficult for me today—let’s be honest—I love to daydream during the commencement speech.

I want to begin by thanking you for this invitation and for the honorary degree, which I will treasure. As our graduates can testify, a degree is indeed a precious thing that requires years of work and is hard to earn. So you can imagine how pleased I am to receive a doctorate without attending a single class.

To the parents who are here, I suspect that your emotions are somewhat mixed. The time between diapers and diplomas is far too short. And I imagine that today you feel one part excited, one part relieved, one part broke, and every part proud.

To the alumni, today’s ceremony will bring back memories of your own college years, which in my case took place about halfway between the invention of the iPhone and the discovery of fire.

But above all, this is an occasion to honor you, members of the Class of 2014. You are the latest in a proud tradition of Dickinson graduates to exit the doors of Old West… at a school whose first commencement ceremony took place back in 1787.

I didn’t have the honor of attending that particular event—I promise I’m not quite that old. But I have participated in many commencements in a variety of roles. So I can tell you that there are many kinds of commencement speeches, ranging from dire warnings to motivational medleys.

Spoiler alert: Mine is a bit of both. The only thing I can tell you for sure is, I am not a comedian. And while I’m not trying to depress you, I am hoping to inspire you. But feel free to sit back and daydream if you want.

Beginning tomorrow, you will embark on exciting new adventures—meeting different people, making new decisions, and experiencing life as never before.

And you can be confident as you face this future, because of the skills and values you developed here.

Those skills and values are rooted in the ideals of Dickinson’s founder Benjamin Rush. As you know, he was a revolutionary leader both in philosophy and action.

Rush is remembered in the history books as a “man before his time.” He cared for the poor. He opposed slavery and capital punishment. He championed education for women. He wrote the first textbook on mental health. He pioneered battlefield medicine.

He also had a distinctive vision of what a liberal arts education should be. In his words, he hoped to prepare young people “for engaged lives of citizenship and leadership in the service of society.”

He firmly believed that such an educated citizenry was vital for our young democracy to flourish.

And I believe that vision is more relevant than ever, as your generation enters the world. While Benjamin Rush was a man before his time, it seems as if time has finally caught up with us.

Today, instead of harnessing the winds of change, it often seems those winds of change are driving us.

Our leaders are groping and grasping for ways to secure prosperity, progress, and peace… in a world that is spinning so rapidly we are struggling to keep our footing.

So we need smart, capable young people such as you to get things back on track… to help us make the most of the new reality we inhabit.

Which is another way of saying, Class of 2014, you have important work to do.

It starts with coming to grips with the transformation under way, and the forces that are shaping it.

These forces—which I’ll call megatrends—will affect the future profoundly. And while it’s fair to say that there have always been megatrends with which policy makers have to deal—what I think makes this period especially complicated in that these megatrends have created their own contradictions.

Sir Isacc Newton’s third law of motion applies not only to physics, but to foreign policy as well. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The first trend is often called globalization.

Twenty-five years since fall of the Berlin Wall, we’re interdependent as never before.

Barriers are giving way to a web of interconnection. Everything affects everyone, whether we want it to or not.

This reality can be a force multiplier—as we’ve seen in the world’s response to disasters, from hurricanes to accidents at sea.

But it also means that trouble can spread far beyond the original source—be it a financial crisis, a civil conflict, or an outbreak of deadly disease.

The recent resurgence of polio is a troubling illustration of that lesson. It has spread from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Syria to Iraq and its reach grows greater every day.

The unfortunate paradox is that we have the medical and technical capabilities to solve this problem. But it’s now a matter of geopolitics. Part of the reason the disease remains endemic in Pakistan is that militant leaders there believe that delivery of the polio vaccine is, at best, a mere cover for spies, and at worst, a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children.

Maybe some of the grandparents in this audience can recall the terror that overtook them each summer during their childhood as polio spread from one community to the next. Many more of you will remember the world’s relief when we thought we had defeated it two decades ago. But now this terrible disease has resurrected itself halfway across the world.

The singular bright spot lies in researchers’ efforts to develop an array of 21st century tools to combat ancient illnesses. These include smart-phone accessories that double as microscopes, and the ability to track the spread of communicable diseases by aggregating data from mobile phones and social networks.

Those are just a few examples of how new technologies have fundamentally altered everyday operations. There are hundreds more to choose from, and that is why the meteoric rise of technology is the second megatrend reshaping our world.

For instance, it wasn’t so long ago that conducting research meant scrolling through spools of microfiche. And for those of you who don’t know what microfiche is—ask your parents. Or Wikipedia.

Today, we can explore entire libraries of data with the touch of a finger on a screen. We can watch distant events as they unfold, in real time… using devices that fit in our pockets.

In many ways, this unfettered access to information has been wonderful for people around the world. We are connected as never before.

But technology has also revealed the gulf between information and wisdom. And here is where the negative aspects of technology come into play.

The fact that we’re flooded with information doesn’t mean that we’re better informed.

To cope with the onslaught, it’s tempting to cherry-pick and customize the sources we follow.

But too often that means we’re consuming information that confirms what we already believe.

Instead of a broadening dialogue and discussion, we risk a narrowing and hardening of worldviews… to the point where the compromises necessary for progress become impossible.

These changes, and others, are having a significant impact on governance and have drastically altered the world you are poised to enter as young professionals.

I wish that I could tell you that the next step you take will be an easy one. I wish I could tell you that the world was at peace. I wish that the future held the promise of stability, serenity and harmony for us all.

But as you all know, that scenario is far from the truth. The reality is that we, as members of a global community, face a multitude of obstacles we must overcome.

We’re alarmed by complex global challenges such as climate change, yet we cannot find the global will to resolve them.

We’re appalled by man-made tragedies from Syria to the Central African Republic, yet we cannot summon the solidarity to act.

And even as the international community struggles to manage global affairs, national governments are finding their authority under strain as well.

In many places, it seems the social compact is broken—if it ever existed in the first place.

Many people fear that free market capitalism is inadequate for our automated age. The tide is rising, but not lifting all boats.

Almost half the world’s wealth is owned by 1 percent of its population. And that means that far too many people are being left behind.

All people deserve the chance to go as far as their potential will take them.

We live in an age when technology is transforming the workplace itself—demanding greater skills in science, engineering, and math… while making many traditional jobs obsolete.

When I was in college, the General Motors Corporation was America’s biggest company, employing more than 600,000 men and women. This past February, when WhatsApp was bought by Facebook for the mind-boggling sum of 19 billion dollars, it had just 55 employees.

Facebook itself, which connects more than a billion people, only employs about 6,800.

If these are the high-flying businesses of the future, then where will be the jobs?

Even more troubling, as people lose faith in big government, big business, and big institutions, no big idea or better path has emerged to take their place.

Around the world, we see social protests being spurred by social media—from the Occupy movement that took hold in the U.S. to Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

But Siri cannot tell you how to build a democracy. You cannot tweet your way to good governance. There is no app for inclusive economic growth.

Humanity’s progress depends on human leadership… and our leaders’ job is harder than ever.

What I’m saying, dear graduates, is that the world is a mess. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

And now, it falls to your generation to solve the problems my generation is leaving behind.

I am probably one of the oldest people here today, and so it might surprise you to learn that I am also one of your generation’s greatest defenders.

I spoke at a Georgetown reunion event a few years ago, and I was asked by the president of the university what the biggest difference was between the students I had in the 1980s and the ones I was teaching at the time.

I immediately said, the difference was that the students of the 80s were focused on finding lucrative careers and retirement plans, while my current students were trying to figure out how to change the world for the better.

All of the sudden there were boos and hisses from the audience, and I realized I was in fact talking to the class of 1985.

I have since been in many discussions about millennials. When older people get together, they often say that you all are not that interested in policy, politics or public service. That you are disillusioned with the state of affairs today.

Maybe it’s because I teach, but I must say that I vehemently disagree with that characterization of your generation. In fact, I think you do care very much.

I think you are simply not that impressed with what happens in politics these days. And given that Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low, it appears no one else is either.

The fact of the matter is that the system and institutions that worked for your parents’ and my generation are clearly broken. Thanks in part to the transformative powers of technology and globalization, the entire world is undergoing a serious growth spurt.

Unfortunately, your generation will bear the brunt of those growing pains as you face a pack of problems across the world, and bleak job prospects here at home.

I don’t mean to place the weight of the world on your shoulders, for that will always be your parents’ job.

But I’m challenging you to draw on the tremendous education you’ve received at Dickinson College to help find innovative solutions to the challenges of our time.

And I believe that you are not only capable of doing so, but that no prior generation has been as well equipped to deal with those problems as your own.

For at Dickinson, you have embraced the interdisciplinary—seeking out the connections among diverse subjects, and joining them to greater effect.

You not only have a terrific education, but many of you have paid it forward by volunteering in your communities. You not only know how to speak and write in English, but also many of you speak other languages or have lived abroad. You not only intuitively understand how to navigate the internet, but also how to employ social media to marshal others to your cause.

These habits will serve you well as you help reimagine new ways of working—beyond the traditional silos and channels that limit us today.

After all, so many of the challenges we face are inherently multidimensional.

Equipping children to succeed is about much more than fixing schools. Ensuring we can feed a hungry world is about much more than better seeds. Improving maternal health in developing countries is about much more than prenatal care.

Complex challenges demand critical thinkers, trained to see and reach beyond the lines. You can help us devise multifaceted solutions... and make those solutions real.

Likewise, Dickinson has taught you to get to know the world around you—a world whose variety is captured on the international street sign, not far from where we meet.

Your campus itself has been home to students and faculty from 48 countries. An impressive majority of Dickinsonians spend part of your studies abroad.

So you know from experience—whether gleaned in Cameroon or over coffee with friends in The Quarry—that no one nation, tradition, or group has a monopoly on wisdom.

You know we have much to learn from one another. You know we all have much to share.

You are already part of an international network that expands beyond the digital bounds of Facebook. And you can help us forge a new era of collaboration that extends to every continent.

Dickinson also has nurtured in you a sense of civic duty.

I know many of you are going on from here to serve in various ways—from wearing our nation’s uniform… to joining Teach for America… to volunteering with Peace Corps… to CityYear.

And I am confident all of you will find ways to give back over the course of your career.

Because, for all the hype about millennials being an entitled “Me Me Me” generation, in fact, yours is a generation determined to make a difference… and to use the new tools and technologies at your disposal to lift other people’s lives.

So even though the challenges are immense, when I look out at you, I feel hopeful. I see in you the optimistic, forward-looking spirit that has distinguished Dickinsonians from the start.

Let me close with the words of one of Benjamin Rush’s contemporaries—Abigail Adams. In the midst of our nation’s hard-fought war for independence, she wrote a letter to her son John Quincy.

As she said, and I quote: “These are times in which a Genious would wish to live.” For as she explained, “Great necessities call out great virtues”—and forge great characters.

Benjamin Rush—and Abigail Adams—were men and women ahead of their time.

Now, this time is yours.

Your time to define. Your time to make a difference… and to make history.

I hope that you will go forward with confidence, despite the burdens handed down to you by others; that you will employ your talents to keep pace with technology—while remembering that there is no technological answer to the questions that matter most; that you will take pride in who you are, but leave room for the pride of others; and that by your actions, you will each add luster to Dickinson’s name—and to your own.

Congratulations again—and thank you for letting me share with you this perfect day.