2009 commencement address by Congressman John Spratt
I wish everyone could see what I can see standing from this vantage point. It’s a stirring site. As you marched in, we could almost feel your hearts beating. We could certainly feel your parents’ pride surging. This day has been a long time coming. And, I’m happy to celebrate with you, but I have to admit…you worked a lot harder for your Citadel degree than I did for mine. Mine is honorary. And I’m honored to have it for several reasons, one of which is very personal.
My grandfather attended The Citadel in the late 1890s, but had to leave before graduating so that his brother could go on to dental school. But, in keeping with his training at The Citadel, my grandfather joined the National Guard and rose to command one of the most decorated regiments in World War I. The 118th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Division. A unit that was full of Citadel men.
In September and October of 1918, the 118th broke the Hindenburg Line and opened a way for an end to the first World War.
What my grandfather took away from The Citadel and what he experienced in the war most of all, oddly enough, was an abiding, deep-seeded conviction about education. He was not a wealthy man, but he spent much of what he had to send one son to Yale, and another to West Point, and a daughter to Ashley Hall.
A hundred years later, I stand before you as a grateful grandson thankful to The Citadel for educating my grandfather and lighting the fire that led to my own education. Therefore, I accept The Citadel’s diploma today on Papa’s behalf as a substitute for one he earned in the classrooms here at The Citadel and on the battlefields of France and Belgium, but never received.
Now, having said all of that, the first question I want to deal with is the question that’s on the mind of all graduates at commencement. And that question is: “How long is this guy going to talk?” I’ll share with you a little story that I tell at every commencement. It’s about a salutatorian at Davidson College, which is my alma mater, Dabney Stewart was his name. He stood to make what was supposed to be a 10-minute talk and said simply, “Jesus Christ taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have nothing significant to add.” And, he sat down. But, whenever I prepare a speech for commencement, it occurs to me that of all of those that I’ve read or heard, Dabney’s is the only one I actually remember.
This day is a milestone in your lives. As I look out into your faces, I can tell you have a great sense of achievement, as you should. But what I hope you have is an even greater sense of potential of what is possible during your lifetime. For years, Claude Pepper, representative from Florida, was the dean of the House of Representatives. He had hung above his desk, two large photographs. One was signed by Orville Wright. It was a photo of the first flight at Kitty Hawk. The other was signed by Neil Armstrong. It was a snapshot of the astronauts stepping from the lunar module onto the moon. Both events happened in Claude Pepper’s lifetime. And he kept both of those photos above his desk so he has what one generation in a span of a lifetime could accomplish.
I believe that the future before you has an even broader span. Oh, I know these are tough times, but in your lifetimes, we’ll end our dependence on fossil fuels -- I’m convinced of that. We’ll grow tissue from stem cells. We’ll crack the genetic codes within us, and explore the galaxies outside us. One facet of the future, if you want just one measure of what our technology can do, one facet of the future that has really transformed the way we do everything is the Internet. And, we’ve only begun to tap its potential.
We are blessed in this country with the best system of higher education in the world. And, you’re among the beneficiaries. So am I. But, we live in a knowledge-based economy. When good is not good enough. The education of our country, what we offer in the way of education must be superior, second to none, and accessible to all. That’s just one reason it is unconscionable for South Carolina today not to lay claim to the $700 million in the federal stimulus funds, which are available for the asking.
I commend you for what you have learned here at The Citadel, and the way you have worked, but I have to tell you that the one lesson you should take away from The Citadel today, is that your education does not end here. Today, as never before, learning is a lifelong enterprise. What you have acquired at The Citadel is the framework to keep on growing, to keep on learning. Put your diploma on display, of course. You earned it. You deserve it. But hang it as a reminder to yourself that you are still a student: this is where your education began, not where it ended.
As you graduate from The Citadel, you enter, I’m sorry to say, the worst economy since the 1930s. Unemployment in our state is in double digits, the federal deficit this year will top $1.7 trillion in one year. It will push the national debt over $12 trillion. We passed a budget to cut that deficit back by two-thirds over a period of five years. I had a hand in writing the budget, and I think it’s attainable and credible, but the resulting deficit is still $525 billion in 2013. And that’s not supportable. Not over the long run at least.
Social Security and Medicare are two of our crowning achievements. But, their solvency is in doubt past 2050. This is a tab that my generation is leaving your generation to pick up. Now fortunately, the factors that swell this year’s deficit are one time, non-recurring, and that makes it easier to cut the deficit down to a manageable size and frankly, I think we can emerge from our current economic situation chastened and stronger, even if leaner. And I would say, before you curse your faith, remember your calling.
Twenty years ago, we witnessed what many thought we would never live to see: an end to the Cold War. But, just as we were beginning to think an era of peace was dawning before us, we found ourselves in a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan against a ruthless enemy called Al Qaeda and in Afghanistan, the Taliban. We realized again that every generation of Americans has to face its own challenges, whether it’s Cold War, World War, Civil War, recession. Ours happens to be a deep recession scrapping bottom. Or worse still, in terrorists who may have nuclear weapons within their reach.
As gloomy as these things are, they do not make our generations, yours and mine, different from any other. It simply means that we can glide into the future and rise effortlessly at a destiny we all desire. To sustain America, we have to work, we have to save, we have to strive, we have to sacrifice, and we have to be aware of politicians who pedal quick solutions.
We gather this morning among friends and family, feeling comfortable and secure, but you understand this as well as any graduating seniors this week. As I speak, convoys move from Baghdad to Mosul, through areas of roadside bombs. Soldiers sleep on the hard metal floor of their Bradley fighting vehicles.
And, on the Indian Ocean, crews stand watch even against pirates, and in Afghanistan, patrols move through the cold craggy mountains or the grey featureless desert. We forget how much we owe these Americans until a crisis comes along, or tragedy strikes. And then we see the firefighters rush to the top of the building as the occupants rush downward and we later call their feats heroism; they demur and say the were simply doing their duty, but in truth, they raised the bar of duty for all citizens of our democracy.
If Americans like these are willing to risk their lives so that we can live free and secure, surely we owe it to them to make freedom flourish, to make this country worthy of their sacrifice.
Back in 1776, at the convention in Philadelphia, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, “We cannot guarantee success. But, we do believe we can do something better. We can deserve it.” And, that should be our overarching objective. Not just asking God to bless America, but making America worthy of God’s blessing.
Benjamin Mays was born in South Carolina, the son of sharecroppers. He rose to be the sixth president of Morehouse College. He used to tell his students at graduation, “No one can fault if you reach for the stars and fail. You can only be faulted if you fail to reach.” Well, if you’re willing to reach for the stars, it can be an exciting time to be young, alive, and American. For America is a work in progress, and a long way from perfect. Our nation may have won the Cold War, but not the war on poverty. Not yet, with children still going to bed sleepy and hungry at night. Our GDP may be the largest in the world, but three-quarters of negative growth is nothing to tout; neither is the financial condition of the old bastions of the economy -- GM, Chrysler, AIG, Lehman, Citicorp, even Wachovia. We may spend large sums of money on education, but nations like Singapore and Korea still eat our lunch on international exams. We call this country a great experiment, and it is. But, what has happened in America is not experiment and no accident. It happened because each generation stood on the shoulders of the one coming before, as you do today, and dare to do more.
You know, you may think that I am beginning to talk glibly like most graduation speakers about factors that are way beyond your control. There’s a tendency to think that we as individuals can do little about the so called megatrends of our times. But at bottom, it all begins with us. Each of us must decide whether to be a hammer, or to be an anvil. Whether to make things happen for us, or let things happen to us.
You chose to come to college, but now you’ll have to choose what to do with your life. As you make those choices, it is important that you draw the right lessons from your education. The Citadel has taught you to be inquisitive, to ask questions, to seek proof. That’s important, that’s the essence of a modern education. But, you’ve also been exposed to what Paul told the Corinthians centuries ago: the things in life that matter the most are the things we cannot see -- hope, love, compassion, courage, and empathy. You’ve also had the importance of the work ethic drilled into you. But as important as work in your career connections are going to be, the human connection with your children and your spouse and your friends and family are the most vital you will ever make. It’s an old homily, but it’s worth repeating; no one has ever been heard to say on his deathbed, “I spent too much time with my family.”
There’s a paradox about education; we pursue it for selfish reasons essentially. To be our own person, to get a good job, good pay, all the good things of life, and that’s all right. If we come out of it with the understanding that we are not an island unto ourselves, but members of a community to whom we are deeply committed. So, I urge you to work hard and excel as you have here at The Citadel, and engage in something larger than yourself in your day-to-day jobs. Do something that adds to our commonwealth. To a significant degree, and I commend you for this, many of you already have. Thirty-six percent of your class will be commissioned officers today. Fifty-six percent will take their commissions in the United States Army, making The Citadel second only to West Point in the production of second lieutenants. You uphold an old tradition. A proud one. That of the citizen soldier. And I salute every one of you for the service you render to our country.
As you leave The Citadel, where you were nurtured, challenged, stretched, and changed for the better, take with you not just the contents of what you were taught, but the character of those who taught you. Listen to that small voice inside you that says from time to time, go the other way. Hold to what is good. Always do more than asked of you. Never lose sight of who helped you here. And in turn, reach out to help others.
Remember, you have drunk from wells you did not dig, and eaten from vineyards you did not plant. You have a deep obligation to give back. True to your education, think clearly, and care deeply. Remember the values this college taught you, and I believe you and your generation can have a future worthy of your dreams. You can add luster to this old institution we call The Citadel, and at the same time, make America a more perfect union.
To each of you graduating today, well done!
Good luck, and God’s speed.