Summer Commencement Address, Idaho State University (On the Hutchinson Quadrangle, August 4, 1994 -- I received a very handsome honorarium for this speech.)
I do not know if Abraham Lincoln gave any commencement addresses, but a line from one of his most famous speeches suggests that he may have. I am referring to the passage in the Gettysburg Address where the president said, “People will little note nor long remember what we say here....”
My own experience as an undergraduate certainly underscores the wisdom of Lincoln’s statement. The speaker at my college commencement twenty-seven years ago was Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a man known to me at the time chiefly because he had served in 1962 as chief counsel to Clarence Earl Gideon in the celebrated case of Gideon v. Wainwright; the case that established the right of counsel in state courts in felony cases. Fortas’s biographers suggest that when he delivered the commencement address at my college, Associate Justice Abe Fortas was actively advising the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on most of the major events of the day—how to avert a threatened rail strike in April, how to deal with riots in Detroit in July, and how to win in Vietnam in November.
I do not recall that Abe Fortas discussed the rail strike or civil rights or Vietnam that day.
He might have talked to us about the war—today known as the Six Days War—between Egypt and Israel that raged in the Middle East as he spoke. Two days before he addressed my graduating class, Fortas hosted a dinner party attended by the president and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. After dinner, he hinted to the two men that war between Israel and Egypt might be eminent. LBJ and McNamara discounted Fortas’s statements, only to learn at 4:30 the next morning that Israel had attacked Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
Truth to tell, I have no idea what Abe Fortas said.
I do remember thinking about the 500 mile drive to my home that I would begin shortly after he stopped talking. I do recall looking around at my classmates and thinking that I would never see most of them again. I do recollect wondering what would happen to me in coming years. Like Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, in the 1967 box office hit, “The Graduate,” I was “a little concerned about my future.”
Today, I would be surprised if most of you do not have similar thoughts.
Who’s going to start a new job?
Who’s going to pursue a new degree?
Who’s wondering right now what you’re going to fix your family for dinner?
Before ISU lets you get on with your lives, I want to focus on the rest of Lincoln’s famous statement at Gettysburg. Having suggested that people would forget what he said there, he said they would never forget what the soldiers had done there.
I ask you to think for a few minutes about some of the things you did while you were here.
You attended classes—both required and those of your choice. You studied—in libraries, in laboratories, in the Pond Student Union Building. You read; you listened; you talked. You practiced; you crammed; you wrote papers. You learned a trade. You rode the bus; you stood in line; you borrowed money. Some of you complained.
And whether it’s obvious to you or not, as a student at Idaho State University you helped to advance knowledge, because that’s what colleges and universities do—they advance knowledge. Discovery is what universities are all about.
Perhaps you assisted in a laboratory or a clinic where cures for diseases are being sought or ways of changing human behavior are being refined. Maybe you wrote an article that will be published. Some of you waded in streams collecting samples that will improve the quality of Idaho’s waters. If you went to archaeology field school, you pushed open the frontiers of knowledge about human habitation in this environment centuries ago.
I hope at least one of you created something that no one else understood.
Occasionally, the world applauds the fact that universities stand at the forefront of knowledge. But much of the time, the ability of universities to discover appears muddled because knowledge ignores public opinion polls. Discovery disregards candidates for political office. Inquiry shuns expediency. Knowledge has no “bottom line”—it is elusive and multi-faceted. Therefore, people who pursue knowledge cannot be judged by what is conventional, by what is popular, or by what is politically correct or incorrect. They do not speak in “sound bites;” they may not meet a deadline. They make “important people” mad.
Discovery has no agenda, published or hidden. Knowledge has no middles or ends, only beginnings. That’s one reason why this ceremony is called a “commencement.”
Today, as you graduate from Idaho State University, your knowledge is like the proverbial cup. In some areas, it overflows. So, be confident. In other areas, your cup is only half full. So, be humble. And in those areas where your cup contains less than what your needs will require, be diligent in your pursuit of knowledge.