"The Lessons of History: Guide towards a Future of Renewal and Innovation"

Spring Commencement 2009
Assembly Hall, IU Bloomington
May 9, 2009

Change for the Life of a Nation

Over 200 years ago, the great statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”1

Over 200 years later, in his first inaugural address, President Clinton echoed this notion, saying “that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time.”

Clinton then told his fellow citizens that “this is our time. Let us embrace it.” 2

To all the students gathered here today, for the time-honored ceremony of graduation, let me say—this is your time, and you should embrace it.

National Renewal

This is also a time for your entire generation to embrace and celebrate the tremendous historic changes through which you are living.

You may not think of yourselves in this way, but you are the bridges between two remarkable centuries.

Among millions of other innovations, the 20th century saw the development of controlled and sustained human flight—both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. It saw medical breakthroughs that have saved millions of lives and the creation of what has become all-pervasive computer technology.

Your ancestors sowed, plowed, and reaped as well as you google, text, and tweet.

And today you stand at the dawn of a new century.

The 21st century has already seen Olympic records shattered, the mapping of the human genome, and the emergence of the Facebook generation. And it has also seen the election of the first African American as President of the United States.

This election was truly a milestone in American history. It revealed the power of hope and the belief in change that make this country the home of dreams.

The election also speaks to a new generation of civic and political engagement that drives the engine of democracy. Voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election was the highest since the 1960s. 3 The Bloomington campus alone reported a 287 percent increase in voting among IU students compared to 2004. 4

The Lessons of History

But of course, it is wise to temper optimism with realism.

These are difficult and uncertain times. Perhaps now, more than ever, we must return to the lessons of history.

Eighty years ago, October 29th came to be known as Black Tuesday, the dawn of the Great Depression. Upon taking office three years later, President Franklin Roosevelt turned to this country’s leading intellectuals and policy experts—his Brain Trust—for guidance. Although relatively young with little experience of government office, they accepted this weighty burden and generated a culture of creative innovation in new policies, programs, and institutions that ultimately helped pull this nation out of crisis.

Today the nation faces severe economic difficulties the likes of which we have not seen since Roosevelt’s day.

These times call for that same culture of creative innovation. In the coming years, you will help build that culture, and—through it—will confidently confront the grave challenges of our times.

Freed by the flexibility of mind, skill, and habit that come with the very best liberal education, you are prepared for those challenges, prepared to bear the weighty burden of responsibility, prepared to offer new ways of thinking. You are prepared to be the architects of new economic structures, the builders of new institutions, the creators of new policy. You are the entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists, teachers, writers, and musicians of the next generation.

Let me say again, this is your time, and you should embrace it.

Celebrating Individual Achievement

And you have invested years of diligent effort to reach this moment.

Your many achievements at Indiana University are testimony to that fact.

Your class—the class of 2009—includes the President and the Vice President of the Board of Aeons, an Indiana College Journalist of the Year, and the founders of the Trockman Microfinance Initiative.

It includes the drum major of the Marching Hundred, the concertmaster for the IU Philharmonic, and a member of the Kuttner Quartet, who has performed with Joshua Bell.

It includes an Academic All-Big Ten, NCAA All-American, and Olympic diver. And that is just one young woman!

It includes Scholars in Global Citizenship, Marshall Scholars, Goldwater Scholars, and Beinecke Scholars.

Each of these achievements, and countless others, allow you to measure your individual progress over the last few years.

By the finest faculty, your characters have been shaped. Amidst beautiful surroundings, you have honed your sensibilities. In search of wisdom, you have achieved excellence.

You are the leaders of the global future, and your decisions will have a worldwide impact. Whether you have earned your degree in anthropology or journalism, informatics or optometry, everywhere you will see signs of global connections.

And everywhere you will see signs of change.

There is a decline in confidence in the structures and institutions that have supported and ensured global stability and prosperity since the Second World War.The NEED for change, the CASE for change grows stronger—more compelling—every day.

At its best, such change will kindle the fires of hope, fan the flames of courage, and temper the steel of leaders.

Let me say again, this time of change is your time, and you should embrace it.

A Call for Courage and Leadership

In 1960, when President Kennedy accepted his party’s nomination for President, he said, “I tell you the New Frontier is here, and beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier,” he said, “to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past.

But I believe, the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. For courage—not complacency—is our need today—leadership—not salesmanship.” 5

To you, the class of 2009, on this wonderful day of celebration, as you commence your journeys towards broader horizons, this is a time to embrace change.

This is a time for courage and leadership.

This is a time for you to rise to the challenges of the present as you help create the global future.

Thank you very much.

Source Notes

  1. Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. London: Dodsley, 1791. Page 29.
  2. Clinton, Bill. Inaugural Address. Washington, D.C. 21 Jan. 1993.
  3. See the Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network fact sheet “Voter Turnout 2008” http://www.nonprofitvote.org/voterturnout2008. See also the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement fact sheet “Young Voters in the 2008 Presidential Election” http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS_08_exit_polls.pdf
  4. Zumok, Zina. “IU Votors Increase by 287 Percent.” Indiana Daily Student 5 Nov. 2008. http://www.idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=64306&comview=1
  5. Kennedy, John F. Democratic National Convention Nomination Acceptance Address. Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles. 15 July 1960.