Senator Bennet Delivers 2012 Commencement Address

Bill HolderMay 27, 201219min
Senator Michael Bennet '87 delivered Wesleyan's 180th Commencement Address. (Photo by Nick Lacy)

Senator Michael F. Bennet ’87 presented the Commencement Address on May 27:

Thank you, Board of Trustees… President Roth… proud parents and families…the entire Wesleyan community, and of course, once again, the brilliant graduates of 2012.

Brilliant, yes—but, as Kennedy said, no matter how brilliant, not one of you got here by yourself. So, in the most important moment of this day, let’s hear you say thank you.

A round of applause for everybody who got you here.

Senator Bennet received an honorary degree during the 2012 Commencement Ceremony.

A quarter of a century ago (and by the way, it was about 20 degrees hotter), I looked up at this podium and saw one of America’s greatest comedians: Bill Cosby.

Today, you face Colorado’s junior senator.

I’m not sure what that means for Wesleyan’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, Mr. President, but it cannot be good.

Nevertheless, I accept this honorary degree, much as I accepted my bachelor’s degree: with gratitude… and disbelief.

Because I know I don’t have what it takes to earn a real one here these days.
Sitting among you are classmates who have taught local elementary and high school kids, worked to prevent water-related illnesses in Bangladesh, and notched the most basketball wins in 110 years.

You have classmates who have worked to stop bullying in Middletown… who have burst out of Eclectic and onto the national music scene… and who, in the person of the remarkable Kennedy Odede, and Colorado’s own Jessica Posner, Class of [2009], have opened a school for girls and transformed a community in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum.

It all makes a person wonder: what in the world will you people do for an encore?

Commencement, of course, is a moment to reflect on your past four years and to focus on your future. Perhaps more accurately, it’s a moment for me to focus on your future, while you focus on what you have left to pack.

You’re graduating today with a lot of knowledge gained here… and assumptions about the way the world works. Often, we’re not even aware of these assumptions. But we hold on to them. And pretty soon, these assumptions about how the world works become predictions about how the world will work. And I must tell you that we are very often wrong.

Just one example of many: The year I graduated, President Reagan called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall—a notion that virtually every expert dismissed as some kind of crazy fantasy. I can assure you that no graduation speaker that year predicted that the wall would actually fall, as it did, within three years.

It’s hard to predict the shape of the world—or even just your place in it.

As a senior, I had a vague notion that someday, I might go into public service. I will spare you the story of how I ended up in this job, but I can tell you it had nothing to do with what we discussed at the Wesleyan Career Center.

Indeed, the profoundly non-linear course of my career led one website to greet my arrival in the Senate with this poetic headline: “What the Hell??!”

I’ve got nothing against plans… or sticking to them if you’ve got them… but I think I speak for all college graduates when I say that time makes a mockery of most plans and predictions.

And if anything, today, uncertainty is rising… because the pace of change is accelerating… and the response time of both individuals and nations is shrinking. The luxury of reflection is eroding.

The velocity of our world—the one in which you’ve come of age—would have seemed like science fiction to us in 1987. I arrived here carrying a Smith Corona typewriter with white-out for corrections, and graduated with a Compaq computer the size of a sewing machine. A real man of the future.

When I sat where you are now, I’d never seen anything as cool as a touch screen – not even on TV shows that tried to imagine our future.

Yet even though you’re living through what may be the peak years of change—on the scale of the Industrial Revolution—this sort of stuff is commonplace to you. You have grown up on Facebook and smart phones and tablets and even the plausible idea of self-driving cars.

Your generation is comfortable with all this change, excited about it, impatient for more of it.

And that’s good—because the future is arriving faster and faster, and we’ve gotten no better at anticipating it. Even with the seemingly endless crawl of the words “breaking news” at the bottom of your screen, no one predicted the Arab Spring before it sprung. And that’s the most closely watched region in our world.

The good news, for all of you, is that adaptability is what your generation does best.

And it’s what this place does best. Wesleyan has prepared you to live and thrive in this unpredictable world. This is a school that rewards curiosity. It challenges you to test those assumptions. It encourages flexibility—of mind, of approach, even of body, if you took that class in acrobatic yoga.

Wesleyan has taught you that having a plan counts for less—a lot less—than having your bearings when that plan falls apart.

My Dad, Douglas Bennet, taught me that even before I got to Wesleyan and long before he was President of Wesleyan. And, I cannot tell you what it means to me to be here, in this place, on this day, to say thank you to him. Dad, I love you, and thank you.

The combination I’ve just described—traditional Wesleyan values, enthusiasm for change, and new technological tools—is incredibly powerful, and it’s all yours. And it’s what the world needs now.

Because when we look beyond this campus, we see that the two critical institutions that are supposed to help us first prepare for change and then cope with change – as individuals and as a society — are themselves ignorant of it, or outright opposed to it.

I’m talking about our system of education, and our system of politics. The added irony is that these two institutions themselves are overdue not just for change but for disruptive change, transformative change and reinvention.

When I was superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, I often felt that our children travelled backward in time when they crossed the threshold of their schools, leaving the 21st century at the door.

The whole system can be like that. At a time when only nine out of a hundred poor children can expect to graduate from college, at a time when we need to reinvent learning itself, we are caught in dead-end battles about the minutes in a school day.

Believe it or not—and I imagine you will—the United States Senate is a lot like that, too.

Too often it’s a place that’s immune to new facts, or facts of any kind.

And almost nobody listens to anybody else.

I can remember, shortly after arriving in the Senate, presiding over the graveyard shift one night – the shift they give the new guy. As usual, we were tied up in procedural knots, it was really very late, and no one had been on the floor for hours and hours. And I found myself watching the hands of the clock like a kid in school, and scribbling on the pad they leave on that desk: I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?

Then I thought: hang on a second… Revolutionaries set this place up. Their rigorous arguments, their contest of ideas actually led somewhere. … to a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.

And by the way, while we’re on that topic, in view of Washington’s current debate, I am compelled to remind everyone that the Founders were actually intent on building a country and a society, not dismantling one.

And they envisioned a dynamic country– one that would grow and change.

Sometimes Washington flatters itself by calling our arguments a battle of ideas. But if you listen through the noise for the ideas, you’ll have a hard time hearing any. This is a battle of interests, not ideas. Special interests, masquerading as political parties, powered —as the Wesleyan Media Project is revealing—by obscene amounts of money.

And, that name – “special interests” — by the way, gives them way too much credit. They’re not “special.” They are better understood as “narrow” interests, who, understandably, are fighting to hold on to what they’ve got… and as a result are trying to freeze us in time.

From ancient Athens forward, narrow interests have been the enemy of every Republic, and that has never been truer than it is today.

Even so… they can’t stop your future.

It’s coming, and it will be bright.

After attending about a million town hall meetings all across my state of Colorado, my report to you is that the American people are nowhere near as divided as Washington. On the economy, debt, education, infrastructure, energy, the people I know generally agree on what needs to be done.

The conversation is different at home because, unlike in Washington, the broad interest of the next generation is cause enough to reach agreement; cause enough to see the best in one another; cause enough to believe we can still, and that we will, do our fundamental job as Americans, assuring more opportunity, not less, for the people coming after us.

Cause enough to believe that we are the true heirs to the Founders’ vision for this country.

That’s why, when I go home to a state that is a third Republican, a third Democratic, and a third Independent—I see communities oriented toward change, and pragmatic about how to see it.

People who don’t recognize themselves in the cartoon playing in Washington or in the caricatures of them and and their ideas that are selling narrow interest ads on cable TV. And I’ve tried very hard to represent Colorado’s pragmatism at a time when our national politics seems to demand ideological orthodoxy. Because, our time, in my view, is very poorly suited to orthodoxy.

Some hear this as a call for moderation. It’s not. I don’t think that moderation, for its own sake, moves us forward. Splitting the difference between yesterday’s ideas gets us nowhere.

And this really isn’t an argument between left and right, liberal and conservative.
This is an argument between the past and your future.
And that’s an argument your generation will win.

Your generation has so many more opportunities to lead, to make change, than the Class of 1987 ever did. So many more means to uproot entrenched interests… to discard worn-out assumptions… to overcome obstacles to progress.

There used to be just a few levers of power. But now we’re seeing in this country, and to a spectacular degree overseas, an exponential number of new levers; new ways to create and invent; new ways to dig out information and shout it from the mountaintops; new ways to build coalitions and make your voice heard.

These levers can drive tremendous change at astonishing speed. One area of American life after another has been disrupted by new ideas and new technologies. Nothing is immune, not even a public school or the United States Senate. You will transform American politics for this new age, because otherwise it will become as irrelevant as the British parliament in 1776.

And let me say this, with all due respect to my colleagues: they have no idea how much change is coming, and they have no idea what they’re up against in you.

We need good people to help us make sense of all this change, and channel it. We need your Wesleyan impatience – your impatience with the silliness and downright cruelties of the status quo.

So I ask you today: Apply that impatience to America’s lack of an energy policy. Apply it to the shortage of new ideas and new technologies in our classrooms… Apply it to the searing reality that over a fifth of our children live in poverty… and apply it to inequality in America, which is now more extreme and rigid – in this land where all people are created equal — than at any time since 1928.

And, finally, consider this: some period of public service–teaching might be a good idea–is the debt you owe our country for the privilege of attending this remarkable university.

One closing story. Not long after I went from being a superintendent to being a senator, I found myself missing my old job and its sense of purpose. So, I wandered over to a high-poverty school, and watched a science presentation by a fourth-grade girl who was using a SMART Board. She used it so well it was as if she had grown up with it—and maybe she had.

And as I watched her, I thought about the power of this simple act. Here was a child discovering that she could play an active role in her education – that she could actually teach herself, and even her fellow students. What an empowering discovery for a child.

I realized I was witnessing an emerging possibility that, just a few years ago, wouldn’t have existed for anyone in that school. One that still doesn’t exist for millions of American kids. But with that kind of revolution just over the horizon from Denver to Kibera.

Those are the possibilities—and those are the stakes. As you can see, the real question is not whether we have the means to solve our problems. The real question is whether we have the values—and the wisdom—and the courage—to take the new tools we have in hand, and apply them to the benefit of others as well as ourselves.

That’s the question – but, really, I think we know the answer.
So get out there, 2012, and bring down those walls.

Congratulations, and good luck!