Seigenthaler speech at 2003 MTSU commencement

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

I always love to visit Middle Tennessee State University, the fastest-growing and, in my considered judgment, most progressive institution of higher learning in our state.

I congratulate you on your choice of this institution to pursue your degree. MTSU’s commitment to academic excellence will serve you well, whatever your career, whatever your field, wherever it takes you.

And I am exceptionally proud that there is a chair in First Amendment studies in my name in the college of mass communications on this campus.

So when President McPhee invited me some weeks ago to come to make this commencement address to you who are graduates, and your parents and friends, I accepted immediately with great pleasure — even though I confessed to him, as I do now to you, some misgivings about the need for commencement speeches.

You know over the last half century I have heard more than 30 commencement speeches, including two delivered by presidents of the United States.

I heard them — and I paid attention. But I am sad to say that I am unable to recall a single memorable line from any one of them.

Beyond that, over the last quarter century I have delivered perhaps 10 of these speeches, one at this very school during the presidency of Dr. Melvin Scarlet, and again, I cannot remember a memorable line from any one of them.

Well, you are entitled to say, “Look, old man, the leaves are falling. It’s the winter of your years. Has it occurred to you that you are losing your memory?”

To make sure that was not the case, I now have conducted an informal but extensive poll among friends, relatives and acquaintances and have found that not one of them can recall a line from any commencement speech they ever heard. Most of them could not even remember the name of the speaker.

I spoke at a University of Tennessee commencement some years back at which my nephew was a law graduate. As part of my private poll, and in preparation for this visit here today, I telephoned this now-distinguished lawyer, and inquired of him what he remembered from that memorable speech I delivered. He thought about it and then replied:

“I hate to tell you this, Uncle John, but I don’t remember a damned thing you said that day.”

And so I stand here before you faced with two options: First, either to announce to you the numerical results of this personal poll I took, and sit down in two minutes to your uproarious applause and thanks; or second, to accept the challenge and swim against the tide of commencement oratorical history and try to say something memorable over the next 10 or 12 minutes — and then retire to your modest and, hopefully, polite applause.

Seeking advice on which of these two options I should pursue, I telephoned my son, the television anchor for NBC, a Duke University graduate who remembered nothing about his own commencement speech (I was there — but could not help him), and asked for his advice regarding these two options.

He said, “Dad, don’t waste my time. I know what option you will take, whatever I say.”

I said, “Tell me. What do you think I will do?”

He said, “You will swim against the tide for 10 minutes — and probably more.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

He replied, “Because you love the challenge almost as much as you love the sound of your own voice.”

I am sorry to tell you he is right.

Twice now I have facetiously mentioned the word challenge.

Let me use that word now seriously and soberly because it seems to me that the challenge you face — that all graduates face as they leave U.S. institutions of higher learning this year — is meaningfully magnified by events far removed from this campus.

That challenge has to do, of course, with events far removed from this campus, indeed from the shores of the continental United States.

The challenge has to do with the fact that two years, three months and two days ago our world changed with the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

For a moment, let us go back in our minds and revisit that moment and consider what it means for you.

Students had come to their universities just a couple of weeks before that tragic and deadly moment with hope and optimism and enthusiasm, ready to put their creative minds to the task of earning degrees that would prepare them for the world as they then knew it — the world as we all knew it.

A few days later President Bush said these words:

“Freedom and fear are at war.”

Those were so true. “Freedom and fear are at war.” Those of you who are historians know that when we have been afraid, our liberties are most at risk.

The truth is that we are a different people when we are fearful than we are when we are safe and secure.
That day, terrorists declared war on us; not merely on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon,
but on our way of life …

on the differences that separate the terrorists’ way of thinking from ours …
on the differences that separate the terrorists’ culture and ours …
on the differences that separate our democracy from the terrorists’ theocracy …
on the differences that separate our values of freedom and liberty from terrorists’ commitment to physical constraint and thought control …
on the differences between the free and open mind our society invites and encourages and the terrorists’ closed and cloistered mind.

So the terrorist outrages — completely cowardly and totally unprovoked — changed our world … and made us afraid. Freedom and fear were at war. And let us be honest. Freedom and fear still are at war. We remain afraid. Time and preparedness have made us less afraid. We are strong and we know it. We are not paralyzed by fear …

We sit here this morning in celebration of your achievement, your dedicated intellectual pursuits — your earning of degrees — and still we know that any gathering of people anywhere that sits beneath the symbol of the flag of our country is now subject to risk if those who wish to harm us have access and opportunity to do us harm.

We know that our very openness — the openness they condemn — even with our new national awareness with security checks and alerts with a new national commitment to homeland security, makes us always vulnerable.

Think back again to the graduates of that December 2001, and even to those who left university life last year. It was their assumption that a war would make us safe again. They had hopes and visions, inspired by the very best intelligence in the world, that the face of the earth would be rid of Osama Bin Laden, that the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein would fall with his statues … that the people of Iraq and the Arab nations would welcome us and thank us.

But this year’s graduates are confronted by harsh reality. The war goes on … the threat goes on. The danger goes on — and will go on.

The army of terrorists has grown … and grows as we sit here.

For some of you there well may be military service that will interfere with your pursuit of chosen careers.

So, this week commencement speakers like me are addressing graduates like you, and we all are telling you that the institutions from which you are graduating have prepared you for the world you face.

And you think back on your courses of study — your majors and your minors, your undergraduate and graduate degrees — and you are fairly entitled to wonder:

Did science prepare me for this world?

Did the liberal arts? Did nursing or music or agribusiness? Did mass-comm journalism or RIM? Or education? Or music?

But as you think of it, you must know that the great gift of learning goes beyond the discipline of a degree and resides in the development of the student to reason.

To reason, yes: in your job, your profession, in your career …

But to reason as well and, indeed, more importantly, as citizens.

Education opens the mind to reason above all else.

The open mind thinks — thinks independently as well as in community.

The open mind comes to tolerate and sometimes even to appreciate those who hold other ideas and other ideologies, other standards and other values, other concepts and convictions.

The open mind is rational and reasonable — and if it is not, education is a failure.

The open mind can think outside the box … the open mind understands that all life is learning.

Let me ask you to consider with me for just a moment an idea that may be unpopular with many of you.

It has to do with what all of us know is a confusing conundrum about which most of us knew virtually nothing before two years, three months and two days ago, and about which most of us still know too little.

It has to do with the world of Islam.

Public opinion polls now demonstrate that so many of us are hostile to this religion about which we still know so little.

On the one hand, we hear from ministers of the gospel — some who describe themselves as fundamentalist, others who call themselves mainstream … There haven’t been many of them. But there have been too many.

Some of them describe Islam as “an evil religion” …
Some of them have called it “a demons-possessed religion” …
Some have said it was an “intolerant religion” …
Some have described Muhammad as a “terrorist” and “a pedophile.”

Now, far more ministers of diverse religions have described Islam in terms that fly in the face of those negative characterizations. They agree with President Bush.

Our president has said: “Islam is a religion of peace.”

You may remember the television scenes of our president, at the close of the Islamic holy season of Ramadan, visiting and speaking at that mosque in Washington, expressing his belief to those present that he believes, as he has said, “Islam means peace.”

Democratic Party leaders have expressed the same views.

Those political voices and religious voices of reason have often been muted by our fears.

In a time when we are at war with terrorists, at times when we are fearful … at times when we are angry at outrages perpetrated against us, it is imperative that we understand who the enemy is and who the enemy is not.

This war is not a struggle between the followers of Muhammad and the followers of Jesus Christ.

It is not a struggle between Islam and Christianity.

It is not a conflict between the Arab world and the United States.

There are 3 billion Muslims in this world. In our majority Christian nation of 285 million, there are some 3 million Muslims, the majority of whom are good, decent, law abiding, tax-paying, God fearing … and understand that the Muslim’s Allah is our Christian God, one and the same … they are decent, loyal citizens…

Many of them feel isolated and alienated and punished by the attitudes of so many Americans who look upon them with suspicion and even with hostility.

Many of them feel harassed by their government — our government. Many of them feel that their children have been mistreated at school. Many of them feel lonely and dispossessed.

If you read the Web sites of Arab-American groups, you find expressions of pain and fear no less than our own.

If your education has taught you to think … to reason … to be rational … then you know that we cannot for a moment entertain a religious war. Not in this country … and not in the world.

You don’t have to be a history major to know that the age of the Crusades is long since gone.

The time has come for those of you who think independently to find ways to reach out across difference and across fear. Indeed it is past time.

That is the challenge of this generation of graduates. You don’t have to be a political science or sociology major to know that throughout our history there has been a dark underside to our national nature that has propelled us to mock our freedom and demean our liberty; has allowed us to brutalize African-Americans, deny equal rights, even the right of franchise, to women, discriminate and punish Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority religions.

All that was out of ignorance.

On his last visit to Tennessee before his death, John F. Kennedy said: “Liberty without learning is useless; learning without liberty is futile.”

I know it is likely that you will leave here and not remember that line he spoke — nor a single line spoken by me.

That does not bother me. I know this institution.

I have confidence that it graduates today citizens with the training and intellect and courage to grasp this and other serious and sober challenges of these difficult times.

And I have confidence that your communities, our country and our world will be the better for your having been here.

My thanks.

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