David Siemers, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, gave the commencement address at the University’s morning commencement ceremony May 16.
Here is a transcript of his speech:
“Thank you, Chancellor Wells. I accept your government-approved elbow bump as a sign of professional respect. Let me add my own welcome to the families and the loved ones of the graduates. Greetings also to my colleagues.
“Graduates, congratulations. This is your day. Good work and well done. You are graduating at a scary time. We’ve got record unemployment for your lifetime, two ongoing wars, massive government budget deficits and to top it all off, the swine flu.
“To me, the least valuable advice about what to do during these times is something I’ve heard quite often on the TV news lately. That advice consists of two words: ‘Don’t Panic!’
“Now, whenever someone on TV says, ‘Don’t panic,’ I can’t help but talk back. I say to my TV, ‘Well gosh, I was planning to panic, but now you’ve got me reconsidering that’ or ‘What? I didn’t hear you. I was too busy panicking!’ or how about, ‘But I do my best work while panicking’?
“What I think the people who tell us not to panic are saying is this: When we come across a new problem, it is particularly scary. In these situations we have to make sure that our emotions don’t dominate our thinking. We need to be smart and calculate the real impact of the problem. And we need to choose constructive responses.
“So let me apply this expanded sense of ‘don’t panic’ to your situation:
“Many of you graduates are undoubtedly apprehensive about finding a job. But take heart. You are more highly qualified than any previous generation of college students. And anyone who runs a business knows that it is cheaper to employ someone fresh out of college than those who have decades of experience. These are challenging times, to be sure, but for recent college graduates, they’re not that much more challenging than normal times.
“The swine flu has been making headlines, but the toll from this virus has been small compared to what we experience every winter from the seasonal flu. You actually took a much greater risk by driving here than you face from the swine flu.
“Comparing these risks suggests a general lesson: Problems which are new tend to receive more attention than problems which are familiar because we’re programmed to fear the unknown. But new problems are typically much less harmful than more familiar ones. Unfortunately, we’re so accustomed to the familiar problems that we often lack the ambition to fix them.
“Let me give you some examples:
“There are nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance. If you really want to see a serious pandemic have devastating effects, then be complacent about solving that problem.
“We encourage the use of corn syrup through government subsidies, we scoff at banning trans fats in foods and we have failed to enact a workplace smoking ban in this state. We literally have policies that make our own population sick. If you want to keep overpaying for health care, then be complacent about these problems.
“And if you want to know why each and every one of you will be paying thousands of dollars simply to keep investment banks solvent, it’s because investment bankers contribute more money to politicians than anyone else. If you think that what the investment bankers have done to you is cool, then be complacent about campaign finance reform.
“In American history, the most important example of a familiar problem which was met with complacency was slavery. In the mid 1850s, Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas even staked his presidential aspirations on the position that he did not care whether people wanted slavery or not. He figured that if he professed not to care, no one would vote against him because he wasn’t opposing them.
“That strategy nearly worked. Luckily, a more principled American rose up to oppose Douglas. Abraham Lincoln hated Douglas’ argument because it taught Americans that it was ok not to care about a massive but familiar problem. Lincoln made this point clear in their debates, saying that Douglas’ policy was ‘blowing out the moral lights around us.’
“I spend a lot of my time thinking about the state university. To me, the most interesting thing about our university is that a fierce battle is raging over what it is for in the first place. This battle is not well-articulated, but there are basically two rival camps.
“The first of these warring ideas is much older than the other. Our state legislature was the first in the nation to set up a tax specifically to support its universities. The idea was that those with college degrees would benefit Wisconsin by helping farmers to increase yields, by opening businesses and creating new jobs, by contributing to the arts and by educating our children.
“What they set up long ago was a kind of ‘social contract.’ Each citizen would pay taxes to support the university, and in return these citizens could expect economic, social and cultural benefits. Each student would receive an education, but they were expected to benefit the state in return. This social contract was called the Wisconsin Idea.
“A second view reasons that the college student is the sole beneficiary of their education. And if there is only benefit to the graduate, why should we support them with tax dollars? This second model presumes that students themselves should pay the bill for their education. In this view, there is no social contract, there is no sense of mutual obligation, there is no expectation of benefits to the broader community and there is no sense of public service. There is just naked self-interest.
“Almost all of you know how this war of ideas is going. When you entered college, the state paid for a greater percentage of your education than it does now. The difference has been made up by higher tuition bills. The self-interest model of higher education is gaining ground. The Wisconsin Idea is losing. And most are complacent.
“Abraham Lincoln spent three minutes delivering the Gettysburg Address. In those three minutes, Lincoln succeeded in rousing his audience from their complacency about slavery to endorse ‘a new birth of freedom.’ And amazingly, he did it all without PowerPoint.
“I’ve already spoken for twice as long as Lincoln did at Gettysburg and accomplished far less. With that humbling thought in mind, I wanted to channel my own inner-Lincoln to offer you a revised version of the Gettysburg Address, intended for today’s graduates, on the subject of education. Here goes:
“Four score and $7,000 ago, your fathers and mothers brought you forth, to a new school, conceived as a teacher’s college and dedicated to the proposition that all men and women can learn equally.
“Now we are engaged in a great graduation ceremony, testing whether the graduates and their families can long endure being tightly packed on bleachers and wedged into folding chairs. We are met on a great athletic field of that University. We have come to grant degrees at that field, as a final act toward those who here gave their tuition that that University might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not certify, we can not confirm, we can not consecrate this education. The brave men and women who struggled to learn here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but you graduates will never forget what you did here. It is for us, both the graduates and the non-graduates, to remain dedicated to the unfinished work which you who learned here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored graduates we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of their devotion — that we here highly resolve that these graduates shall not have learned in vain — that this state shall have a new birth of the Wisconsin Idea – so that higher education of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
“Graduates, the citizens of this state have invested in you. Because of their generosity, you can’t go out into the world just thinking about yourself. Those who still believe in the Wisconsin Idea expect you to uphold your end of the contract. We expect you to give back to our society. Those of us who have had the privilege of teaching you know that you will carefully consider how your decisions impact others and choose rightly. We know that you will recognize the familiar problems that are all around you. And we know that college has helped to give you the skills and the confidence to do something about them.
“Congratulations, class of 2009. We attest to your good work; now we need your good works. Thank you.”
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