Summer commencement at Florida State University — Tallahassee

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Aug. 5, 2006. The occasion was the summer commencement ceremonies at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

President Wetherell, this distinguished faculty, families and friends and, most of all, today’s to-be-congratulated graduates, I am honored to be with you. Led by your president, this is a university on the road to greatness.

Now…should any of you wonder – and you should – why a University of Florida graduate could possibly have enough wisdom to say anything of value to FSU graduates, I would say in my “defense”: First, yes, I did go to Gainesville (clearly too young, you might imagine, to know any better!). Second, I hope you would give me some credit for being in a family of 16 FSU graduates with a total of 21 Florida State degrees. And, third, I want you to know that I root for the Seminoles for no fewer than 10 football games every year!

You have before you a most-of-my-life newspaperman who loved the business so much that in 35 years at seven newspapers as reporter, editor or publisher I missed not one day of work (which is, I must acknowledge, the mark of a truly obsessed human being!).

When then Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles recruited me 10 years ago for a mission of “school readiness,” I knew absolutely nothing about the topic (though you have before you the father of five children – one, I should note, with two FSU degrees and married to a fellow with an FSU doctorate). What I came to understand about high-quality early childhood development, care and education re-energized my life and led me to “retire” from a business I loved intensely. I came to find out not that the only learning years of one’s life are to be found in the earliest years – people do learn all their lives — but rather that the windows wide open during those early years will never again be open quite so wide. I came to know that the very future of public education “reform” will depend on bringing children in far better shape to formal school than so many are. I came to believe that we must build a movement for everyone’s child — poor, rich and in-between.

You have before you someone who has never lost energy or idealistic impulses. I hope I never do. The most important moments of our lives are infused with a belief in higher purpose. (“We were born,” said Nelson Mandela, “to make manifest the glory of God within us.”)

The greatest stories in human history, my years in journalism remind me, are those of individuals who made such a difference in the lives of others. None of us will save the world, but in each of us resides the capacity to make an extraordinary difference in many lives.

Hold tightly to your integrity. Always be growing your skills. Never let life embitter you. (Real pain will enter all our lives. Our test is how we will handle that pain.) Hold always onto the idealism that furnishes a real purpose for life. And please nurture a lifelong sense of purposeful outrage.

I, a fully registered independent, am not “partisan” or “political” in the pejorative sense of those words. Nor am I a cynic. But I am a trained skeptic. I think it dangerous to assume that government is “pure” when we know that none of us is. I think it vital to spend some of our time on constructive outrage; society’s progress depends on it. In that spirit, I give you a half-dozen examples that come to my mind:

  • 1: Be outraged that we had a budget surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars in Florida, and yet 3 million Floridians (including a half-million children) have no health insurance.
  • 2: Be outraged that your elected representatives in Tallahassee figured out a way to eliminate the taxes on stocks and bonds and liquor by the drink, yet couldn’t find the dollars or gumption to move toward credentialed teachers and, hence, fulfill a constitutional mandate of “high quality” for Florida’s prekindergarten program. And this despite the fact that the latest FCAT scores show more than 65,000 of Florida’s fourth graders are struggling readers. Early investment is crucial..
  • 3: Be outraged that one oil company can make more than $10 billion in just three months, while your gas prices continue to go up. Remember, too, that 80 percent of the tax savings voted this spring by your elected representatives in D.C. went to the top 10 percent of taxpayers..
  • 4: Be outraged that our government sent more than a billion dollars in funny-farm assistance to supposed victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including season football tickets, alcoholic beverages, a tropical vacation and even a divorce lawyer.
  • 5: Be outraged that personal privacy is under assault in America – aided and abetted by technology that can tell the government whom you called and whom you e mailed and so much more that is only your business.
  • 6: Be outraged that our great country can figure out how to invest $5 billion dollars every month to try to bring democracy to Iraq, and yet we live in a nation where more than 12 million children live in the full definition of poverty.

And don’t let anyone shut you up! Democracy needs you to speak up. “The greatest menace to freedom,” Justice Louis Brandeis told us many years ago, “is an inert people.”

A very great American of my growing-up years was known as “Mr. Conservative.” In the darkest days following Pearl Harbor, Sen. Robert Taft, son of a President, reminded Americans: “Too many people desire to suppress criticism because they think it will give some comfort to the enemy…. If that comfort makes the enemy feel better for a few moments, they are welcome to it…because the maintenance of the right of criticism will do the country maintaining it a great deal more good than it will do the enemy.”

You, the graduates of Florida State, have been superbly educated. You will do well in this world, I am sure. But your real mark will be made by doing good. Being a good person with a healthy sense of outrage is the best example for those who will come after each of us. I do not ask you to be as good as we, your parents and grandparents, have been; rather, I would ask you to be better than us.

Thank you. Congratulations. And God bless each of you and all of us.