VPR presents Tom
Brokaw’s address at Dartmouth College’s 2005 Commencement exercises,
held June 12, 2005.
Tom Brokaw is former anchor and managing editor of "NBC
Nightly News," having recently stepped down after more than two
decades in that position.
Over the course of more than four decades, Brokaw built a
distinguished journalistic career in which he achieved many firsts,
won many awards, and became one of the most trusted and respected
figures in broadcast journalism. He has become equally well-known as
author of four best-selling books, including The Greatest
Generation, The Greatest Generation Speaks, An
Album of Memories, and A Long Way from Home.
Thank you Mr. President. Thank you members of the faculty and
trustees at Dartmouth. Thank you as well graduating seniors, those of
you with advanced degrees and undergraduate degrees, and a special
recognition goes out to those of you who are assembled there in the
back who are the parents, and the family and the friends of these
When our daughter, Jennifer, graduated in 1993 from medical school
we were in the felicitous position of having our middle daughter
graduating as well and our youngest daughter graduating as well that
year from their institutions. And so our eldest daughter had a bumper
sticker made up for us that we put on our car with great
pride—it said "Tuition free in 1993."
I’m especially privileged to be here at Dartmouth—it’s a
great relief, frankly. In recent years I’ve given commencement
addresses or class day speeches at Penn, Harvard, and Yale and at
those institutions…hear me out…at those institutions I had to
speak more slowly and use shorter words than I will here.
Let me just make a couple of observations if I can. As I was
coming down the aisle I said to one of the graduating seniors, whose
eyes were, I think, at half-mast at that point—he seemed to be
bleeding profusely—and I said, "What is the class motto of
the class of 2005?" He said, "Sir, it’s hung-over in
Hanover—that’s the class motto today." We will not require
a breathalyzer test, you’ll be relieved to know, before you leave
To those of you who are not graduating with honors, let me offer,
if I can, a moment of reassurance. At my alma mater, the chair of the
political science department, who’s now a man of 95 years of age and
has the emeritus position, still talks to the incoming political
science freshman with one message: if Tom Brokaw can make it, anyone
can. Most of my classmates at the University of South Dakota thought
that my undergraduate degree was an honorary degree. So it is
possible to go forward from here.
I love these occasions, for all the right reasons. It’s an annual
ritual of renewal for me to come to a Commencement at a great
institution like Dartmouth. I come to these academies with a sense of
awe and humility and envy.
Awe that the American dream is still so fully realized in these
environs where the working class and the privileged mingle in common
pursuit of learning and advancement. Moreover, in my lifetime, I have
seen the face of these graduating classes change to the better. The
many hues of color that are among you now is a profound and important
change in our lives. This is a place where immigrants, fresh from
foreign lands, have equal claim to the rule of law and opportunity
and if they choose, the privilege of taking their new skills back
I am humbled by the sacrifices that so many of you have made to
help you to this promising place in your lives. Your family, your
teachers, and some that you may not have considered, especially on a
sunlit morning here in Hanover in early June. As we gather here today
there are young men and women your age in uniform, in far-off places,
in harm’s way, dedicating their lives to your security and you must
remember them on this occasion as well.
I am envious of what you will carry from here—more than the
degree or honors, what you will come to treasure are the friendships
and the fellowship, some of which will accompany you all the rest of
your days. I envy you as well, of course, the thrill of exploring
frontiers of knowledge while rediscovering and re-examining ancient
Most of all, I envy you the road ahead on the 21st century, with
its transformation technology, emerging democracies, developing
economies, shifting power centers and yes, lethal cultural conflicts
that demand attention and resolution.
These are the themes of commencement speeches across a broad
spectrum of campuses this spring and I am fully prepared to expand on
them momentarily. But first, I am compelled to offer somewhat lofty,
but I hope useful, observations. You have been hearing all of your
life about this moment—your first big step into what you have
called and been told is the real world. What, you may be asking
yourself this morning, is this real life all about? Ladies and
gentlemen of the Class of 2005 at Dartmouth, it’s not
college—it’s not high school. Real life is junior high.
The world you’re about to enter is filled with adolescent
pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds and
the false bravado of 14-year-olds. Forty years from now, I guarantee
it, you’ll still be making silly mistakes, you’ll have a temper
tantrum, you’ll have your feelings hurt for some trivial slight,
you’ll say something dumb and at least once a week you’ll wonder,
"Will I ever grow up?"
You can change that. In pursuit of passions, always be young. In
your relationship with others, always be a grown-up. Set a standard
and stay faithful to it.
In this new life you’ll have to think of money in a new way. I
know this is strange to realize but now you’re gonna have to earn it.
You should also think about how you can hang on to some of it and, if
you’re fortunate, use the money beyond what you need to save a life,
save a neighborhood, save a community, save the world. You may be
surprised to learn that is the use of the money that you will earn
over your lifetime that is the most gratifying.
Moreover, while money helps, it is somehow discounted if it
doesn’t also carry your full personal value.
A few years ago, in a ceremony similar to this, I declared,
"It’s easy to make a buck. It’s tough to make a
difference." A father of one of the graduates at that ceremony
wrote to me later and suggested a re-write. He said, "It’s
tough to make a buck, but if you make lots of bucks, you can make a
A or B? You decide. Because there is no wrong answer.
But before you get to that, let’s assign your class a
marker—and explore the consequences. The marker, of course, is
9/11, 2001—the terrorist attack on America, the worst single
assault in this nation’s history. You are the class of 9/11. You had
the dizzying experience of entering college as your country was
entering a shooting war, as a clash of cultures and ideals was
altering political, economic and spiritual landscapes far beyond
these leafy environs.
You found sanctuary here at Dartmouth on this green and the
comforting certainty that if you played by the rules, this important
passage in your life would be successfully concluded in four
Alas, there is not a comparable orderliness about the other
passage, the rough ride resulting from the horrific events of 9/11.
We, as a nation, wherever we live, whatever we believe, wherever
we’ve been educated, whatever we do—we’re still working our way
across open water, forced to navigate by the stars as the old
navigational charts now are of little use.
Our destination remains uncertain. Some seas have been rougher
than we expected them to be. Certain forecasts proved to be
perilously wrong. Unexpected currents keep pushing us close to
dangerous shoals or in directions not of our choosing. It is time, as
they say at sea, for all hands to be on deck, for this is a common
journey and it requires common effort and the collective wisdom of
crew and passengers alike.
Your individual hopes and dreams will be seriously compromised if
the ship of state is allowed to drift on a hazardous course. We
cannot pretend that simply because there has not been another 9/11
the world is as it once was. We are not yet near the end of an epic
struggle between the Western ideal of rule of law, tolerance,
pluralism and modernity and the advocates of a jihad vision of
We cannot wish away the complex set of conditions that fuel a rage
across a broad band of the globe where too many young men and women
your age are caught in a crossfire of claims on their faith and
another way of life playing out on the wider screens that reflect the
images of our world—a world of unveiled women, material excess,
secular joy disconnected from their lives of deprivation and
These young men and women are not incidental to the world that you
are entering. They are the fastest growing population in a world
already over-crowded, especially in that part of the globe where
self-determination remains at best a work in progress. Or at best, a
faint rumor or a distant promise.
Many of them, as I know from my recent travels there again just
this spring, love our culture and speak our language but we show, in
their eyes, no interest in returning the favor. Too many of them love
the idea of America but hate our government, envy our freedoms and
deeply resent what they see as our sense of entitlement, our
determination to tell them how to live their lives. The worst among
them had to be punished and the fight goes on, but no army can
conquer them all or force them to change.
So as you leave here in pursuit of your dreams, try to imagine
theirs. Stand tall. Don’t apologize for what you have or what
you believe in, but get to know what they don’t have, and why.
Take the lead in establishing a common ground between generations,
a common ground of appreciation and understanding, a shared destiny
of self-determination and economic opportunity—and racial
I’m humbled by the presence that I’m in here today with these
honorary degree recipients. One of them is an old friend, Andrew
Young. I was a young reporter in the 1960s and when I was graduating
from the University of South Dakota it was a far different world for
black Americans than it is now, thanks largely to the courage of Dr.
Young, Dr. King and all the others. Black Americans were still
riding at the back of the bus and forced to go to separate restrooms
and drink from separate water fountains. They were denigrated every
day about their fundamental human values, they were not allowed to
vote, and they certainly couldn’t dream that one day they would have
a man among them who would be the UN ambassador to the United States
or twice mayor of Atlanta.
Now we must look beyond our own borders and take that same call.
We must see the ancient Arab culture as something other than just a
pipeline from their natural riches to our insatiable appetite for
energy. This is a place to begin, but fair warning, it will be hard
work—challenging, stimulating, frustrating, dangerous and hard.
For this common ground cannot be found in a piece of software, it is
not hidden in the settings on your toolbar. There is no delete button
for intolerance, no insert button for understanding. This new
technology that so defines your generation is a transformational tool
but as a tool really must be an extension of your head and your
It will do us little good to wire the world if we limit our
vision. It will do us little good to wire the world if we
short-circuit our souls.
No, the world that you inherit now requires personal, hands-on,
be-brave, speak-out courage. We, as the most powerful military,
industrial, political superpower ever imagined, require citizens who
understand that patriotism means to love your country and to always
believe that it can be improved—and that improvement comes not
just from the far right or from the far left, but much more often
from the center. From the arena of public debate and participating,
where ideology always has a place, but where there is no room for
Our best efforts will be for naught if we fail on another front.
If we fail to love our mother—Mother Earth. It will do us
little good to achieve peace on earth if earth becomes a dead
So as you leave here—I hope with a renewed sense of
citizenship and passion for immersing yourself in the human struggles
that define our time—remember as well that individually and
collectively you’re also stewards of the air we breathe, the water
that we drink, wild lands and creatures large and small.
Develop a sense of proportion about your personal and professional
needs. Eschew excess and embrace moderation in your consumption
habits. Sackcloth and kelp soup are not required, but the Buddhist
reminder of the need to live lightly on the earth is a helpful guide
to the daily habits and needs of us all.
Become a missionary in this great, common cause—at home, at
work, among friends. What could be more noble or worthwhile than to
save a forest, preserve a wilderness, protect a wetlands? To save the
And remember as well to honor those who have gone before you.
Sixty years ago this spring and summer Dartmouth men were returning
from a long, ferocious struggle that defined their lives and their
time—World War II, what the British military historian John
Keegan has called the greatest single event in the history of
mankind. Fought for seven years on six of the seven continents, in
all the skies and all the seas, and before it was over 50 million
people had perished. Those Dartmouth men who preceded you and
millions of other men and women their age, your age, had been formed
first by the deprivations and the common sacrifices of the Great
Depression—when they learned the fundamental difference between
need and want, when they shared meals, jobs, clothing, shoes, when
their expectations were borne of hard realities and faint hope.
And just as they were emerging from that dark and difficult time
they were summoned—in uniform and out—to answer one of
history’s most noble calls. To save the world from the madness of
Hitler, and Japan’s equally deranged imperialism.
They became overnight history’s greatest military and civilian
force for good, going from the prairie to the high seas, from the
inner city to the front lines, from the small towns to the cockpits
of new bombers and fighter planes, from the Ivy covered campuses to
the murderous beaches of Europe and the Pacific, to the bitter
winters and suffocating heat of the battlegrounds for four long
At home everyone was involved, growing more food and eating less
so those in uniform would have enough. Rationing gasoline and
foregoing sweets, designing new weapons and new medicine to meet the
When it was over—when, in fact, the world had been
saved—they came home to do something that had never been done
before in the history of warfare. They rebuilt their enemies, they
married in record numbers, they went to college in record numbers,
they gave us new industries and art, new technologies and new laws to
expand the freedoms of those who had been left behind for too
They did not lay down their arms and say, "I’ve done my
They were, I believe more every day, the Greatest Generation.
They were your grandparents and your great-grandparents. They were
your age when they did all of that and all they asked is that you
have a better life. The life that you have today.
You have that life and in their lives, you inherit a priceless
legacy of duty, honor, country and citizenship. Cherish it. Carry it
from here to your new world, return here some day to say, "I did
my share" and make your own claim to greatness.
Good luck and Godspeed.