- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

“You are privileged people,” I told the graduating students at the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I think all Americans graduating from college in this great land are, that they have a debt to pay and that, in paying it, they will find inner rewards.

Being a graduation speaker makes for nervousness. I kept rethinking and rewriting until just a few hours before delivery time at this sprawling institution of higher education in Richmond, Va. I did not kid myself that I was the fount of exceptional wisdom, but it did seem to me there was something for these young people to think about as they began a new phase in their lives, something too seldom discussed these days: the obligations of citizenship.

I think this is a subject for college graduates generally to think about. That’s why I am sharing a shortened version of the speech — part paraphrase, part verbatim, part rearranged — in a column this Memorial Day weekend.

I made clear to the students I did not think they were privileged because of great wealth or social connections. Their financial status forced many of these young people to balance demanding jobs with heavy academic loads.

But, I said, they were privileged in almost every direction they chose to look — because of their life-enlarging college education, because of the material bounty that made such things readily possible for large numbers in America, and mainly because of the liberties and rights that allowed them to define their lives for themselves.

This privileged way of life, I said, was a “consequence of a democratic, free, republican form of government … of free markets, of the rule of law, and of a Western civilization whose values include a central one, the dignity of the person.” We got to such values and privileges through centuries of people “thinking, disputing, discovering, building.”

We got there because of sacrifices that included death in war. But this way of life, I said, is endangered today largely because of terrorism, that there are those who have “catastrophe in mind for our future,” making us realize both the preciousness of what we have and its fragility.

“So what can you as ordinary citizens do about the terrorist threat?” I asked. “The answer is that you can be something other than ordinary citizens; you can be extraordinary citizens, people whose diligence in the art of citizenship can pay extraordinary dividends.

“Your task is to seek answers to public policy questions as if preparing for a final exam; to examine candidates (with extreme care); to converse with fellow citizens on these subjects; to participate fully and vigorously in this country’s great democratic experiment.

“A successful fight against terrorism requires well-considered policies. Extraordinary citizens can help make that happen. A successful fight against terrorism requires good officials in high public office, and extraordinary citizens can help put them there.

“You should be an extraordinary citizen for other reasons than fighting terrorism as you partake in American prosperity and freedom in the years ahead. You have been given much. You owe something back, something on the order of what previous generations have done on your behalf. If you neglect your obligations, you may pass on a battered, bleeding, much-reduced nation, for terrorism is not the only threat we face at a time when there is so much anger, so much taking without thought of giving, so much carelessness about the future.

“A minimal requirement of you is that you vote, but first inform yourself; voting in ignorance is as bad as not voting. Don’t excuse yourself from voting by saying that all politics is corrupt. Get involved in such a way as to weed out the corruption. If you are a journalist, expose the corruption.

“Through all sorts of organizations, you should do charitable work, and you should fight for your ideals. But also learn to argue with your fellow citizens in such a way that we all learn from each other, keeping our minds open to the chance that we might be wrong, and letting ourselves be persuaded when our evidence is not so good as the other person’s, or flaws in our logic are uncovered, or when our understanding is revealed as shallow.”

There would be a return on their investment in duty, I said.

“You begin to locate meaning in your life when you address concerns that are larger than you are, when you dedicate yourself to goals that do something more than advance your own ambitions. Far wiser people than the one talking to you have observed that it is a mistake to pursue happiness as a thing in itself. Rather, pursue a life that is worthy — a life in accord with your highest principles — and happiness will pay you frequent visits.”

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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