WASHINGTON – On Saturday, May 9, 2009, Wisconsin’s 1st District Congressman Paul Ryan delivered the commencement address for graduates of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Ryan was awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater, as the university celebrated 200 years of national service. The text of Ryan’s remarks follows:
President Hodge and graduating students:
Thank you for your kind introduction. I congratulate all of you on receiving your degrees. It’s a tremendous achievement, and we know you have worked hard to get here. I also congratulate you parents…you get to stop receiving tuition bills! Speaking seriously, you have made an extraordinary sacrifice to prepare these graduates to make their character on the future of this country, whether through career, family, or other forms of service.
I also must offer my congratulations to my fellow alumni who are being honored for having distinguished themselves serving our country: Brigadier General Brooks, Judge Holschuh, Brigadier General Koper, Admiral Lippert, and my good friend Mike Oxley – your lifetimes of service exemplify Miami's 200-year tradition of influence on the nation. You have paid back Miami’s educational investment in you many times over.
Now I have read that Miami Student editorial about this commencement, headlined “Bicentennial class deserves more prominent speakers.” You know what? I agree. Why, this new fellow Steve Dreihaus…he’s only been a Congressman for 126 days! But at least Steve is an alumnus. You might have settled for someone who didn’t even attend Miami and has held office an even shorter time…like President Obama!
It is an honor to be back at Miami. I remember my own transformative experience here. I came to Oxford after a difficult high school experience where I lost my father, helped take care of my family, and really had to grow up fast. It is here at Miami where I was able to find myself; I found a sense of direction and a sense of identity. The incredible people that shaped me here – friends, faculty, and mentors – have left an indelible mark that I’ll forever be grateful for.
It was here where I fell in love with economics and public policy, and six years after graduating, I got elected to Congress. That was ten years ago, but it seems like yesterday. You will be amazed at how fast time passes.
It is here at Miami where friends and professors alike challenged me to stretch my mind, and think critically of the world we live in. One person that comes to mind is Professor Rich Hart. Dr. Hart is a professor who took interest in this student who wished to learn – and provided much more than just an education in economics, he provided a vision quest in my mind to improve the economics of our nation.
One of the best habits I’ve learned to develop is ask those that are older and wiser to share what they know now that they wish they knew at my age. So now, I’d like to offer a few thoughts of my own, and perhaps provoke some thought among yourselves.
Don’t settle for mediocrity, and embrace the truth – even when it’s inconvenient. Not your definition of truth or mine, but the truth. Knowing the truth is certainly not easy; in fact it’s a lifelong search, a journey you’ve begun to travel here at Miami.
Some of you will go on to graduate level programs while others will enter the world of commerce and work. As we are all aware, today our business- and employment-supporting economy is shrinking, entrepreneurial opportunities are low, and real jobs are scarce. As if our economic decline were not problem enough, we are bombarded with warnings that America’s greatest days are behind us. That we have run our course and it’s time to accept the fact that our best days are over.
Today there is a pervasive gloom that overshadows our thinking across the board. It penetrates our media, our entertainment, our pleasures, our politics, and our schools. What’s worse is a kind of deadly conformism that fears to challenge the gloomy pieties of the age.
About half a century ago, another conformism dominated. It was an age of rigid managerial bureaucracies – where most people focused solely on moving up the business ladder. The corporate conformism of that age measured everything in shades of gray, took no risks, and discouraged any imagination or thought that did not follow the organization norm.
Young people can’t tolerate rigid conformism and pointless rules for long. Students revolted against this narrowness and led campus rebellions against the corporate conformity in the 1960s. I am not judging the 60s. But I wonder whether we haven’t somersaulted back to a more subtle conformism, rooted in the rebellion that overthrew the old one.
The old conformists wore uptight gray-flannel suits, and would be horrified at the concept of jeans in the office. Today, the very reverse. The ideal family of the old conformism was the traditional family structure. The rebellion of the 60s demanded freedom for every style of life, so the only scandal to the new conformism is to privilege the traditional married family. In the days of the old conformism, children using naughty words only had their mouth washed out with soap. Today’s students, faculty, and administrators at many academic institutions must learn which words or phrases can never be spoken—or might even sound like a word that can’t be spoken—for fear of being ostracized.
We have moved from a world of accepted right and wrongs to a relativist world where everything is okay but for accepted rights and wrongs.
Yet, everywhere we look, we sadly see people in the public and private sector cutting corners, looking for the easy way out, scoring a quick profit, seeking personal power at any price, or doing whatever feels good rather than serve as a force for good.
Let me ask an odd question: why do we complain about this?
We complain because everyone knows innately that there are standards of right and wrong that we are all expected to follow. These standards are not just feelings; they are not set down by man or by government – they are transcendent standards that apply for all time in all places.
The conformism of our time is relativism. Destroy these timeless standards and you destroy our highest hopes and aspirations. How can young people tolerate this stifling conformism? If we only had to endure it for four years, it might be tolerable…but I’m afraid it’s just the beginning. In Washington, at the center of the American political order, there is nothing more “correct,” nothing more necessary than to conform to the pessimistic view that America has lost its primacy in the world and we are going to have to live with decline at home and abroad.
We are supposed to adjust to shrunken dreams and manage the stagnation by controlling more and more sectors of what was once a free society. Free society turned out to be a failure – it allowed unlimited greed to bring our economy down. Now government – moderate, selfless, unambitious government – must step in to direct producers, investors, homebuyers, and entrepreneurs to drive greed out of the 21st century. Government also has to take the lead in creating jobs. If you ask how government can create a job without paying for it by taking the money from jobs and workers in the private sector, the new conformists will label you “uncompassionate” or worse. The best we can hope for, they say, is to survive.
My friends, America isn’t a nation of survivors. America is a nation of dreamers, innovators – we are a nation of winners. Don’t settle for survival strategies, the conformism of the right or the left. The old conformism of the giant corporation and the new conformism of the government bureaucrat are practically the same thing.
Erecting more hurdles on entrepreneurship, work, savings, and capital, and blinding the vision of risk-takers with a wall of directives is Washington’s analog to campus conformism. All the problems we have talked about can be addressed and solved, but only through imagination, passion, and ambition to succeed. Don’t be afraid to break out of deadly conformity. The order of human liberty is one. It requires economic freedom just as much as political and social freedom. Don’t be afraid to stake your claim to freedom!
You should demand liberty because you need it to fulfill your God-given potential. Consider the truths that were called self-evident in our Declaration of Independence: that all human beings have natural rights to live, be free, and pursue happiness. Every one of you has an inalienable right to follow the highest goal of your life, which is your greatest potential. It includes the right to keep the earnings of your work in any good career—as a teacher, an artist, a financier, a union organizer, or even a public servant. The right to excel belongs to every person by the laws of nature and of nature’s God. These rights did not come from government, and no government has the authority to take them away from you.
In closing, being everything your nature intended you to be depends on nothing but yourself – your intelligence, courage, imagination, passions, and gifts. Every man and woman in this room and across the country is the ultimate resource for growth and happiness.
Never settle for the counsels of mediocrity. Trends and pieties come and go, but the example of excellence in any endeavor is nonconforming and enduring. If each of you strives to fulfill all the potential you have, I am confident that nothing can prevent America from continuing in its place as the model of human freedom that can still inspire the world.
That’s all I have to say. Thank you, and congratulations.