Carthage College Commencement Remarks
On Sunday, May 21, 2006, First District Congressman Paul Ryan gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony for students of Carthage College of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Thank you. Prior to preparing for this speech, I had the opportunity to visit with some Carthage graduates last Saturday at a dinner here in Kenosha . I remember thinking to myself: “This is great, I’ll get some insight as to what these students are thinking so I can craft a memorable and meaningful commencement address that can make a positive influence in their lives.” So I engaged these students and I think their sentiment was summed up best when I asked graduating senior Dave Shepard if he was looking forward to this ceremony, to which he said: “If we’re lucky, we can get out of there in two hours as long as the speaker isn’t long-winded.” So now I’m on Plan B.
So here goes a commencement address – the Cliff Notes version.
To get straight to the point, it’s really quite incredible to think about the world you are entering when you consider the amazing change that’s occurring today. You are graduating from college at a dynamic time in the world, much as I did 14 years ago. For me and my generation, the “X” generation, the Cold War had just ended. The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union brought immense potential for the expansion of freedom and opportunity for countless individuals. Now, the people of the Middle East and Asia are beginning to see their Berlin Wall fall as the opportunity for liberty spreads further. The difference now is that because of technology, particularly the internet, change occurs so much faster, and we are bombarded with great challenges and great opportunities.
Preeminent among these challenges are terrorism and globalization. I’ll focus on globalization: That is, the rise of India, China , and other economic powers that are no longer separated from us by oceans, but by mere broadband. It’s almost too cliché to do this, but I’ll quote from one of the better, most widely read books on the subject: The World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman. “The main challenge [in the world of the 20th Century] was from those practicing extreme communism, namely Russia, China, and North Korea. The main challenge to America today is from those practicing extreme capitalism, namely, China, India, and South Korea. The main objective in that era was building a strong state; the main objective in this era is buildings strong individuals.”
And this is where you come in. You are entering a global marketplace with enormous opportunity and potential, and the nucleus of this society is each of you as individuals. In so many ways, America has built-in advantages in this world. In other ways, we need to adapt to succeed.
Your challenge will be to constantly update your skills. You will have to make yourselves unique and irreplaceable, or at least adaptable to the changing marketplace. There will be many great jobs – no, great careers out there if you create them, if you seize them.
This is why your education here at Carthage is so precious, so special. Here at Carthage you have not just learned, you have expanded your capacity to keep learning. And this capacity, along with your God-given talent and your own effort is why you are prepared to succeed.
Our task as a country is to reform our government and institutions to meet these challenges so America will thrive in the 21st Century.
This means benefits, like retirement and health care, must be the portable property of each citizen. It means we have to adopt an education system of lifelong learning. We have to help our entrepreneurs and businesses stay globally competitive.
America has seen such challenges before, and I think we are up to this task. I am optimistic that this will be another great American century. This is our global economic challenge.
There is, however, a greater challenge that you face today. This challenge is not new competition from some outside economic power, it is from within our society, and, in some cases, within ourselves. It is a cultural challenge. This challenge you are facing is a society largely infused with the notion that morals are relative and truth is simply a matter of opinion.
Today the concept that there are core principles and immutable truths that apply to all humans is regarded with disbelief or disdain by many in Western society.
This is so ironic, considering how our nation’s existence is rooted in natural law – in other words, the concept that there are basic principles and rights and that our laws and our government have authority to the extent that they are derived from these principles. Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers expressed confidence in overarching truths when they wrote or spoke of “self-evident” truths and “certain unalienable Rights” with which we are endowed by our Creator.
I’m sure few – if any – Americans today would stand up and say that our right to life and liberty is just some people’s opinion. But take any number of specific examples, such as lying under oath, cheating on an exam, or certain kinds of stealing, and we can imagine difficult circumstances that might lead plenty of people to make excuses for such behavior. When doing the right thing is inconvenient, it’s a great temptation for all of us to want to rationalize bending the rules. And too often our modern culture shrugs this off as no big deal because, after all, everyone must decide what makes them comfortable.
Our modern culture elevates tolerance of all views as a great virtue, but frequently does so at the expense of truth. This is wrong, truth and tolerance can coexist.
After all, there is such a thing as right and wrong. To ignore this is to lead a life of duplicity. Don’t fall into this trap. Acknowledging that universal truth exists and that humans can come to understand a part of this truth will no doubt lead to lively discussion and debate, but reasoned debate is one of the great faculties that humans possess. Without it, and without a solid moral foundation, society will stagnate, lose confidence in itself, and succumb to other societies that actually stand for something.
We won’t lose to globalization because of cheap labor from China and India . We will lose if America loses her greatness – if America follows Europe down the dark path of moral relativism. America ’s greatness has always been – and I pray shall always be – in her people. You will determine this future. I hope that each of you will strive to reach your potential to seek and to know the truth. If you do, you will be happy.
And the great advantage you have is the benefit of a world-class education and real role models in your lives and community.
I think of two people, including one who is in this hall today: Dr. Yuri Maltsev and Ralph Tenuta.
I had the pleasure of visiting with Yuri on the plane coming back from Washington , D.C. recently. What a life story. Here is a man who grew up under the jackboot of Soviet communism, who one day received a bootlegged copy of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, one of the best books ever written in my opinion. He had the book for one night. It was illegal to read such things. This book gave Yuri and thousands of others a taste of liberty and freedom, of truth. As a result, he promptly defected to America, the land of the free, where he has gone on to achieve an impressive academic career which brought him right here to Carthage.
And then there is Ralph Tenuta. A great man. A role model for us all. Ralph is a man who personifies the American dream. He has built a legacy of a large, loving family, a thriving business with loyal customers, and an extensive dedication to community service and community leadership. Ralph, you are clearly Kenosha ’s finest, and I congratulate you on receiving this high honor. You deserve it.
So graduates, we are here now at the end of the Cliff Notes. Seeing you here today makes me so hopeful for the future. You have expanded your minds; you have great energy; you stand on the shoulders of great role models; and you are inheriting a country and community that is the beacon of hope, liberty, and freedom.