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Secretary Cohen's Remarks at Ohio Wesleyan University Graduation

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
May 10, 1998
Thank you, President Courtice for that generous introduction. Some of you may not know this, but Dr. Courtice and I go back to his days when he was President of Westbrooke College in my home state of Maine, so that may account for the generosity of his introduction. He's an old friend, and I really appreciate having a chance to be here with you today.

 

As a matter of fact, the introduction and its glowing references made the trip out here more than worthwhile. Thank you very much.

I also want to thank you and Ohio Wesleyan for the high honor of this Doctor of Law's degree, and to Dr. Carlton Young, or Dr. Sam, I guess I can call you now. Let me congratulate you for your honorary doctorate and the outstanding career that it commemorates.

Distinguished graduates and members of the faculty, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen. First, let me thank all of you for inviting me to spend this very special day in your lives, and I might add, that of all the mothers who are present here today. You and Ohio Wesleyan have made it a very special day for me as well.

I must tell you that I always look forward to spending a few moments with a graduating class. I have a chance, and I did have a chance today to look into the eyes of the students who were passing before me, and I saw in their eyes joy, I guess pride, and most of all, I saw relief that you are graduating. I looked into some of the eyes of the parents and I saw pride, and joy, and their relief that you're indeed graduating.

But I accepted this opportunity to speak to you with the full knowledge that giving a commencement address is a very difficult task. First of all, the faculty would like the speaker to be substantive; the parents would like the speaker to be sentimental; and the graduates would like the speaker to be short. (Laughter) I will do my best to strike a balance between these competing interests.

And I might say that unlike Ohio Wesleyan, Yale University, of course, doesn't have a commencement speaker. They make a very big thing of their baccalaureate service. The story -- it may be apocryphal, but I believe it to be the case. There is a story about an Episcopal Bishop who decided he wanted to give his sermon based on the wonderful letters found in Y-A-L-E.

Y, he said, stands for youth. He became so invigorated he spoke for a full 20 minutes on the subject of youth. A, he said, was for ambition. He took 20 minutes to talk about ambition. L was for loyalty, that took another 30 minutes. And finally, he said E stands for enthusiasm, and with that he became so enthusiastic he talked a full 40 minutes on the subject of enthusiasm. And when he finally completed his sermon, he walked down the steps and he saw a student who was holding his head in his hands in a sort of prayerful attitude.

He said, "My son, I can see something that I've said has touched you in a very deep and profound way. Could you tell me exactly what it was that has moved you in this fashion?" The young man looked up at him and he said, "I'm just sitting here thanking God that I'm not graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." (Laughter) So I want to say to all of you here today I will not based my speech on the wonderful letters found in Ohio Wesleyan University.

As graduates of Ohio Wesleyan, you follow a rich and renowned tradition. It's a tradition that includes Charles Warren Fairbanks, the Vice President of the United States under Theodore Roosevelt; Branch Rickey who broke the racial barrier in professional sports by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; Nobel Prize winning chemist Dr. F. Sherwood Roland who first understood how CFCs deplete the ozone layer; and it includes the eminent lawyer turned author and my dear friend, Richard North Patterson, who invited me here today to be your speaker and who joins us here today with his lovely wife Laurie who's in the audience.

Let me thank you, Richard, for really, a wonderful opportunity to see your alma mater and to have a few words to address to this wonderful class. Richard is about to celebrate his 30th reunion, and I can tell you from the comments we had a few moments ago, he's looking back with great nostalgia and he can't believe that three decades have passed since he also walked down that very same path and looked into the eyes of his faculty members as well.

In reflecting on his craft, Rick Patterson once said, "In novel writing, even in society itself, one's obligation is to try to reach out and to understand experiences beyond the immediate frame of reference." That really is the charge that we offer you as well, to reach beyond your immediate frame of reference into a world that has truly become a global village.

Today technology has reduced oceans to mere ponds. Distant countries are now almost as close as neighboring counties. The world is not much bigger than a small ball spinning on the finger of science.

More than two decades ago, author Alvin Toeffler warned us that we had entered the age of future shock, where time was speeded up by events, and our culture and traditions were being shaken in the hurricane winds of change. Toeffler noted that if the last 50,000 years of man's existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately 62 years each, there have been about 800 lifetimes, of which 650 have been spent in caves. Only during the last seven lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one person to another, as writing has made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four lifetimes has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two lifetimes has anyone, anywhere used an electric motor. The overwhelming majority of all material goods that we use in daily life today have been developed in the present 800th lifetime.

So today we can see that Toeffler's prediction on the pace of change has come to pass. You can withdraw cash with your ATM card as easily in Cairo as you can in Columbus. You can e-mail our troops in Bosnia, as I can e-mail many of the friends that I made at Ohio State earlier this year. (Laughter) To your parents, it's an inside joke. And during your lifetime, it's going to be your challenge to ensure that technology serves us rather than enslaves us. You are better equipped to meet this challenge than any generation in history.

Just last month Time Magazine published a rather revealing statistic. Guess the number of Fortune 1000 executives who can explain what a computer modem does -- 23 percent; the number of sixth graders who can explain the purpose of a computer modem -- 93 percent. So these young people, like you, have been given the promethean gift of fire -- that of education and the ability not only to survive in this world, but to make it better.

But we all know that technology can be both a benefactor and a beast. It was Churchill some years ago in his great Iron Curtain speech who said that we can "return to the Stone Age on the gleaming wings of science."

As Secretary of Defense I spend a good deal of time thinking about and preparing America for the new threats posed by this technological flux and ferment. We have to prepare for a brave world of new challenges and terrors, of asymmetrical threats such as chemical and biological weapons in the hands of rogue states or simply irrational zealots. The same genetic research that holds the promise of curing so many of today's defects and diseases can be used to construct exotic biological viruses and plagues.

It's hard to believe this, but if you take 100 kilograms of anthrax, which I've talked about before, it's about 220 pounds. With the right weather conditions, that 100 kilograms can have as much destructive power -- between two and six times the power of a one megaton nuclear bomb, which is six to eight to ten times more powerful than anything we dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima back in World War II. So you can see it poses an enormous threat to all of us, so technology can be a beast as well as a great benefactor.

The more reliant we become upon computers and information systems, the more vulnerable we become to cyber terrorists who would send poisoned arrows at our Achilles heels, or more appropriately, poisoned pills at our databases and banking systems and financial markets, our space-based communication systems.

As graduates, these kaleidoscopic changes are going to have a dramatic impact upon your economic fortune and futures, because the United States doesn't exist in splendid isolation. The financial crisis in Indonesia, for example, sends out ripples of instability that can swamp her neighbors throughout Southeast Asia. What happens on the shores of the South China Sea could soon lap the shores of Lake Erie affecting exports and imports and even the very jobs that many of you will soon be starting.

As Americans, we have to recognize that we can't simply zip ourselves into a comfortable cocoon in the United States and watch events unfold on CNN. Because if there's one lesson threading through all of the convulsions and cataclysms of this century, it's that when America ignores the problems of the world, the world brings the problems home to America. And, indeed, the threats to our soldiers in Dhahran and Saudi Arabia could well become the same threats to citizens in Delaware tomorrow.

So it's equally true that without America's active leadership, the world that we want -- a world with more security, more democracy, more freedom, and thus fewer threats to our own interests, is going to remain like Gatsby's green light -- forever out of reach.

And so we have to remain engaged in the world, shaping attitudes and influencing events in ways that are favorable to our interests. So, in the Middle East, our brave young men and women in uniform remain steadfast against Saddam Hussein's efforts to build an arsenal of terror.

In the Asia Pacific region our forces are serving as a stabilizing presence as we help many nations there emerge from beneath this tidal wave of currency crises and financial shocks. And in Europe, a reinvigorated NATO alliance is reaching out to embrace new democracies, even as our forces in Bosnia continue to give that region, that's been so ravaged by war, a chance for peace and stability.

These forces, our young men and women in uniform, they are the face of American engagement in the world. They are your peers and perhaps your classmates from high school. And they're ready to risk life and limb for the benefit of all of us. I must tell you that my highest privilege as Secretary of Defense is to interact with these young people every day, from the front offices of the Pentagon to the front lines along the DMZ in Korea.

Regrettably, this is a privilege which too few Americans enjoy today, and it's somewhat understandable. With a smaller military and all volunteer force, there are fewer Americans who have fathers and mothers or brothers and sisters who are wearing a uniform. And moreover, peace is much like oxygen. When you have it, you don't think about it. When you don't have it, that's all you think about. But perhaps, because we live in largely peaceful time, most Americans tend not to think about those who endure the risks and trials so that we can enjoy this tranquillity.

And so one of the challenges that we have in peacetime is to prevent any kind of a gap from developing between the military and civilian worlds. We have to avoid having the civilian world not fully grasp the mission of our military, and the military not understand why the memories of our citizens and our civilian policymakers can at times be so short.

It's hard to tell sometimes from the nightly news or the morning papers, but today's military looks so much like America in so many ways. We have more women at every rank from privates to generals who are shattering glass ceilings and taking charge. We have more people of all races who are breaking barriers and seizing the opportunity that the military affords to excel and to advance. And we have the best educated military force in all of history. Half of our officers have master's degrees or doctorates. These are the real faces behind our force -- the men and women who make up our military and the pride of our nation and the envy of the world.

As I look across the faces of the graduates who are here this afternoon, I know that you too are the pride of our nation. That you, too, are going to go out and to shape the world. I encourage you to do so with the confidence and certainty that you have the power to determine your own destiny.

Let me just engage in just a touch of heresy here, if I can, the faculty members behind me, and say that the best definition of education I've ever heard -- it's the repository of things forgotten. It's what you've left over, after you've forgotten all the things you started out to learn. I will predict to you that years from now you will have forgotten many of the facts, the figures, the scientific investigation. All of that will be a past memory. All that will be left, if you really have grasped the sense of a liberal arts education, is the desire to continue to learn, to expand, and to become a person of the world.

What you set out to do today, in all probability, will not be where you are 20 or 30 years from now. Richard Patterson set out to be a lawyer; perhaps in his youth at the age of 12 a major league baseball player; today he is one of the most renowned authors certainly in this country and is known worldwide.

I set out as a youth to become a professional basketball player or to be a Latin professor. My colleagues back in the Senate said I accomplished both of my goals -- that I continue to dribble while speaking a dead language. (Laughter) But I will tell you that no one can predict to you how life is going to unfold. It's really what Kirkegaarde said, he said "Life must be lived forward, but you can only understand it backwards."

So your education is something that you will carry with you to be opened, to be available to embrace any new idea, to examine it critically, but to constantly be educating yourself for the future.

And also, it's important that you be able to communicate. I think of a story about a blind man in Central Park. He held out a little sign that said, "Help me. I am blind." Very few people ever stopped to drop coins in his little cup. Just up the pathway a few feet further there was another blind person. Everybody was showering that person with all of their beneficence. The reason was he had a sign that said, "It is May and I am blind." That person understood how to communicate a message, because that person communicated the true tragedy of the blind. That you could see in springtime rough throated robins on green lawns, and azaleas in bloom. That he would always be able to hear the song of nature, but never be able to see nature dance. So he was the recipient of all of their generosity.

It's much like the time that I was in a restaurant in Madrid, and I wanted to order a steak with mushrooms but I couldn't speak any Spanish and the waiters couldn't understand any English. So I drew them a picture of a steak, with a cow with mushrooms. They came back about a half hour later with a ticket to the bullfight and an umbrella. (Laughter) So you've got to learn how to communicate your message.

I said I was going to be brief today, and I will try to honor that pledge. Let me conclude with an essay that was written by Joseph Epstein. He said, "We do not choose to be born, we do not choose our parents, or our time or country of birth, or the circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, at least most of us, choose to die or the time and conditions of our death. But within all the realm of this choicelessness we do choose how we shall live -- courageously or in cowardice; honorably or dishonorably; with purpose or drift. We decide what's important and what is trivial. We decide and we choose, and so we give definition to our lives."

It is my prayer for you and that of your parents, teachers, and friends, that you choose to live courageously and honorably with high purpose, and in so doing, give definitions to your lives.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

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