It’s no secret that the Intramuralist is proud of Purdue University… incredibly grateful, too. There’s much wisdom to be gleaned there. We provide a little bit more in today’s post, an excerpt from Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ remarks during the university’s spring commencement ceremonies last weekend…
“Greetings, friends, and welcome. I should say ‘welcome back.’ We are back in Elliott Hall, where Purdue spring commencements belong, for the first time in three years. And as I’ll tell you in a few minutes, to me that matters beyond just the pleasure of returning to this beautiful, traditional venue.
Starting with my first delivery of these remarks a decade ago, I have ended them with the same signoff: ‘Hail Purdue, and each of you.’ It was just meant to be a little signature, a rhetorical device chosen as much for its cadence as for any deep meaning. But reflecting on this year’s ceremony got me thinking that maybe there’s more to it than what I’ve intended all these years.
Many talks on these occasions address themselves to ‘all you graduates’ or ‘the Class of 20-x’. I guess I’ve approached it that way some years. Today, I’m thinking more like those movie tough guys who ask, ‘You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?’ Today, I’ll be talking to you, each of you, individually, or at least I’ll be trying to.
A friend told me of a commencement he attended where the speaker, to inject a little levity, advised the graduates, ‘In life, it’s not who you know that counts. It’s whom.’ (I assume at least the English majors in the crowd get it.) A funny line, but bad advice. It is who that counts. Not who you know, but who you are.
The further I go, the less I’m sure how to answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ Where to start? I’m a Purdue employee, a happy husband, a father of four, a businessman, a former elected official, a Presbyterian elder, a history buff, and a mediocre golfer. Ancestry.com informs me that genetically I’m more Syrian and Lebanese than anything else, but I’ve got high percentages of Scotch, Welsh and a dash of Italian mixed in.
And I’m a dog lover. I grew up in a family of them. We got all ours from the Humane Society, every one some sort of mixture. And every one was great: loyal, loving, a full member of the family. During those years, I adopted my mother’s opinion that mutts are the best. We’d all better hope Mom was right. Because we’re all mutts here today. Hybrids, amalgams, crossbreeds, mongrels. Mutts. If you doubt that, go check with Ancestry.com.
There are no one-dimensional ‘you’s.’ Every one of you, when you pause to think about it, can already name a list of qualities that make up ‘you.’ That list will keep growing as you leave here and launch into the fascinating and varied lives you are destined to lead. You’ll keep learning, and growing, and adding new elements to your individuality. The more facets a diamond has, I’m told, the more brilliant it is; the same will be true for an ever more interesting and differentiated ‘you.’ The one certainty is that there will be no exact copies, no one just like you and, therefore, no one box anyone can stick you in.
But there will be people who want to take away your ‘you.’ There always have been. The pharaohs, monarchs, and warlords of old, to whom other people were mere tools, to be used and discarded. In recent times, the proponents of all the ‘isms’ that viewed people as helpless ciphers in some predetermined historical trend, or valueless instruments of an all-powerful state. In the worst cases, some people were grouped together and treated as sub-human, not deserving to exist at all.
These days, your individuality is challenged by some who seek to slap a label on you, to lump you into one category or another, and to assert that whatever you are, your choices have little to do with it. What matters is not what you think or do, they claim, but what group they have assigned you to. You’re a prisoner of your genes, or of circumstance, or of some societal forces against which you are defenseless.
Such views may be cloaked in caring, sympathetic terms, but they are deeply disrespectful of those they affect to be supporting. They are a denial of your personal dignity, and ability, and will power. Someone attempting to herd you into a group is someone with an agenda, and your personal wellbeing is not its main purpose.
Your experience, and success, at this institution should convince you not to listen to such disrespect. In a few moments, when you walk up here, it will be your individual achievement we are honoring, and only you know how much individual effort it took to get here.
He eventually gave Colts fans like me a thousand great memories, but never one I admired more than Peyton Manning’s first action as a professional athlete. At the news conference announcing his multimillion-dollar contract, the 22-year-old Manning was asked, ‘What are you going to do with all that money?’ He answered, ‘Earn it.’
The degree you are about to receive is not being conferred on a group. We aren’t awarding it to any club, team, or fraternity you happen to belong to. It’s not because of your hair style, eye color, or because your parents went to Purdue. Nothing entitled you to it. It is yours, and yours alone, because the work that justifies it was yours. You earned it. You…
At the outset, I said there was a larger reason I was so happy to be back in Elliott Hall. That’s because, in here, over six separate ceremonies, Purdue still honors every graduate one by one. Most schools our size long ago went to batch processing, where degrees are conferred on groups, sometimes the entire class at once.
Here, we take a different view. No matter how big Purdue gets, we value each Boilermaker as an individual. That diploma we’re about to hand you is yours and yours alone. Sure, you had help, and support, and I hope some valuable mentoring, but fundamentally you will be crossing this stage because of what you have accomplished. You.
So walk proudly. You are about to add another facet to the diamond that is you: ‘Graduate of Purdue University.’ It will be far from your last distinction, but I hope it will always be one that you value as highly as your university values you today. Hail Purdue, and each of … you.”