On Saturday morning, I returned to my alma mater, Bradley University, and delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2011.
During a weekend of well-deserved celebration, I asked the graduates to think about two of the reasons why America’s experiment with self-government endures.
With Bradley University president Joanne Glasser; photo courtesy Sean Work, Peoria Journal Star
One is community. It draws its meaning from the lasting importance of shared ritual and collective experience. The other is civility – the idea that while we may disagree, we can still treat each other with mutual respect.
During the last four years, the class of 2011 has learned to put these values in practice. From living in the dorms together, studying together, competing on the athletic field together, and serving their neighbors together, a group of individuals became a vibrant community – and members of the Bradley alumni family forever.
But they also learned to disagree without being disagreeable – and to treat one another with common courtesy.
After all, once we acknowledge that someone is part of our community--whether that community is as small as the Bradley class of 2011 or as large as our nation--how can we not treat that person with respect? How can we not listen to those with whom we share a bond, even when they disagree with us?
So my message to the graduates was this: As you leave campus and begin your lives and careers, bring your love for Bradley University with you, but bring your dedication to strong community and active civility as well.
Bradley University 2011 commencement; photo courtesy Bradley University
Yes, our differences matter. But our willingness to bridge those differences matters more. This means respecting adversaries whose words sometimes make our blood boil and listening to those who advocate for the same things we oppose.
If you need an example, take a good look at President Obama and me. I am a lifelong Republican, asked by a Democratic president to serve in his Cabinet.
Why did I accept his invitation? Because I’m an American first. Because President Obama didn’t ask me to switch from one side to another; he asked me to help solve problems and serve the American people.
And if this nation is going to solve our big challenges, we cannot afford to take easy refuge in knee-jerk divisiveness. We must learn to balance the qualities that separate us with the qualities that allow us to live side-by-side. It’s how we get things done. America’s future depends on it.
And I know the Bradley University class of 2011 will play a big part in shaping it.