Deval Patrick, Commencement Speaker Address

May 25, 2014

2014 Commencement Address

Honorable Deval Patrick
Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

May 25, 2014

Deval Patrick

2014 Commencement Speaker Gov. Deval Patrick

Chairman Diamond and members of the Board of Trustees; President Adams and members of the faculty and administration and staff; fellow honorees, distinguished guests, proud family and friends; and, most especially, members of the Colby Class of 2014: Congratulations to all of you on reaching today’s milestone, and thank you so very much for having me.

The main event this morning, of course, is getting in hand the degrees for which you have worked so hard, and I realize that I had better not keep you from that for very long. Seriously, giving a commencement address is a high honor but a tough assignment when you know, as I do, that few of you are listening and none of you will remember a single word I say. Most, including me, can barely remember who the commencement speaker was at our graduations.  As if the challenge of being both brief and memorable was not burden enough, imagine how unnerving it was for me to notice over someone’s shoulder just the other day a USA Today headline that read, “A Good Grad Speech Is the One Not Given.”

Like I said, I’ll be brief.

For the benefit of your parents and grandparents and the banks that lent you the money to pay for tuition, I want to certify confidently and enthusiastically that you graduates are very well prepared. I know that present here today are future doctors and lawyers, biologists and engineers, soldiers and social workers, nurses and entrepreneurs and artists. I expect there are some who will have more than one career in the course of your working lives, and I hope that whatever you choose to do, you do it with integrity.

There is so much emphasis on education today as a pathway to a good job, and I get that. Omari, you’ll be fine. Given the changes afoot in the economy and in the world, education will be the key to your success and ours as a nation.

I hope that whatever you choose to do, you do it with integrity.

But your education here at Colby is surely about more than preparation for being good employees. It’s also about preparation for being good citizens.

Good citizens take an interest in people and in issues beyond themselves. They understand community in that old-fashioned sense of seeing their stake in their neighbors’ dreams and struggles as well as their own. They inform themselves about what’s happening in the community. They volunteer. They listen. They take the long view. They vote.

Good citizens don’t just live and work in a community. They build community.

I have to tell you that given the level of personal engagement that good citizenship demands, I have been wondering and worrying a little bit whether this kind of citizenship is in jeopardy. Because I keep meeting young people who are at some critical level not engaged, really not present.

My daughters are in constant touch with each other and their friends by text messages. In the case of my younger daughter she has a right thumb that seems to have a life of its own, flying over the tiny keys, typing in that special texting shorthand, sometimes even in entire words, almost as fast as she speaks. She can do it looking me right in the eye while she is typing and while I am talking to her. But when she does it, she’s not present.

I know a young man—smart, insightful, wise beyond his years—who spends his days constantly shifting his attention from one smartphone to another, to his desktop, to his iPad.  He sends text messages, reads and sends tweets, checks his e-mail, surfs the Web—all while you’re standing in the same room talking with him. In all the time over all the years we’ve spent talking with each other, I realize I hardly know him at all. He was there, but not present.

My staff never attend meetings without their smartphones and check them frequently during the discussion. When I’m in the meeting, I ask for their undivided attention—so they wait until I look away and then steal a furtive glance at their Blackberries. When they’re not checking them, you can tell they’re calculating how much time before I look away so that they can check their Blackberries. They assure me otherwise, but they are not present.

Sometimes the open-ended question is not just about getting to the answer but rather about the journey, and Google has little to do with that.

Modern society is awash in information and grappling with how to make the most of social media. It is a powerful force in casual communication, in business marketing, in celebrity. It transformed politics in my first campaign, in Barack Obama’s, and in many campaigns since. But does it help us to connect as human beings? Does it enable us to be present?

Sometimes when driving in the car, I look up from my work and ask the name of that special teacher we met or maybe who starred in some old TV show. If the state trooper driving me that day is a little closer to my age, he will start to wonder aloud and add some personal recollection to the subject. Meanwhile, the young, always-helpful aide who travels with me checks Google and announces the definitive answer from the back seat. And that is the end of that. I tell him that asking an open-ended question is what used to be called “conversation.”

Sometimes the open-ended question is not just about getting to the answer but rather about the journey, and Google has little to do with that. Real human connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding, is often more gradual and subtle than Twitter. It requires intimacy. And I worry that the demands of constant communication and infinite information through social media are crowding out intimacy.

Social media, as we have seen, can start a revolution. But can it bring peace?

You can break up on Facebook or by text. But can you fall in love?

Our 1-year-old grandson lives in California. We Skype with him regularly, and he giggles and coos and drools right back to us with recognition. But it’s not the same as holding him.

My wife and I have been married 30 years this month. Several weeks ago we had a rare Sunday without any plans, and we spent the day reading. Imagine that. Just reading. We sat with our books in the same room reading silently to ourselves, getting up occasionally to fetch a cup of coffee, but mostly speaking not a word to each other. We both commented later what a wonderful day it had been, and I’m certain there was more intimacy sitting wordlessly together in our living room than if we had each spent the same time apart sending e-mails and texts constantly to one another.

I want to show you I’m not the dull, out-of-touch Luddite that I sound like right now. You know that hilarious TV commercial with the two old ladies and the one gets irritated at the other and she says, “I unfriend you” and is told, “That’s not how it works; that’s not how any of this works”?  That’s not me. I love the convenience, the reach, and the flexibility of social media. I understand the power of social media, whether to stir a movement for good or to bully. And even I have to laugh at the number of times someone of my vintage asks if they can take a selfie with me and then hands the phone to someone else to snap the picture. Just for the parents and the grandparents here, it’s not a selfie if you don’t take it yourself.

But my point is that however vital electronic connectivity may be, human intimacy still matters. That’s how we build trust, how we convey kindness and grace, how we love, how we heal the world. And human intimacy still depends on looking someone in the eye, touching them, actively listening, being present.

In the days and weeks after the marathon bombings last year in Boston, we were all reminded how few degrees of separation there are between us. The loss and senselessness touched us all because we each knew someone or someone who knew someone who was directly affected by what happened.

One of the duties I assumed, as did other public officials and hundreds of private citizens, was to comfort the survivors, our neighbors and friends. That wouldn’t work by text or tweet. It demands intimacy. Whether healing an individual or healing the world, healing itself requires being present.

Be present—and see what a difference it makes in your lives and in the world.

So promise me this one thing: Sometime today, put your tablet or your smartphone aside, look your mom and dad in the eye, and tell them you love them. Hold your roommate’s hand and tell them you appreciate them for helping get you through to today. Acknowledge to the person you came to know only in your waning days on this campus how sorry you are that it took all these years to discover that the person you thought was such a jerk before turned out to be such a kind and interesting person. Thank one of your teachers in person with a hug.

Be present—and see what a difference it makes in your lives and in the world.

Congratulations, everybody. Good luck to you, and God bless you.


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