Commencement Address

Ambassador Madeline K. Albright's Address to Wellesley's Graduating Class of 1995

Thank you for the introduction. It's a pleasure to be back here at Wellesley, where the memories are good, the welcome is warm, the campus is lovely, and all the students have good posture.

To the class of 1995, I say congratulations. Today is the payoff for all your long hours of studying, late nights in the library and exam . Graduation is one of the four great milestones in life. The others are the day you were born, the day you die, and the day you finally pay off your student loan.

In the years ahead, you will look back upon this commencement ceremony and realize that this was the very day and hour you began to forget everything you learned in college. You will find slipping from your mind the carefully memorized names of 18th century composers, European monarchs and the various body parts of dissected frogs. But as your hopes for hitting a jackpot on Jeopardy fade, you will find that the more profound aspects of a Wellesley education endure.

According to the Wellesley brochure, students develop here a sense of history, a capacity for critical reasoning, an awareness of differing cultures and a passion for justice.

To the extent this description is accurate -- and from your faces, I can see it is true -- -you will be grateful for the rest of your lives.

In school, grades and test results measure accomplishment. You know what is expected and where you stand.

But once you leave school, you will have to rely upon an inner compass; for only you can set the standards by which your life will be measured. Each day, you will face decisions in which your sense of purpose will compete against temptations, distractions and confusions. You will often be uncertain, for the path to a life of fulfillment and accomplishment is nowhere clearly marked.

The choices and challenges you will face as individuals in the years ahead have their parallel in those now facing our nation.

During the Cold War, the yardsticks of global politics were widely acknowledged; the scoreboard was a map that colored some countries red, and others red, white and blue. Every night on Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley, we would learn which side had the most troops, the biggest stockpile of strategic weapons and the most citizens hitting golf balls on the moon.

But the standards of success in the new world are less clear. Here, too, an inner compass is required to select the right goals, establish accountability and fulfill potential. Here, too, we will find essential the qualities nurtured at Wellesley -- a sense of history, a capacity for critical reasoning, an awareness of different cultures and a passion for justice.

Today, we face not one enemy, but rather many dangers, as well as opportunities that have been a long time coming and that -- if squandered -- may be a long time coming again.

Just as individuals must overcome temptations and distractions, so our country must overcome internal divisions and a tide of isolationist thinking that is stronger today than at any time since the 1920's.

Legislation now pending in Congress would end UN peacekeeping, pull the plug on support for human rights and democracy overseas, threaten our long standing commitments to the Middle East, turn our backs on the poor and persecuted around the globe, and undermine our efforts to prevent pollution and counter terrorism and transnational crime.

One leading Republican Senator predicts that, if current proposals are approved, America will end up, "with as visible and viable an international role as Ghana."

This outcome is not acceptable.

America is a nation with global interests and responsibilities. Some may find that a burden, but for most of us, it is a source of great pride.

The fact is that it matters when America succeeds, as we just have, in gaining global agreement to extend forever the Treaty barring new nations from developing nuclear weapons. That is a gift to the future.

It matters when America takes the lead in supporting the peacemakers over the bombthrowers in tinderbox regions such as the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

It matters when America organizes an international coalition to restore democracy to Haiti, end the horrible violations of human rights there and give the people of that country the chance to build a decent life at home, rather than risk their lives at sea.

It matters when America contributes generously to the first international war crimes tribunals since Nuremburg; because the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing must be held accountable and those who see rape as just another tactic of war must answer for their crimes.

Finally, it matters that we have an Administration that understands that international economic and social progress depends on respect for women and women's rights.

This fall, I will lead the American delegation to the Fourth Global Conference on the Status of Women. We will stress there this truth: when women have the power and the knowledge to make their own choices, birth rates stabilize, environmental awareness increases, the spread of sexually-transmitted disease slows, economic opportunity expands and socially constructive values are more likely to be passes on to the young.

Unfortunately, today, in countries around the world, appalling abuses are being committed against women. These include coerced abortions and sterilizations, children sold into prostitution, ritual mutilations, dowry murders and official indifference to violence.

Some say that all this is cultural and that there's nothing we can do about it. I say it's criminal and it's the responsibility of each an every one of us to stop it.

Let us be clear: we strive to be aware of ethnic, racial and religious differences not to find excuses for actions that are wrong, but to ensure the tolerance and understanding upon which freedom and civility depend.

Last year, in Croatia, I visited a farm in what was once a pretty town called Vukovar. There, beneath a pile of rusted refrigerators and scraps of farm equipment, is a shallow grave containing the bodies of two to three hundred human beings. These dead were not the victims of "heat of battle" violence; they were not -- in the terminology of the soldier --- collateral damage. They were men and women like you and me; boys and girls like those we know; intentionally targeted and massacred not because of what they had done, but for who they were.

During his diplomatic career, my father served as Ambassador from what is now the former Czechoslovakia to what is now the former Yugoslavia. He understood the depth of nationalist passions. And he described them "as a permanent, vital and influential force for good and evil."

It was his experience, as it is ours, that national pride can be the custodian of rich cultural legacies; it can unite people in defense of a common good; it can provide a sense of identity and belonging that stretches across territory and time.

But as the current outrages in Bosnia illustrate, when pride in "us" curdles into hatred of "them", the result is a narrowing of vision an a compulsion to violence.

We are all proud of the groups to which we belong. But loyalty to group cannot excuse the betrayal of universal values.

In respecting the distinctions of physiology, culture and history that separate us, let us never forget the common humanity that binds us. We are different peoples, but one species -- a species distinguished not only by our ability to manipulate our thumbs, but by our ability to think conceptually, create great civilizations, compose masterpieces of art and ponder the mysteries of life.

Fifty years ago this spring, the American Army liberated Buchenwald. They found 1800 naked bodies, stacked like cordwood alongside an incinerator; they watched thousands of those freed die because starvation and disease and abuse had one on too long; crying themselves, they embraced hollow-eyed children who had forgotten how to cry.

The great lesson of this century is that what happens to people anywhere should matter to people everywhere.

After World War II, the generation that defeated Hitler designed a framework of principle and power that would safeguard freedom, prevent global conflict, extend the rule of law and expand respect for human rights around the world.

Today, the responsibilities of leadership are in our hands. As Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier this year:

"There is no comparison to the circumstances in which our parents and grandparents faced the second world war ... but neither should there be doubt that we have the same greatness within us."

That is not only a statement of fact. It is a presentation of choice.

A decade or two from now, we will be known as the generation that solidified the global triumph of democratic principles, or as the neo-isolationists who allowed totalitarianism and fascism to rise again. We will be known as the generation that laid the groundwork for rising prosperity around the world, or as the neo-protectionists whose lack of vision produced financial chaos. We will be known as the generation that took strong measures to deter aggression, or as the world-class ditherers who stood by while the seeds of renewed global conflict were sown.

Each of us must choose whether to live our lives narrowly, selfishly and complacently, or to act with courage and faith.

And our nation must choose whether to turn inward and betray the lessons of history, or to seize the opportunity now before us to shape history.

We are not governed by fate or by the alignment of the stars. We are all accountable, for it is the sum of our choices that will determine the kind of America and the kind of world in which we live and our children will live.

It has been said that all work that is worth anything is done in faith. This morning, in these beautiful surroundings, at this celebration of warm memory and high expectation, I summon you in the name of this historic college and of all who have passed through its halls, to embrace the faith that each life enriched by your giving, each friend touched by your affection, each soul inspired by our passion and each barrier to justice brought down by your determination, ennoble your own life, inspire others and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

So congratulations, good luck, and remember always to sit up straight.

Thank you very much.

Related

1995 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching