A decade of lasting lessons

On the eve of Washington University in St. Louis’ 157th Commencement, featuring renowned foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter, we look back at a decade of wise words from some of America’s greatest thinkers.

‘The difference between a life and an existence’

Anna Quindlen, best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and social critic, greets honorary degree recipient Fr. Gary Braun at the 156th annual Commencement ceremony. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“It is audacious to invent and it is audacious to dare and it is audacious to care and to live that caring conspicuously. Playing it safe is a slog. Taking a chance is getting on a skateboard.  When you come up with a checklist — job, check; spouse, check; home, check — don’t forget to ask yourself, ‘Are these the things I really want or is each of them what I assume I ought to want?’ The difference between those two is the difference between a life and an existence.”

— Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen, May 19, 2017

‘Get in the way’

Rep. John Lewis shakes the hand of student speaker Ashley Macrander in 2016. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“The action of Rosa Parks and the words and leadership of Dr. King inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way. I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble. As graduates of this great university, you have received a great education. You must leave here and go out and get in the way. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up and find a way to get in the way.”

— U.S. Rep. John Lewis, May 20, 2016

‘Be curious, not cool.’

Filmmaker Ken Burns (left) receives an honorary degree from Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton in 2015. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“Be curious, not cool.

Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all.

Listen to jazz. A lot. It is our music.

Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all — not the car, not the TV, not the computer or the smartphone.

Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of the country — they just make the country worth defending.

Be about the ‘unum,’ not the ‘pluribus.’”

—  Filmmaker Ken Burns, May 15, 2015

‘Refuse to give up’

Three-time World Series winner and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa gives the thumbs up to the class of 2014.(Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“I think I was invited here because a lot of you experienced that historic World Series comeback in 2011, and you wonder how we did it. Yeah, we had talent. We did it with frame of mind more than anything. Our team came together in a respectful, trusting, caring way. Our guts were outstanding. We refused to give in, refused to give up. That’s exactly the message that you need to take forward.”

— Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, May 16, 2014

‘Failure is never final’

Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator, told the Class of 2013 to push through their mistakes. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“I now realize that courage is not giving the big speech. Courage is not running into a burning building. The courage is when tragedies’ trumpets sound in your life, that you still could hold on to that quiet little voice that tells you to keep going anyway.

Courage is when you wake up in the morning with the weight of shame upon your chest with having made a mistake or done something wrong or being discouraged or feeling the grip of unshakable depression, that you still get out of that bed anyway and keep on going.

These are the moments, I tell you right now, when you’re broken that will give you your most valuable lessons if you don’t stop. Failure is never final if you don’t give up.”

— Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, May 17, 2013

‘You are Superman!’

Mike Peters, creator of the popular comic strip “Mother Goose and Grimm,” shared with the Class of 2012 his childhood wish to be a superhero — a dream he still holds. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“So (my wife) Marian and I, last week, we went to go see ‘The Avengers.’ We love ‘The Avengers.’

And it hit me. It hit both of us that you guys are like the Avengers right now. You are our superheroes. There’s no stopping how far you can go. You’re more powerful right now than a locomotive. You can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Do you understand?

You, the class of 2012, you are Superman!”

— Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and Washington University alumnus Mike Peters, May 18, 2012

‘Don’t stand idly by’

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (left) accepts an honorary degree from Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

“The greatest commandment, to me, in the Bible is not the Ten Commandments. First of all, it’s too difficult to observe. Second, we all pretend to observe them. My commandment is, ‘Thou shall not stand idly by.’ Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by. When you hear of a person or a group being persecuted, do not stand idly by. When there is something wrong in the community around you — or far way — do not stand idly by. You must intervene. You must interfere. And that is actually the motto of human rights. Human rights has become a kind of secular religion today. And I applaud it — I am part of it. And therefore wherever something happens, I try to be there as a witness.”

— Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, May 20, 2011

‘Engage America’

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu urged the Class of 2010 to address the challenge of climate change. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“In my day, the students of America were at the vanguard of our country’s disengagement from Vietnam. I look to you to engage America to solve the energy and climate problem. It will be your idealism that can give our elected officials the ammunition to overcome the resistance of those who are easily frightened of the future and want to cling to the status quo. It will be your intellectual courage and creativity that will find the technical and policy solutions we need.”

— U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, May 21, 2010

‘The world needs your inexperience’

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp urged 2009 graduates to expand access to education. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“The world needs your inexperience. There is something about the fresh perspective, the naïveté, the limitless energy that comes along with youth and inexperience that enables recent graduates to solve problems that many more experienced people have given up on.”

— Teach for America and Teach for All  founder Wendy Kopp, May 15, 2009

‘Becoming American’

Broadcaster Chris Matthews discussed the hot-button issues of the 2008 presidential campaign, including immigration. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

“There’s been and certainly will be a lot of fighting, on the radio especially, about immigration these days, the fear that people cannot become Americans when they come here, which is what people have been doing for centuries, becoming Americans.

We need to keep in our minds that becoming an American is not only doable, but it’s demonstrably doable. Why? Because it’s not a matter of ethnicity, though speaking a common language makes sense, but of attitude.”

— Broadcaster and political analyst Chris Matthews, May 16, 2008


To watch and read past Washington University Commencement addresses, visit the Commencement site.

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