President Adams, members of the Board of Regents and Foundation Trustees, members of the University faculty, parents and most importantly, graduates:
It is an honor to return to the campus of one of America’s great public universities, a university that houses one of the world’s great libraries; that sponsors one of the finest literary magazines in this country; that has a famous art department and an outstanding journalism school and College of Education; a university that is nationally renowned for the life sciences, and for the extraordinary beauty of its campus. The University of Georgia is a very special place, not only to students and alumni, but to the people of Georgia and the world.
This is the gift-giving season, and since pretty much everyone is now talking about the global economic downturn, the stock market, and their personal finances, I want to talk about money, about Georgia, and about Georgia’s gift to you.
You are about to become the proud graduate of a distinguished public university that shares its name with a great state – the largest state east of the Mississippi, with the 8th largest population in the nation, a state from Rabun Gap to Tybee Light that reaches from the mountains to the sea, the proud home of the nation’s oldest public university. I want to talk to you about Georgia because, as of today, you are Georgia – you are the embodiment of the University and the hope of the State.
You, each of you, represent an investment by the State of Georgia, by the taxpayers of Georgia, of somewhere between $75,000 to$135,000 – depending on how long you took to get your degree, and how much additional support you may have gotten from the HOPE scholarship. That’s $75,000 to $135,000 spent by Georgia on every single one of you graduates sitting here today. Yes, it cost you and your parents real money, too, but no one here paid more than 30% of the cost of your education at UGA!
So you may want to sit up just a bit straighter, stand a little taller as you pick up your diploma, because you are worth roughly $100,000 more than you thought you were.
Why did the State of Georgia – which is to say your friends and neighbors and people all over this still- not- very- rich state agree to invest over $100,000 in your education at the University of Georgia – not to mention, by the way, the fact that they have invested even more than that before you got here if you attended any of the twelve years of public school in Georgia? Why did Georgia think you were worth $100,000?
While you think about the answer to that question, listen to a famous passage from a speech given by the great Georgian Henry Grady in 1889:
I attended a funeral once in Pickens County . . . . This funeral was peculiarly sad. It was for a poor “one gallus” fellow . . . . They buried him in the midst of a marble quarry: they cut through solid marble to make his grave; and yet a little tombstone they put above him was from Vermont. They buried him in the heart of a pine forest, and yet the pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati. They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in his coffin and the iron in the shovel that dug his grave were imported from Pittsburgh. They buried him by the side of the best sheep-grazing country on the earth, and yet the wool in the coffin bands and the coffin bands themselves were brought from the North. They buried him in a New York coat and a Boston pair of shoes and a pair of breeches from Chicago and a shirt from Cincinnati, leaving him nothing to carry into the next world with him to remind him of the country in which he lived, and for which he fought for four years, but the chill of blood in his veins and the marrow in his bones. The South didn’t furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground . . . .
Henry Grady, who was at the time the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and is the person for whom your Grady College of Journalism is named, was alluding – as I am sure you recognize – to the fact that while the Civil War era South had plenty of natural resources, the North had all the financial capital and industrial organization: Consequently, the North had all the power – economic and military – and the agrarian South had poverty and defeat.
Think for a moment about today’s parallels: Many of us – maybe most of us
– drove to this ceremony in cars made by companies headquartered in Japan or South Korea or Europe, powered by gasoline brought in from the Middle East, wearing shoes made in Brazil and clothes made in Central America or the Philippines. Our credit card inquiries are answered by attendants in India and our Federal budget deficit of half a trillion dollars a year is funded by loans from China. Bill Gates’s most frequent appearances before Congress are to plead for lowering immigration restrictions on internationals with expertise in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering – the so-called STEM disciplines – because we have too few Americans studying those vital subjects.
This is Henry Grady’s complaint made over for the 21st century. And this is where you come in. The one thing that you didn’t have to import, indeed, cannot import, is the world’s finest collection of colleges and universities – because that belongs to America, and the University of Georgia is one of the stars of that collection. The state of Georgia has invested more than $100,000 in a world-class university education for each of you as its best chance to grapple effectively with the pressing challenges of the 21st century.
Now is the time for each of you to begin to produce a return on that extraordinary investment. While Georgia will be partly repaid by your personal success – in your jobs and professions and personal lives – it will only be fully repaid by your willingness to take an informed, active role in working on solutions to the challenges to our local and national security and prosperity. Prosperity, as the financial turmoil of the past few months has shown, is not just about the success of the few able to build fabulous vacation homes in the Hamptons or on Sea Island, or even about each of us being able to live lives of increasing ease; prosperity is more important than that: It is the essential element in national security and strength. Just as during the Civil War era, in the 21st century there can be no national power without economic power.
This is the essential point: Prosperity for Americans in the 21st century will be created in the same way the South rose from the ashes of the Civil War, the same way Georgia became fiscally prosperous rather than a “one-gallus” debtor: through education.
The United States cannot, even when it wants to, become an economic island. What we can do, though, what we must do, is be smarter about the long-term requirements of prosperity – just as Henry Grady was. This is what your education has prepared you for.
More than the limestone Georgia still has in opulent supply, more than its bounty of pine and peanuts and other natural resources, what Georgia has is you – for better, as they say at the beginning of every marriage, or worse.
Georgia needs you to be worth the investment. Remember that this education for which you today receive an honored degree was not free, nor was it simply a gift; it is a trust. Your debt – beyond and much larger than your student loans – is to the people of Georgia who made this experience possible.
You graduate today into a country that needs your good education and your civic engagement more than ever. Your country is challenged: financially, diplomatically, militarily, and morally; the challenges your state faces are familiar to you, and they range from the quality of public education to the quality and availability of water. You have been supported by the people of Georgia in your education not to leave the great challenges of your time to the politicians – but to take on those challenges yourself.
Each of you has been the recipient of the greatest gift: The people of Georgia have made it possible for you to receive a first-class education and they will be rewarded for their investment in you by the quality of your citizenship. Remember, then, the words of the great Kentucky poet, Wendell Berry; from his epic poem, “Sabbaths”:
Every year is costly,
As you know well,
Nothing is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
The gift is balanced by
Its total loss, and yet,
And yet the light breaks in,
Heaven seizing its moments
That are at once its own
And yours. The day ends
And is unending where
The summer tanager,
Warbler, and vireo
Sing as they move among
Georgia, a state and a university as beloved by its citizens as any in the nation, is in your hands now. I have no doubt they are hands that will create a better Georgia and a better world, where the light breaks in, and I wish you all —–success in your labors.