Tulane University Logo Tulane University Commencement 2007


2003 Commencement Address

David Halberstam


MAY 17, 2003

Fellow classmates:

At my own college graduation a mere 48 years ago, our speaker was Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of West Germany. It was his first trip to America. He had clearly wanted to come here for a very long time. It was very hot and he was very old--his nickname was der Alte, the old man--and he had a lot to say and he spoke very slowly. In fact, he spoke very slowly in German. In addition his words had to be translated into English and the translator obviously enjoyed his moment in the limelight and translated at what I would call a languorous pace. So I will be brief--20 minutes, I hope and with luck there will be no need for President Cowen to translate into English.

For those of you who have not exactly prospered academically let me give you a second bit of good news--you are being addressed by someone who was in the bottom half of his class at Harvard. Or, in fact, if you want to be didactic about it, the bottom third of his class. So there is life after college, I'm proof of it. And so, might I add was Henry Ford II, the grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, who went off to Yale in the late Thirties where he proved to be a devoted playboy but regrettably, an indifferent student. In time with a critical paper due in an English course, he paid a classmate to write the paper for him, was caught in the act, and was unceremoniously bounced from Yale without his degree. Still the future was not that bleak for him, he managed to get a job after college--with the Ford Motor Company of course. He was wise enough not to change his name, and he soon rose to the top, becoming in almost record time, the President of the company, and thereby, one of the most powerful and richest industrialists in the country. Much later, a somewhat rueful Yale, always on the lookout for a new building or two--the Henry Ford School of Business Administration, perhaps--invited him back for an honorary degree. That day Henry Ford stood up, held up his beautifully written speech, looked at the assembled Yale officials, waved the speech in front of them and said, "And I didn't write this one either."

I wrote this one. A graduation speech is a part of the rites of passage--the platitudes of June, Emily Dickinson once called them. As a commencement speaker I am supposed to do what your parents, your most cherished faculty members and other people crucial to your lives have failed to do in the previous 22 years, set you on a course of happiness and prosperity and away from a life of indolence and crime. All in under 20 minutes. So consider yourself warned.

What an extraordinary moment for you, receiving your degrees so close to the start of a new century, and the new millennium--the country as well as you starting out with a clean slate. I realize that many of you are a little uneasy about the immediate future, that it seems a bit more cloudy than the future as experienced by so many recent graduating classes--the economy is soft today, the jobs you might want seem to be frozen, people are not returning phone calls, the graduate schools a bit overloaded; meanwhile we are in the midst of at least one war, an ongoing war with terrorism, and engaged in a secondary war, in the Middle East, which may turn out to be more complicated and draining than some of its architects expected. But I would ask you today not to be fearful--we are not a fearful nation, we have never been one, and the members of our own families who settled in this country often after the most difficult and arduous of journeys were most assuredly not fearful people. Instead I want you to look forward to the essentially rich future which lies ahead of you, the blessed future which goes with the great good fortune of being a college educated citizen of this bountiful and most dynamic country.

The truth today, which I suspect you already know, is that you are among the fortunate of the world. Let me correct that--the very fortunate of the world.You have been given a priceless education at an exciting time in the most open society in the world at the moment when an entirely new kind of economy beckons, and as such you are uniquely advantaged. An education like yours from a school as distinguished as Tulane sets you apart not merely from most of your fellow Americans, but from most of the people on this planet. You, the young men and women of the dot com and cell phone and E-mail age, live at a time when education more than ever before is an economic advantage, when brains rather than muscularity drive the economy. America, the country which most of you are fortunate enough to inhabit, is not merely a military superpower, and a political superpower, and an economic superpower, but perhaps at this moment, most critical of all, it is an educational superpower. This more than anything else may be the source of our strength in the coming century, the one quality which makes our national strength so renewable, and makes us so much a beacon to the ambitious of the rest of the world--America, a special place where ordinary people can transform themselves by dint of education and their own innate energy into extraordinary people. Sometimes in America we take our good fortune, our chance to ascend to the good life for granted.Yet I believe what sets us apart from other societies is the fact that for all our flaws and failures and myriad contradictions, we in America, more than any other society, give ordinary citizens a chance to reach their fullest potential.

I speak of more than economic advantage of course, for you have been part of a rare academic community where the intellectual process is valued not just for what it can do for you economically, but as an end in itself. Learning is not just a tool to bring you a better income; learning is an ongoing, never ending process designed to bring you a fuller and richer life, to help you understand the people around you, the world around you, the events around you--and to help you understand among other complex organisms, yourself.

You are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest but the freest society in the world. In this country as in no other that I know of, ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams, and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. We have the right to choose: to choose if we so want, any profession, any venue to live and work in, any name. As much as anything else this is what separates us from the old world, the old world across the Atlantic and the old world across the Pacific, where people often seemed to be doomed to a fate and a status determined even before their birth. We have the words of the great physicist I. I. Rabi to remind us of that special freedom, of the privilege which comes with choice. When he received the Nobel Prize, Rabi was asked by a journalist what he thought: "I think," he said, "that if I had lived in the old country I would have been a tailor."

I do not think the stunning success of this society took place by happenstance. Both by chance--and by choice--I have become something of a historian of the second half of the twentieth century. I graduated from high school in 1951, and from college in 1955, and my professional career, through the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, took me through the stormiest years of much of the last 50 years. And if there is one great truth which categorizes that period in America it is that this nation has systematically become more and more inclusionary in race, gender and ethnicity--that we have made a constant and increasingly successful effort to make the playing field as level as possible, and to open doors once firmly closed to so many.

As they announced that we were coming into Louis Armstrong Airport yesterday, an image came from the computer of my brain of the first time I met Louis Armstrong--he wasn't always an airport. For a time he was the most joyous and distinguished of Americans, probably the American best known and most loved outside our shores. In 1958, as a young reporter, I decided to do a magazine piece on him and traveled with him and his band from Atlanta to Nashville where he was going to play. Now of course in those days he could not stop at the highway roadside for lunch--so lunch was packed. And when he, this most distinguished of Americans, needed so to speak, to use the facilities, the bus driver looked for particularly thick foliage and the bus stopped. This was how we treated perhaps our most famous and beloved citizen. We may be nostalgic about a past that we can now barely recognize, but we ought to be aware that the present is infinitely richer and more productive for almost all of us. This is for all the difficulties and dangers a wonderful time to be young and American--never have there been so many wonderful choices before you, if you manage to make the right calls.

The truth is, not surprisingly, that this effort to be inclusionary has made us in all ways a better, fairer and stronger society. And as for the economy being weakened by being more inclusionary, I should mention to you that the year that I graduated from high school, 1951, the Dow stood at 250. Yes, that's right, 250.

And now on to the mandatory part of the speech--words of direction to the young from the old--the requisite geezer wisdom. In the few minutes that remain to us I would like to talk briefly about the uses of the uncommon degree of personal freedom which we celebrate today. For your education greatly adds to one of the most elemental American rights--one which we often take for granted, but which does not so readily exist elsewhere--the freedom to make choices in life, a freedom often missing for those less privileged educationally. So what do you do with all that freedom? Freedom after all, does not come without burden and without responsibility--for if we make the wrong choices, we have no one to blame save ourselves. We cannot rant against an authoritarian government which deprived us of our rightful possibilities.

So how do we handle the burden of being responsible for our own destinies? For you are at the threshold of one of the most important choices that most of you will make in your lives, the choice of your careers. We have after all in this country an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Notice that wording, for we are not guaranteed happiness--merely the pursuit of it. Notice, as well, that the wise people who authored that phrase did not say "pursuit of wealth," for the pursuit of happiness and pursuit of wealth are by no means the same thing, nor do they by any stretch of the imagination generate the same inner sense of contentment and personal validity.

This is a critical decision for you. For other than the choice of a lifetime partner, nothing determines happiness so much as choosing the right kind of work. It is a choice about what is good for you, not what is good for others whom you greatly respect--your parents, an admired professor, your friends, a significant other--whom you suspect may be dazzled by a greater or loftier choice of profession. The choice is not about what makes them happy, but about what makes you happy. Not what seems to show that you are successful by the exterior standards of the society. Not what brings you the biggest salary--particularly in the beginning when those things seem so important--and the biggest house, or the greatest respect from Wall Street, but what makes you feel complete and happy and makes you feel, for this is no small thing, like a part of something larger than yourself, a part of the community.

So the choices for you out there are not simple. It is, for example, possible to be immensely successful in your chosen field, and yet in some curious way to fail at life, to get to the top and yet fail to enrich yourself. A few years ago my colleague Russell Baker, the distinguished New York Times columnist and humorist, was asked by the Times in-house magazine to write a piece about a colleague who had just been promoted to a powerful new position. Baker went to see his own great mentor, James Reston, then the Times bureau chief. He mentioned the colleague's name to Reston. "Tell me about his life," Baker asked Reston. "That's not a life--that's a career," Reston said, and he said it with great disdain. He meant that the colleague had at once done everything right, but had somehow missed the point of what he had done; he had covered the requisite big stories, had made the front page the requisite number of times, but he had in some way failed in the elemental human involvement so necessary for real pleasure in his career. He won all the prizes save the real ones, the friendships and all the fun that are at the core of what we do.

So how can you tell the difference between a life and a career, between the authentic and the inauthentic? How do you seek out a life when so many others tell you to have a career?

There is no sure plan to it. There is no clear path for any of us, you cannot simply sit down upon graduation and chart your career, come up with some fool-proof mathematical graph, and have it work out on schedule: such and such a title and salary by 30, an even bigger title and salary by 35. It doesn't quite work out that way. Let me suggest that by now you should know something about your inner self, what is fun, what you're good at, and what makes you feel good about yourself. And I am suggesting as well that that often has very little to do with the society's external reward system.

Let me give you an illustration. I recently went back to the college from which I graduated and visited the undergraduate newspaper, and I visited with a few of the graduating student editors. This was back a few years ago in that golden era when all kinds of recruiters were knocking on doors to find bright young men and women and to pay them too much money to go to work immediately after college. And I found that a number of young editors had already signed up to go to work for a consulting firm which was going to pay them roughly $85,000 a year, about three times the beginning salary for reporters. Leaving aside the bizarre question of why anyone 22 or 23 years old should be going around consulting and giving advice about anything to anyone else, I had a sense that they did not particularly want to consult, but this was the best offer available, and seemed to connect them to something from which I and most of my generation were luckily spared, the dreaded fast track. And I who had headed off after my own graduation to the smallest daily newspaper in the state of Mississippi for the grand total of $46 a week asked them, "Did it ever occur to you that the salary you are being offered reflects the fact that this is a choice you might not make were it not for the size of the salary? And that in some way that you do not yet entirely comprehend, you are being manipulated." So perhaps there is a rule or law of some sort here--if you are at too young an age being offered too heady or large a reward, perhaps it is not being offered with your best long term interest in mind.

Let me make a suggestion based on the accumulated wisdom of my 48 years in the field--it did not necessarily do those young people a great deal of good in recent years when the economy seemed to be so golden to have people rushing in to compete for them in law or business or consulting, when success seemed such a guarantee, and so immediate, just one more easy step, everything plotted and lined up for you on the day after graduation. The truth is, mostly in life we stumble towards success; more often than not we are successful only after we have failed. If things come up too easily we rarely appreciate them--the things we truly appreciate are more often than not, hard won. It's all right today to be a little unsure of the future, it's all right to take a job a little different from the one you expected, or to have to wait a bit on getting into graduate school-- you may learn about yourself and what's good for you in the long run this way.

So try and use your lives wisely, and try and make choices--even in your professional lives--that are of the heart. Do not be too readily caught in the material snare of this society. If you want to be a botanist, poet, actor, teacher or nurse, if that is what your heart tells you to do, do not go to law school or some other graduate school on the theory that it is a great ticket, and that it will get you to a higher level in the society, that you'll make some money for a while, and then you can go on and do the things that you really wanted to do in the first place.

It doesn't work that way. You will, I suspect, find it surprisingly hard to escape the life you have chosen and go back to the career you originally intended. For you will almost surely become a prisoner of a lifestyle that you did not particularly seek out in the first place: an ever larger house, a fancier car, a more luxurious vacation.

Do not be afraid to make some mistakes when you are young. Do not be afraid to try and fail early in your life. We often stumble towards the things we will end up doing best; do not be afraid to take chances when you are young, to choose the unconventional over the conventional. Often it is experience in the unconventional which prepares you best for the conventional. Be aware that it's all right to make mistakes, and it is all right to try at something and fail. The price of failure when you are young is much lower than when you are older. I suspect that you in the audience may look at us upon the stage and see people who seem like we have always succeeded, men and women who have led professionally flawless lives. Would that it were true. What you do not see is our own anxieties, not just when we were your age, but throughout our careers, when again and again--in our own minds--we seemed to be on the edge of some new failure.

You do not see me, at the moment a few days short of my 22nd birthday when the editor of that small daily in Mississippi came to me and told me it was time for me to leave, that in fact he would pay me for that last day and that he wanted me to be gone from the office and from town by the next morning. He had already hired my successor who was scheduled to show up the next afternoon and he did not think it a good idea if we overlapped. Fired as it were from the smallest daily in Mississippi after less than a year. What an auspicious start to a career!

In all things in life, choose your conscience, and trust your instincts and lead your lives without regrets. It's simply easier that way. I mention that because life, under the best circumstances, even if you're lucky, as I have been, to choose the right profession, is very hard. First you have to choose the right profession--and then you have to work hard for the rest of your lives to sustain yourself in this choice which you happen to love. As the noted philosopher, basketball player and sports commentator, Julius Erving--Dr. J--once said, "Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days when you don't feel like doing them."

So I congratulate you, my classmates. I ask you to choose wisely in the days ahead, trust your heart, don't worry if it does seem as if for the time being you're not on the fast track--after all sometimes the slow track is the rich track--and try and live happy and full lives. Thank you very much for having me here and letting me share this day of celebration with you.