Commencement 2012: honorand Gwen Ifill remarks (video and transcript)

Yesterday I met my fellow honorands for the first time, and I decided that I instantly love them, but now I hate them both [laughter] with a deep an abiding passion that comes from being the third person to speak.

First of all, I want a show of hands. How many of you had more than two hours of sleep last night [few hands]. A few wooses. The rest of you are out! Or are you just saying that because your parents are watching?

How many of you climbed the rock [Mount David]? [All raise hands] That’s great. OK, you lived up to everything they told me about you.

Thank you President Cable, thank you Mike Bonney, thank you incoming president Spencer. Thank you Class of 2012 [cheer]. And thank you for letting us be part of your number and pretend to be Batesies for at least  day.

But when I discovered that I was going to the last of the three alphabetically, I was a little intimidated. I mostly though I was going to be overshadowed by De Niro, who turns out to be a teddy bear. But truth is, I never thought the long shadow would be cast by the molecular biologist [laughter and cheers].

OK, you’re applauding too much now. I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be at Bates because I love commencements. I love the feeling of the day. I love the weather you’ve arranged. I love the celebration of endings and beginnings.

I love the dancing of Baccalaureate on this stage. I’ve never seen a processional to Motown before. I love that so many of the songs you picked were from the ’60s and ’70s, which goes to show that we really rule the world [cheers].

I love that everyone today is in a good mood. The parents who are writing the last check. You start now. The students who’ve finished the last exams. The faculty who are just finished with you. I mean that: finished with you. But if I know one thing about commencements it is this: That I as the final speaker am the only thing standing between you and anther really good party.

I’m going to be brief. Oh yes, somebody said, that’s a little rude [laughter]. Contain your enthusiasm. I am going to be brief, I promise. I’m going to give you some advice, and it’s fairly simple piece of advice, and it is this:

Look up.

We’re all looking down. We’re all looking down as we walk, as we talk, as we text. How many of you are Tweeting about this right now. Look up! Pay attention to what’s going on up here!

Not long ago I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on my way to a meeting at the White House, and I was texting the words “I’m on my way.” I misjudged the curb and fell flat on my face in the street.

Now, I was fine but I was humiliated, because only in Washington can you be helped to your feet by a Secret Service officer and an assistant secretary of Commerce. I’m not making this up. But I would have been fine if I had only looked up. And the colleague I was texting to would have known I was on my way if he had only looked up.

Not long after that I was on my way to interview a presidential candidate in New Hampshire during the primaries, and my producer who was driving punched in the GPS the address of the hotel we were going to, and he studied it closely as we made our way. After awhile, I looked out the window and I saw the hotel we were headed to, right out the window, to the right. But the GPS was telling us to go to the left [laughter].

I had to say to my producer, “Look up. Look out.” His first instinct by the way was to turn left anyway. But he thought his eyes were wrong, not the GPS.

It’s so much simpler to look down. Your feet are down there, our screens are down there. But our fears are down there too. If you look up and away from the fear you will see the destinations you are headed toward, and you will see the opportunities. If you look up, you will see the chance to speak and to act on behalf of the discouraged and the diminished. If you look up you will see the expectation you set for yourself can only be expectations that we are setting for you today.

If you look up, you will realize you have a responsibility to build a set of steps for those following behind you to climb up. If you look up you will see that a Bates degree is the beginning of your life’s education but not the end.

I was at a conference recently where a nice, really rich twentysomething tech startup guy, probably earning more than I ever will in my entire just in the time he was sitting at that conference, started talking about something he called disruptive innovation. Now, this sounded like a catch phrase to me, and I pretty much hate catch phrases.

But it got me to thinking. Isn’t the best innovation by definition, disruptive? Doesn’t it unsettle? Doesn’t it challenge the settled order? Doesn’t it carve a new path? Isn’t it by definition difficult? Yes to all of the above. But is it worthwhile? Also yes. Does it require looking up, seeing what’s over the horizon? Also yes.

Now there are some benefits to be had in looking down. If you look down today you will be able to fall in the footsteps of Bates graduates like Ed Muskie and Benjamin Mays and Peter Gomes and Bryant Gumbel. That ain’t half bad.

But mostly we want we to unglue your eyes from the screens, to look around and see that the world won’t get better without you. The news I cover won’t happen without you. And the learning you have acquired here means nothing unless you apply it to a cause that does not end at your smartphone.

I couldn’t wish more for you than all of that, and I won’t. I want you to look up and see what the end is truly going to be. My best wishes to you all, congratulations to us all.