The Wisconsin Idea

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Thank you, Chancellor Martin. It's a great pleasure and honor to be here today at the Kohl Center. But I admit to speaking with some trepidation. The truth is that the Badger Herald has set a high bar for my address.

Earlier this spring, the Badger Herald complained that, in recent decades, other Big Ten schools had landed big-name commencement speakers like Bill Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

The Herald then added that "for the first time in recent memory, UW will have a speaker who at least somewhat belongs in that list: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan."

Well, I'm somewhat sorry to disappoint. For the record, I would like to say that I am taller than both John McCain and Barack Obama. Also, I believe I have a better jump shot than John McCain… And I think I will stop there.

The truth is that I am delighted to be here–to offer my congratulations to each and every one of you, to your parents, the faculty, and Chancellor Martin on this momentous day. I don't think we celebrate success enough in education. And today is a day to celebrate.

Now, I've been forewarned that one should never start off the beginning of a speech at UW by in effect saying: "It is time to party". But frankly, I think Wisconsin's reputation as somewhat of a party school may be exaggerated. Sure, you have the Halloween Freak Fest and the Mifflin Block Party.

But only in Madison do students party with a purpose. Recall that the Mifflin Block party started as a Vietnam War protest. And where else do students cut a hole in a frozen lake to do the Polar Plunge, jumping into ice-cold water to raise money for charitable causes like the Special Olympics?

To the Class of 2010, I think we can all agree that this year marks a historic turning point. You saw the first day in decades where classes were cancelled due to snow. Of course, UW couldn't just let any old snowball fight break out. It had to have an epic snowball battle–all in an unsuccessful effort to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest snowball fight in history.

I joke in part. Yet the notion of having a passionate purpose is deeply ingrained in a UW education, whether it is in the classroom or the Polar Plunge in Lake Mendota. It's here in Madison that the Progressive tradition was born and nurtured. And it is here at UW that higher education's Progressive cousin, the Wisconsin Idea, came into being a century ago.

As many of you know, the Wisconsin Idea was first articulated at the turn of the last century by Charles Van Hise, then the university's president. The Wisconsin Idea holds that university scholars should work with government officials to both solve current problems and anticipate future ones. From opposite ends of State Street, the State Capital and the University–the twin domes of law and learning–are to communicate and assist each other.

It is no coincidence that Wisconsin's great educational champions, such as Governor Doyle, Senators Kohl and Feingold, Congressman Obey, and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin are all UW graduates. It is Congressman Obey who led the recovery effort in Congress that literally saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers and helped millions of students across the country get a better education. It is Governor Doyle who has tripled state financial aid to students and created the Wisconsin Covenant to get students–from day one of high school–planning the classes they need for college and their role in the community.

The Wisconsin Idea, in other words, is the antithesis of the university as the Ivory Tower. Some critics claim that Madison's progressive politics have made the city "78 square miles surrounded by reality." But I want to suggest today that the university's mission is very much anchored in reality–and an educational progressivism of the best sort. It is not by accident that last year's graduating class produced the second highest number of Peace Corps volunteers of any university in the country. That is remarkable–service, in action.

I am honored to speak at a university that has had such an oversize impact on America—not just in medicine and the arts, but in agricultural and biological sciences, government, and higher education.

UW faculty or alumni have won 17 Nobel Prizes and 30 Pulitzer Prizes. More than 30 college presidents and chancellors earned their degrees at UW. You have awarded more than 30,000 doctorates. Your famous alumni include authors such as Eudora Welty, Joyce Carol Oates, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and historian Stephen Ambrose.

Frank Lloyd Wright went here–as did my colleague and friend Rocco Landesman, the chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. Alumnus Dale Chihuily's amazing blown-glass sculpture graces the front entrance of the Kohl Center. Seated among you are future luminaries and leaders who will go on to make their own indelible mark on America and the world in years to come. And I have a special spot in my heart for UW-Madison because my mother earned her M.A. in English here, and loved her time as part of this community.

So as I thought about my remarks today, I asked myself 'what could I say to these bright, accomplished students?' The truth is that, when I graduated, I didn't have a clue as to the unexpected twists and turns my life would soon take. I would have thought you were crazy if you told me that one day I might be the Secretary of Education.

Yet at the same time, I thought then– and I think now–that I received an excellent progressive education that equipped me to enter the world and succeed in the 21st century.

So, rather than tell you about the time-honored truths, I want to talk instead about skillfully managing uncertainty and serendipity as a defining element of a 21st century education. I don't need to tell you that it is a tough job market out there for college grads. The days of the Organization Man–when you came out of college and went on to work for one employer–are over. The graduates in the Class of 2010 will work for multiple employers–and many of you will pursue more than one career.

In the global economy of the 21st century, it is not just knowledge and subject mastery that are going to count, as important as they are. Your ability to adapt, to be creative, and pursue your passion are, in large measure, going to determine how you fare in the job market and in life.

Employers today are looking not just for strong academic skills but for the ability to analyze and solve problems, write succinctly, and communicate. They are looking for employees who work well in teams and know how to surround themselves with talented colleagues. All of those traits of critical thinking, entrepreneurship, cross-cultural competence, and team-building are hallmarks of a good progressive education and the Wisconsin Idea.

I learned firsthand the importance of adaptation, creativity, and pursuing your passion in my own zigzag career. I'll tell that story briefly here, not because it is unique—though many of the details inevitably are—but rather because the lessons I learned are so universal in the information age.

I played basketball in college. And when I graduated, I wanted to play for the Boston Celtics. I tried out and was promptly cut. But getting cut was a great stroke of luck. One of my college coaches, Tom Thibodeau, took pity on me. To get a coach in Australia to look at me, Tom told him that I was like the superstar Larry Bird "but better with the ball." So I landed on a pro basketball team in Australia. And every time I made a mistake, my coach in Australia would roll his eyes and repeat Tom's line like a parrot: "Like Larry Bird, but better with the ball."

I played for four years in Australia. And those four years changed the course of my life. I met my wife there, and we are now blessed with two wonderful children, an eight year-old daughter and a six-year old son. You might think that bumping around in Australia, playing basketball for teams with names like the Eastside Melbourne Spectres and the Launceston Ocelots, might not prepare you for the competitive rigors of the global economy. But that was not my experience.

In fact, on and off the court I had to learn to work both independently and in teams. I learned the importance of persistence, of taking responsibility, and the demands of leadership. I learned then, and in later years, how important it was to surround oneself not only with a great team but to learn from mentors. But most of all, I had the chance to pursue my passion–and experience the life-altering opportunity to find what you love and stick to it.

In 1992, we moved back to Chicago, where I got to pursue a second life passion in a totally different arena. I joined my sister in working at a foundation that provided the sixth grade class at a struggling inner-city school with the promise of a college scholarship for students who stayed in school. But the shift from the court to the classroom was not as unusual as one might think. In our family, the commitment to education was deeply rooted from our earliest years.

In 1961, my mother opened a free, after-school tutoring program in a church basement in a poor neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. And from the time we were born, my brother, my sister, and I all went to my mother's after-school program every day. That experience as absolutely formative for us–we have all tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways.

When we were little, the older students tutored us, and as we grew up, we tutored the younger students. Her philosophy was that everyone should be both teaching and being taught at the same time. After we were done with our studies and chores, we played basketball together.

From the corner of 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who tutored my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer. Kerrie was recently named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation. Another student became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dream in Hollywood, when he starred in "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools.

Now, with the exception of my brother, my sister, and I, all the students in my mother's tutoring program were African-American. Despite the challenges they faced growing up in a violent, gang-plagued neighborhood, my fellow students in the tutoring program just wanted a chance to succeed. To see the extraordinary potential that every child has, no matter where they come from—that is what I learned from my mother's work—and that is what continues to drive me today.

Two years ago, after winning the D.C., Virginia, and Maryland primaries, then-Senator Obama stood here in the Kohl Center, made possible by Senator Kohl's generosity. He came here to talk about the power of change and the courage of commitment. The President said that hope was "not blind optimism… the politics of hope does not mean hoping things come easy." But the President could think of no better spot to affirm American ideals than in Wisconsin, the birthplace of the progressive moment, which was so "rooted in the principle that voices of the people can speak louder than special interests; [and] that citizens can be connected to their government and to one another."

To our graduates, it is true that you face a more competitive world today than ever before. But don't forget that the rise in global competition is matched by a rise in global interdependence. Combating disease and poverty, stabilizing world financial markets, reversing the effects of climate change, strengthening schools—these are all problems that do not stop at our borders. And neither must your education.

You got a topnotch, world-class education at UW. You are prepared—and you can lead. For all the challenges we face as a nation and across the globe, I am absolutely optimistic about our future because you and millions of other students graduating this year are a smart, passionate, and dedicated generation. Wherever you go, and whatever you do, I hope you will always remember that your knowledge and commitment can—and will—change the world.

So, how to sum up the meaning of a first-rate education in the 21st century? To paraphrase from the Bible, these three virtues–creativity, adaptation, and following one's passion—abide. But the greatest of these is to follow your passion. You received an education in the shadow of the dome of the State Capital and saw firsthand the value of civic involvement. When you leave here, run for office, or volunteer at a local school, tutor, or coach—even if it sometimes seems the tougher path to take. Find what you love, find your genius. Find what would you get up and do every day, even if you weren't getting a paycheck. And whatever that calling is, pursue it with all your heart.

I congratulate every one of you on your wonderful accomplishment today, and for reaching this moment of passage into careers and adulthood. That is success that richly deserves to be celebrated.

You have so much to be proud of. And I know that I join with everyone here today in saying that we look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of your journey.

The notion that life is a journey, not a destination, is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a preeminent progressive. You, better than anyone, know the journey never ends–you created the wonderful tradition of the "fifth quarter" of the football game.

Today, I hope you celebrate your journey here. Tomorrow–and in the years ahead–I hope you continue that journey as lifelong learners. That, too, is in keeping with the Wisconsin Idea–with the understanding that education itself is a journey, not just a destination.

Congratulations—and thank you for allowing me to join in this wonderful celebration. And "On Wisconsin"!