Commencement 2009 - Colorado College

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Michael Bennet

Remarks by Senator Michael Bennet

Commencement Address to
Colorado College Class of 2009

Well, let me first say good morning to all of you and especially to the Colorado College Class of 2009.  Thank you to President Dick Celeste for that wonderful introduction.  My mom, your old friend, will appreciate that you read it just as she wrote it.  To the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, and community who have supported these graduates thank you for everything you have done to get them across the starting line.  No one got here by themselves, and graduates why don’t you applaud everyone who helped you along the way. 

It has been nearly a quarter of a century since I sat where you are sitting today.  Slightly less than that when I worked for Dick.  Looking at you, I can scarcely believe it, and I wonder where the time has gone.  In some ways, it is easier for me to imagine myself scrimping for an off campus meal, or cramming for a final exam, or hoping futilely that she’ll call me back (sometime), than it is to realize that I am decidedly middle aged, the married father of three young children with a minivan and an enormously fat cat.  I can tell you that every parent here today is wondering some version of the same thing. 

How has it all gone by so fast, so quickly, in the blink of an eye?

How is possible that in a period that seemed to us to pass in minutes, years went by, and we found ourselves, on this beautiful day in May 2009, inviting you to seize the chance to lead?

How can it be that your graduation is farther away from mine, than mine was from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy?

It’s gone by in a glimmer, but nevertheless here we are, at the dawn of the 21st Century, holding out to you a very stiff challenge.

From our Founding until now, as President Obama has said, “each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done.”  At every step along the way, generation after generation, we have recognized our imperfections and done what was necessary to form a more perfect union, always fulfilling the promise of a better life for those who come after us.

Part of our national creed is the belief that every generation of Americans should be able to go farther than their parents.

My family’s story is no different.  After their lives were shattered by World War II, my grandparents, like so many others, set their sights on Franklin Roosevelt’s America as the one place they could rebuild their lives.  And so it proved to be.

My mother had even more opportunities than my grandparents dreamed, and she and my father were able to make a better life for me, my brother, and my sister.

But, today, this national creed is profoundly at risk, largely because my generation has not been faithful enough to our grandparents’ example.

Our economy is in turmoil.  Six million Americans have lost their job since the beginning of this crisis, our unemployment rate is nearly nine percent and rising, and this recession is already the longest in generations.  I don’t need to tell you that you are graduating into the toughest job market in decades.

As we survey our economic wreckage and wrestle with solutions, it is important to understand that our economy didn’t fall out of bed over night.  We’ve been headed for trouble for some time, and certainly since the beginning of this new century. 

In the decade since this century began, median family income in this country actually declined in real terms by over $300 dollars, while the cost of health care exploded by 80% and the cost of higher education skyrocketed  by roughly 60%.   And, we financed that gap with credit cards and home mortgage loans, only to learn that when housing prices inevitably fell, banks would cease lending and our economy would shut down.

All across this beautiful state, I have heard stories from people in their 70s who have lost half their net worth and don’t know where to turn, and people in their early 20s or younger, graduating from school ready to contribute, but deeply concerned that they will be the last hired in this economy.

Over this decade, Washington was printing IOU’s for the next generation as well, with our national debt doubling from $5 to $10 trillion, an increase largely attributable to tax breaks for the very wealthiest of us and to pay for a war we should never have fought to begin with.

And on Wall Street, in this decade and before, institutions recklessly and wantonly piled on mountains of unregulated debt that collapsed alongside our housing prices.

We lived beyond our means, and we are paying a heavy price for that today.  But even more alarming than any price we are paying is the risk we are running, that we have limited the potential of future generations by burdening them with our poor choices, and our unwillingness to make tough ones.

Our policies and indecision have led us to a place where the gulf between rich and poor has gotten wider.  Americans are now less likely than people living in a number of other industrialized countries to improve their economic status in their lifetime.   As many as 100 million Americans now live in families earning less in real terms than their parents did at the same stage of life. 

The crisis we face today stems from much more than foreclosed houses and credit swaps.  It is a symptom of my generation’s lack of attention to the legacy of our grandparents, who built for the future.  And now, we must ask ourselves who we will be as a country when we emerge from this crisis.  Will we answer the call of this time, or will we fall back on the same tired arguments of the past?

This time demands that we cast our eyes to the future, that we take a 21st century approach to meet our 21st century challenges and seize our 21st century opportunities.  With new leadership in Washington and our resilient American spirit, we can emerge from this crisis stronger and truer to our creed than we entered it.  Each generation of Americans with hope for their children has courageously shed old ways of thinking and, on their behalf, reached out to new ideas.  We are no different; you are no different.  We too, all of us and each one of us, must be willing to shake off the tired habits of the past and attend to the future.  That is our cause.

We have to address critical, structural challenges stifling our economy and threatening your opportunities.  We need to pursue comprehensive financial reform that will prevent the kind of recklessness and greed that got us into this mess in the first place.  We have a rising deficit, and we must bring discipline to our budgets, even as we invest in the future.

We also need to change our health care system – to keep what works and to bring costs under control and bring basic, affordable health care to every American.

We need to invest in our domestic energy economy -- to break our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet from the threat of climate change.  Here in Colorado we are doing our part by harnessing the power of the wind and sun and natural gas.

And, if we are going to emerge from the economic crisis and succeed in the long run, we must fundamentally change public education in this country. 
Throughout our history, public schools have allowed America to make good on her promise to the next generation.  Our schools have propelled our children toward their parents’ aspirations and prepared them to rise to the challenges of their times.

Now, if we are honest with ourselves, we see that our public schools too often become traps, traps that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and foster mediocrity.  Our children, my three little girls and millions of others like them, are attending schools that were built to prepare their grandparents for an economy that no longer exists.

Our public education system, as designed, does not work well enough for all children in this country, and, for our poorest children, barely works at all.

Across America, 1.2 million children drop out of high school each year.   America ranks 20th among industrialized nations in high school graduation rates.  Forty years ago we were first.

On average, a nine-year-old from a low-income family already performs three  grade levels below her higher-income peers … she has only a one in two chance of graduating from high school .. and only a 1-in-10 chance of someday sitting where you sit today as a proud college graduate.

Seventy percent of our eighth graders cannot read at grade level. 

How can we as Americans, as believers in the right to rise, accept this reality, especially when none of us here would accept these odds for our own children?

This is not who we are, and this is not the legacy we want to leave behind.

Children’s futures have been wasted while adults have endlessly debated techniques for assessing failing schools, instead of changing or closing schools that are obviously failing on every dimension that can be assessed.

We have circled around modest and incremental reforms, instead of doing the hard work of identifying successful school structures and human capital strategies and taking them to scale.

A narrow, small politics has allowed us to duck ever making real choices about anything.  And it has, failure after failure, shriveled our shared ambitions for America’s children.

You all, by being here today, have beaten the odds. Now you have the opportunity to help improve the chances for those who could follow you. For as long as we continue to talk about fixing our schools, rather than taking the immediate action that’s needed, today’s nine year olds will see their younger brothers and sisters enter fourth grade with the same low odds of graduating from college they have ; just as they saw their older brothers and sisters face the same odds.  Generation after generation. 

Our commitment to our children and our grandchildren requires that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than we have in the past.

Now is not the time to spend new money on old programs or to timidly attempt changes that have already failed too many of our children.

Now is the time to re-imagine our schools as magnets for talent, centers for community engagement, and incubators of innovation. Only then can we ensure that our students are getting the 21st Century skills that will equip them for the new economy.

To help make this change, President Obama has called on the nation to create a new army of teachers.  We must recruit a diverse, excellent, and committed group of Americans to teach our children.

We need to pay and train our teachers in a way that rewards their success and provides incentives for them to stay in the profession.  More fundamentally, we need to recognize that our system of hiring, compensation, and training, designed deep in the last century is utterly inadequate for 21st century labor market realities.  In 1960, woman basically had two professional choices: becoming a nurse or going into the classroom.  In 2009, as nation after nation moves past us in educational achievement, we’re kidding ourselves if we think a teacher recruitment and retention plan that came in when the hula hoop went out – and effectively subsidized our schools by limiting women’s opportunities – is a serious response to America’s needs.

The talent is all around us – in the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the baby boomers who have spent their careers running successful businesses or working in manufacturing or medicine or law.  And it is, especially, in smart, idealistic college graduates like you.

To meet the challenges we must at once reach back to our grandparents’ example and forward to our children’s destiny.  We are, you are, the link in this continuum of opportunity. 

We must reacquaint ourselves with Martin Luther King’s observation that we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny. 

Of course, you know this.  Because you attended Colorado College.  Your Center for Service and Learning is a model for the nation.

Through it, some of you have worked as “Student Ambassadors” with students living in poverty in Colorado Springs and Denver.

You have helped refugee families make a new home in Colorado Springs.

You have tutored and mentored kids at Queen Palmer Elementary School.

You have even touched lives half a world away – by supporting water, sanitation and agricultural projects in India.

It was right here in Colorado Springs last summer that then-Senator Barack Obama called for a “New Era of Service.”

He challenged all of us to “step into the strong currents of history, and to shape our country’s future.” 

When I was about your age, fresh out of college, I went to work for then-Governor Celeste of Ohio.

In his distinguished career, he has been a Governor, Ambassador to India, Director of the Peace Corps, and now College President. 

His dedication to public service has never ceased to amaze and inspire me.

I hope he has inspired you, too – to be adventurous, to try new things and continually seek out ways to contribute to the lives of other and the life of our nation.

Looking out into this beautiful crowd, I see our nation’s future.  You will run the new schools I described. You will be the engineers who will build green cities, the doctors who will cure cancer, and the entrepreneurs who will start businesses we can’t yet imagine.   You will find compassion for those who struggle here and abroad without the benefit of anything close to the degree you are receiving today. 

In order to make this change we need a new politics, one that does not imagine that there is always a partisan solution, Democrat or Republican, that is the magical answer.  Whether it is the economy, health care, our foreign policy, or the future of public education, we need a politics that springs from the imagination of a pragmatic and engaged American people and overcomes the parochial divisions of the last century.

As we do this, it’s important to recall that the Declaration of Independence does not stop with “ourselves,” it speaks of “ourselves and our posterity.”  Why?  Because there’s real power in the notion that you and I can have an effect, or that “we the people” can have an effect, beyond merely ourselves and our time.  That we can make decisions today that will make a big difference to the people who come after.  That can inspire us to throw down our axe or our hoe – or a big paycheck – and say “sign me up.”  “I’ll fight for freedom, or against poverty, or find a solution to our health care crisis, or make sure more of our kids are learning this year than last.”

And let us also remember that  people from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Baghdad and Afghanistan have posterity to consider as well.  The question for us is what we can do to ensure that what they tell their children about us is something we can embrace.

On a lot of nights, after I’ve hitched our minivan to its post and we have put our three daughters to bed, like a lot of people, I take a walk through our neighborhood.  And, I often come to a place where the sidewalk has an imprint on it.  It says, “B.T. Sowell, contractor, 1964,” the year I was born.  I’m afraid that concrete has worn its 44 years better than I.  Now, I’ve never met Mr. Sowell, but I know something about him.

When I get to that spot, I think about Mr. Sowell, working on the day he laid that concrete.   He could have rushed the job, thinned out the cement, cheated the folks who paid for the path, taking shortcuts that might not have become evident for years.  But, instead, he put his name on it so that generations of children between then and now – children who rode their bikes over it, who skateboarded and skipped rope over it, children who walked to school or to church on it -- would know that he hadn’t cheated, hadn’t thinned it out; hadn’t cut any corner. They would know, as their parents had known that he had put an honest day’s work in for an honest day’s pay.  He laid his work down – he laid his cement down – in a way that would create an enduring legacy that literally would support the footsteps of generations of children, and, in my case, their very weary parents.

That is what you need to do.  As your generation assumes leadership, you need to lay your work down in a way that supports the footsteps of generations that will come after you.  We need to link the aspirations of our founding fathers to those of our children and our children’s children, and secure, for another century, for the American Dream.

Congratulations Colorado College Class of 2009!  We could not be prouder of what you will accomplish.