Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
Boston University Commencement
May 17, 1998
President Westling, Chancellor Silber, Chairman Cooley and members of the Board of Trustees, Rabbi Polak, Heather Vinson, alumni, faculty and staff, distinguished honorees, graduates, and your families and friends. It is great to be with you all today. Thank you for this honorary degree. I cannot tell you how truly humbled I am to be in the company of such distinguished honorees, such great, great Americans.
And congratulations — to the honored class of 1998, to the families of every graduate, and to the faculty and staff of Boston University who have made this day possible. Let me just add, for those of us in the Pacific Northwest this rain is typical.
Being back here brings back fond memories for me — of my undergraduate days at Yale, and my law school studies here at Boston University: living in Cambridge and walking across the BU Bridge every day; shopping in Chinatown and carrying 50-pound sacks of rice back on the subway, the Red Line. And, of course, what's Boston without Filene's basement! It's been years since I've been back to this campus. So today, I feel like I've come home — home to the vibrant intellectual stimulation that comes from being with students and faculty from many states, many cultures and many nations.
And I know that family members have traveled long and far to witness this joyous event. When I graduated from college, my parents closed down their mom-and-pop grocery store and traveled all the way across the country to attend my commencement ceremony. It was a major milestone in the journey of the Locke family.
Our family began its life in America virtually a hundred years ago. It started when my grandfather first emigrated to the state of Washington, and worked as a houseboy for a family just a mile from the Governor's mansion where I now live. So we in the Locke clan kind of joke how it took our family a hundred years to travel one mile. But what a journey it's been.
My grandfather worked as a houseboy and learned English, saved money, and eventually went back to China where he raised a family and made trips back and forth between China and America, sending money back, and having more children. So my father was born in China, but came to the United States as a teenager. He served in the United States Army in World War II, and was part of the Normandy invasion. Then after the war was over he went back to China where he met my mother and they married and came to America. My mom learned English at the same time I was learning English in kindergarten, but she was learning English to become a United States citizen. And they worked seven days a week in a mom-and-pop grocery store, 365 days a year, 14 hours a day, and denied themselves even some of the smallest luxuries so that the children in the family could have a better life.
For our entire Locke clan, education has been the great equalizer. We believe that regardless of your gender, your ethnic origin, your income level, with a quality education we are all able to realize the American dream.
Our family story is no different than the stories of every family here — whether you are a first generation immigrant or a sixth. Your stories are made of similar journeys — journeys fueled by the American dream of freedom, hope, and opportunity. And this Commencement ceremony is what generation after generation of Americans and people all across the globe have dreamed of and sacrificed for.
So it's wonderful to be here today, to share in this celebration of the power of education, and the success of every graduate and every graduate's family.
And in about the year 2020, I hope to be sitting out among you, as a proud father of a graduate. That's when my daughter Emily, who is just 14 months old, will likely participate in this rite of passage.
Emily is my frame of reference for the future. She will be a child of the 21st Century who will have no memories and no recollections of the 20th Century or the coming of the new millennium. But she will also grow up in a family that is deeply rooted in the traditions and the lessons of its past.
Not long after I was elected governor, our entire family – Mom and Dad, my brother and sisters and their spouses, myself and my wife – made a pilgrimage to our ancestral village called Jilong in the Guangdong province of southern China.
It was like stepping back into the 1800s when my grandfather left China to come to America. My Mom and Dad had not set foot in the village since their wedding day fifty years ago. In our tiny village of about 150, there is still no running water, just a well in the center of town. There is no indoor plumbing, no toilets. People still use chamber pots and raw sewage runs in open gutters along the walkways that connect the tightly-spaced dwellings. Only a few homes have electricity. Almost no one has a phone.
Very little has changed for the people of our village since my grandfather left a hundred years ago. People still live by the ancient rhythms of planting and harvest, and of birth and death. They measure time in generations, not in news cycles.
To the members of the family village, my return was a vindication of their hard work and sacrifice. My election as a governor in the United States of America represents the success of our entire clan and the affirmation of all that America promises. They rightly understand — and they reminded me — that my success belongs to them, and to my parents, and not just to me as an individual.
A few days after that visit, I was plunged back into the world of the Internet, cell phone, and the space shuttle. And ever since, I find myself reflecting on the relationship between the past and the future and how the differences of living conditions between my birth home, Seattle, and my ancestral home, Jilong, have been shaped by the power of education — namely the benefits and the expectations of an educated society.
In my lifetime, we have learned so much, and so much has changed.
In the decades that I grew up in, it seemed the world itself turned upside down.
In the Ozzie-and-Harriet era in which I was born, I got the message that I had to choose between being Chinese and being American. When I was in the third grade our teacher would ask every student every morning what we had for breakfast. If it was not a traditional American breakfast we would get our hands slapped by a ruler. And because I often ate a rice porridge with fish and vegetables for breakfast, I had my hand slapped quite often – so did a lot of my Asian classmates, and even some of the Italian kids who had coffee in the morning. To be an American — to fit in — meant your mother was supposed to look like Donna Reed and bake apple pies. So to conform, I felt I had to reject the culture of my parents. And I tried to do that, but it didn't work. It just confused me, and it made my parents angry.
In the 1950s, conformity was the order of the day, and ethnic roots were a source of endless embarrassment. But by the end of the '60s, nonconformity was the order of the day, and ethnicity was high fashion.
In the '50s, we thought government could do no wrong. By the '80s, many Americans thought government could do nothing right.
In the '50s, our laws and our education system reflected the belief that white, Western culture was superior to every other tradition on earth. By the '70s, it was fashionable to believe that Western culture was the cause of all our problems, and that it was doomed to failure.
So during the last several decades, we have been through a prolonged and traumatic convulsion — a time during which relations between men and women, between races, between government and citizens, between old values and new ones, and between innovation and nostalgia were hotly debated.
But today, finally, we see the first signs of synthesis and resolution of some of these conflicts. And to the degree to which we have come to this new and hopeful moment, we have done so by learning, by opening our minds to new ideas and insights, and by educating ourselves more deeply about the wisdoms of old traditions and tireless values.
We are finally finding a new and healthy balance between what government can do, and what citizens must do. We are finally learning how to create a kind and compassionate society — not by federal mandates, but by one citizen at a time, one family at a time, and one community at a time.
We've even learned that my Mom's rice porridge with fish and vegetables is actually healthier than bacon and eggs, and that many of those bitter tasting Chinese herbal remedies that Mom forced us to take have scientific validity.
So we are learning our way toward synthesis, toward real dialogue rather than shouting matches — and most importantly, toward balance. Every bit of progress we have made has been based on our ability to learn and to use our knowledge to generate new knowledge, new insight, and deeper understanding. And the result is that as this millennium draws to a close, we are beginning to see — after a long period of doubt — that real progress is possible.
Out of the confusion and the conflicts of our times, we have created higher hopes for women and people of color, and a higher standard of fairness. Out of our relentless questioning of every value and tradition we were taught, we have learned — or perhaps just remembered — that there really is a set of timeless, universal values to guide us: the values of education, hard work, sacrifice for our children, and respect for our elders who sacrificed so much to make our freedom and our success possible.
These values are the wellspring of progress, and the common ground on which diversity, fairness, and real equality flourish. And education — the force that unites us today in celebration — will move us forward.
Our emerging consensus or balance comes just in the nick of time, because a new wave of transformation is already upon us. The new millennium is far more than an arbitrary number that challenges the people who maintain our computers. It is a moment in civilization that marks a watershed. And on the far side of that date lie challenges unprecedented in human history.
In just the past few years we have begun to map the human genetic code. We are now creating a network of orbiting satellites that will create an instant, wireless global communications network. We may even be on the brink of finally conquering cancer.
So we see today something we have not seen since the days of JFK and LBJ: a surging confidence that the human race can truly make life better — not just for a few, but for all of us.
But of course, it will not be easy. Your generation will be called on to sort out unprecedented ethical dilemmas posed by these new scientific advances; to harness new technologies for humane purposes; and to find new ways for a high-tech humanity to live in harmony with the natural world.
During your adult lives we will learn how to change the very nature of our species through genetic engineering. But how do we ensure that the change will be for the better and not for the worse?
New technologies will transform the way we live and work. But will we use these new technologies to make our society fairer, more democratic, more focused on learning, and a more nurturing environment for all our children?
And perhaps most important, how do we ensure that what we have learned in the past will not be forgotten in the future? In the 1950s, we thought humanity had learned from the Holocaust. We swore it would never happen again. But, then came the recent haunting, unfathomable images of piles of skeletons and skulls of the children, men, and women of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.
If these tragedies mean anything to us, it is that human knowledge is not necessarily cumulative. Every moral victory, every inch of social progress, every advance of human civilization is always reversible. Every step forward must be followed by either another step forward or a step backward. There is no standing still. History has not ended; it is only accelerating.
You will be shaping and directing history for your children and your grandchildren and for my little Emily. It's an awesome responsibility. So you must always study, remember, and learn from our past.
That is the challenge for today's graduates: to forever embrace the power of education to move our civilization forward.
The purpose of education is not to help you lead more comfortable lives; it is to enable you to lead more useful lives. You must use the power of education to confront, understand, and alleviate suffering and conflict. You know too much — and you're too talented — to turn your backs to disease, poverty, ignorance and tyranny, whether in our communities in America or Bosnia, or even in my ancestral village.
Together, we can make the coming of the new millennium a rite of passage for all humanity. On this platform of education, we can build out the global village — a world in which all humanity recognizes its shared destiny; and in which every individual, every family, and every community realizes its fullest potential.
As I look out on this wonderful sea of faces, I see a vast and rising hope. I see a hope that what we have gained will not be lost. I see a hope that all the sacrifices of our parents and our grandparents were not in vain. And I see a hope that only a good education can produce: the hope that in an economy driven by knowledge, in a society devoted to knowledge, people who value learning will be blessed with the gift of wisdom.
So I urge each of you to hold fast to the past and to embrace the future. Both belong to you. Both are yours to keep and yours to lose. When you finally hold that diploma in your hand today — don't let it get wet, by the way — you will hold the power of education, a gift, and the responsibility for human progress.
In this first, pre-light dawn of a new millennium, never before have the challenges facing our species and our planet been so daunting. But never before has your generation of young scholars been better prepared to make the most of the opportunities before you.
So once again, congratulations to all of you: the class of 1998! And to each of you, Godspeed. Godspeed in your lives, your careers, and in the fulfillment of your sacred obligation to the continuing advancement of our civilization.
Thank you very much.