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Secretary Vilsack offers graduates some common sense advice

Some of you this spring have experienced the graduation of a loved one from high school or college.

And as joyful as such an occasion can be — especially for the parents who have footed exorbitant tuition bills — there are parts of the ceremony that can be trying.

Take the commencement address, for example. Too often, it is a cliché-heavy, forgettable speech extolling the graduates to do what you, as parents, have been trying to tell them to do all their lives.

Then there’s a gem or two here and there, the kind that are never forgotten and often repeated, such as this one by Sir Winston Churchill: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently presented his version of the commencement address just up the road at Tuskegee University. And while there weren’t any flowery platitudes that are likely to be remembered for the ages, there was some good common sense advice, something that is sorely lacking in today’s national discourse.

Vilsack said Tuskegee University President Gilbert Rochon had given him a few guidelines for the speech — that it should be short, profound, substantive, challenging and inspiring — no small order for a 15-minute presentation. So Vilsack said he sought inspiration from various sources, even bumper stickers.

“There was one that read, ‘live the life you love.’ But when you think about it, that’s pretty self-centered,” he said.

Vilsack recalled that he grew up and graduated during a troubled and turbulent time in American history, “when great people with great courage participated in peaceful protests and were beaten for it, and when people sat at lunch counters and in front of the bus and were jailed for it.”

During this time, he said, national leaders inspired young people to think outside themselves, to dedicate their lives to service for others, to think outside comfort and convenience, and to work for a higher purpose and for higher principles, like justice, equality and freedom.

Destructive culture

Today, he said, a destructive culture of partisanship had poisoned the politics of Washington, D.C., and is standing in the way of solving many of the problems this country faces, “problems the current generation has left unsolved and that your generation will have to face in the future.”

Too often, said Vilsack, it is suggested that people who are in the political “middle” have no sense of principle in their decision making, and that folks who stand in the middle stand for nothing of value.

“I’m here to tell this class of 2013 that I reject that notion. And I believe much of what ails the nation today could be cured if we would listen to those in the middle.

“Look at the concept of what the middle actually is. To be physically strong, fitness coaches tell you to work your middle. To be economically strong, economists say we must build and expand the middle class. To win basketball championships, coaches say you need a dominant center.”

Perhaps there is a certain amount of comfort and security in intellectual rigidity, said Vilsack, but no longstanding solution to any problem will be found on that course.

“The future problem solvers will be those who seek common ground and common purpose — those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a larger and common good.”

There are people in rural America who epitomize these problem solvers, said the Secretary. “Since the time of George Washington Carver, our farmers, ranchers and producers have been the most productive in the world, working alongside universities like Tuskegee, they have made this a secure nation and strong nation.

“They have provided an extraordinary diversity of affordable food. Their work with our natural resources provides the energy and the fuel to help our businesses thrive. All of this helps support the middle class and strengthen our nation.”

These same people, he said, expect their elected leaders to compromise and reach a consensus, and they hope Congress will do its job this year and pass a farm bill.

“Our nation can produce enough food to feed itself and to export and feed the rest of the world. There’s hardly any other nation that can say that.”

In closing, Vilsack urged the graduates not to be afraid to seek compromise, but to embrace the middle

It’s sad when you think about it. Not that many years ago, national leaders were encouraging graduates to dream big and to literally reach for the stars. Now, out of necessity, they’re urging young people to at least be better than their elected officials and simply seek common ground. It’s an idea that once passed for common sense, but now seems like a rare virtue.

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