David Gergen Remarks


President Riggs,  Members of the Board of Trustees, Faculty, Family, Distinguished Guests -- and most of all, the graduating class of 2013 at Gettysburg College!

A little more than a century and a half ago, a young man -- about the age of many of you here -- gathered his courage and sent off a sheaf of poems he had written to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the giant among American writers of that day.  "Dear Mr. Emerson," the young man wrote, "These are my unpublished poems. No one else has seen them. I would be honored if you would read them and give me your critique."

Emerson read the poems and sent a letter in return that began: "Dear Walt Whitman -- I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

This morning, the work of another class is done, the critiques are in. And I know I speak for many faculty when I tell you, the proud, new graduates of Gettysburg College: "We greet you at the beginning of your great careers -- you have great adventures ahead..."

Warmest congratulations to you all! You have earned this special moment and deserve our warmest applause. Please know I am thrilled to be here and taking part. Thank you!

I first became intrigued with this college when I met the young daughter of a woman who is a colleague and dear friend back in Massachusetts. Brett Howley was then a student here at Gettysburg and told wondrous tales of her happiness at the college. Each summer, I noticed, she volunteered to work at a non-profit. One summer, inspired by this college, she worked with an orphanage in Tanzania.  Since graduating last year, Brett won a fellowship and has been in Rwanda, helping to bring nutrition to impoverished children.   I don't know what Brett Howley will do eventually but I do know a spirit of service will go with her wherever her journey leads.

That is the spirit of Gettysburg College -- a spirit in which all of you take justifiable pride. Not long ago, the White House recognized this college as one of the top five in the nation in its commitment to service and civic engagement.

It has often struck me that this devotion to service and leadership, so carefully cultivated on this campus, is deeply rooted in the soil of the battlefields nearby.  It calls to you these days just as the bugles called men and women to service in the war to save the Union. 

As all of you know, this year is special in this community. Exactly 150 years ago, men forged the destiny of America right here -- through the battle that summer and the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln that fall.

It seems only fitting that on this day and with this class, we explore the connections between the events of 1863 and students 150 years later. The story is rich and complex.  In the next few minutes, I will not do it justice but let us try.

More books have been written about the Civil War than any other event in our history. It was, of course, our most violent event – a war that claimed over 600,000 American lives – nearly as many as the rest of our wars combined. In its early days, it appeared that the last, great hope of man would fail. But here in the fields of Gettysburg -- along with Grant's breakthrough at Vicksburg -- the tide was turned. The fighting and suffering here, as Lincoln soon told us, gave America "a new birth of freedom".

I bet most of you in this graduating class will leave here remembering in detail what happened in the Battle of Gettysburg. My plea this morning is that you keep asking why -- and why it matters in your own life.

Why would thousands of Confederate troops charge upward on open field, running hundreds of yards through a hail of bullets and canon from above. As they neared Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, Pickett's charge must have seemed an act of madness to them. Why would they willingly race forward, certain of slaughter?

Why would Union troops, outnumbered and nearly out of ammunition, afix bayonets to their rifles and charge down through the woods at Little Round Top against what appeared to be overwhelming force? As much as they admired their commander, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain -- one of my heroes -- why would they follow him toward sure suicide?

And why would a majority of students, studying on this very campus, voluntarily enlist in the Union Army, throwing down their books and taking up arms to defend against General Lee’s impending invasion?

And lest we forget,  when this magnificent Pennsylvania Hall was filled with countless wounded soldiers, why would doctors and nurses care with equal diligence for every man, regardless of whether he wore blue or gray? 

There have been other examples of gallantry and courage in American combat. Think of Washington's troops quietly rowing across the Delaware to surprise and beat the British redcoats, the strongest army in the world. Or Teddy Roosevelt and his Roughriders charging up San Juan Hill. Or soldiers and sailors struggling through the waves at Normandy and climbing those sheer cliffs at Point du Hoc.

But the Battle of Gettysburg has a lasting and special hold on our imagination because of the sheer carnage of American fighting against American -- some 50,000 dead, wounded, or missing in three short days.

Why did they take up arms against each other? Why did they fight with incredible valor? How did they sustain themselves in the midst of horror?

One of my favorite historians of the Civil War is Professor James McPherson of Princeton University. He poured over 26,000 letters written by soldiers of north and south, seeking their motivations.

What he found is that on both sides, young men -- and in some cases, women -- volunteered for essentially the same reason: out of duty and honor. They felt a keen sense of loyalty to community and to liberty as they defined it -- and were willing to die to preserve both.

In the early days, of course, many also volunteered because they saw the war as an adventure -- they were "off to see the elephant", as the phrase went in those days. What fun it would be to beat Johnny Reb or Billy Yank and come home a hero.

But their first battle cured them of their romantic naiveté. Fighting turned out to be utter hell. And the war stretched on and on and on. Lincoln thought it might have ended soon after Gettysburg had not the victorious General Meade allowed Robert E. Lee and the Confederates to slip from his grasp.  So it went on for two more desperate years.

What James McPherson found, however, was that even as adventure turned into nightmare, soldiers on both sides were willing to re-enlist because they held steady in their commitment to duty and honor. Through defeat as well as triumph, they wanted to continue serving in a cause they believed just.

What McPherson also found was this: in moments of supreme danger, when bullets started flying and adrenalin rushed, soldiers needed more than their sense of duty and honor. 

They also had to find a primal passion deep within. And they did.  They found when faced with death, they were willing to undertake incredible acts of bravery for a simple reason: in order to protect their comrades-- their friends.

Men joined up, in other words, out of a spirit of service to their ideals.  They then fought out of a spirit of commitment to their friends.

Back then, doctors didn't have a diagnosis called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD as we call it for those who have given so much in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those who survived Gettysburg and other battles suffered terribly. They saw swords rip a friend’s head from his body, they saw mutilation and horror.  Many lost a limb, lost loved ones, lost dreams. One would have thought that quenched their spirits -- that they would have been beaten down for decades to come.

But do you know what is astonishing? For many who survived, the war actually strengthened their spirit. They looked back with pride. They became what Henry V envisioned at Agincourt - "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers".

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was one of those brothers. Those of you who go on to law school will study Holmes well. He was  a national legend for nearly 60 years, a giant of the law.  But history first discovered Holmes when he was a young man.  As the Civil War started, he volunteered to join the fourth battalion, Massachusetts militia, and went off to see the elephant. He was wounded three different times in battle, once so grievously that he nearly lost his life. Years later, he told veterans:

"… [Our] generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience.  Through our great good fortune, in our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.  It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing…"

Now, why do I tell you all of this? What does it mean for you, the graduates of Gettysburg College 150 years later.  I believe there is deep meaning. You, too, will have your "hearts touched with fire" if you leave here to enlist in causes greater than yourself, if you sign up out of honor and duty, and if you come to work and love those at your side. 

Few of you will be called upon to serve this nation in military uniform. Over the past dozen years, less than one half of one percent of those of military age have actually signed up for possible duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is, America needs you --  all of you -- to serve in years ahead.  We don’t need you so much in uniform overseas -- though we salute those who were honored last night as graduates of ROTC; but we need the rest of you in civilian dress, rebuilding our country at home. You must answer fresh bugles. 

Our military leaders have made it clear countless times in recent days that the biggest threats to the United States are no longer overseas.  They are here on our front door step.  Since the days of ancient Rome, it has often been true that powerful nations crumble from within.

Uncle Sam now needs you to go off and see a different elephant – conquering the great challenges of our own time:

  • We need your leadership in transforming a public school system where less than half acquire a college or vocational degree and the rest are left behind.
  • We need your help in rebuilding a middle class in this country so that people can find jobs, feed their families, and look after themselves without asking for outside help.
  • We need your help in closing the yawning gaps in inequality so that your lot in life is not determined by what you inherit but by what you earn. 
  • We need you to change our culture so that we no longer accept so many men and women having children out of wedlock -- dads as well as moms must step up and end this epidemic.

In the Civil War, the sons of affluent merchants fought alongside field hands who had left their plows.  Together, they became brothers.  We must restore that sense that we are all one family – that we are in this together.  And yours is the generation that can get us there.

Many believe you are incapable of meeting these challenges.  Two weeks ago, Time  magazine made a splash with a big cover package on Millennials – yes, on you and others like you across the nation. 

The Time package was a real slam.  They called you the “ME ME ME Generation” and reported that you are lazy, self-absorbed, entitled narcissists … and by the way, you still live with your parents.  On average, teenagers of your generation exchange 88 text messages a day, but your empathy for others is down sharply because of a lack of face time and higher degrees of narcissism.  With that, they report, you have less civic engagement and lower political participation than any previous generation.  In short, your generation holds little promise for the future of America.

Well, excuse me, friends at Time, but I believe you have it completely backwards about Millennials.  Are there narcissists among this generation?  Of course. But they were a significant part of my generation, too.

What I see here and on other campuses across the country -- and what distinguishes your generation - is a revival of the spirit that we have often seen when times are tough -- from the Revolution of 1776 to the Civil War to the Great Depression and World War II. 

I see an America where Millennials are lining up, eager to serve:

  • In this past year, some 150,000 people have requested applications for the Peace Corps with slots for only 4,000.
  • In the past year there were nearly 600,000 applications to Americorps for only 80,000 positions.
  • At Teach For America, where Wendy Kopp asks graduating college seniors to teach in the toughest urban and rural schools in the country, applications have shot up this year to 58,000 – and again, there is only one slot for every 10 applicants.  TFA has become the biggest single employer on many campuses -- some graduates are literally giving up Goldman Sachs to teach the 8th grade in Harlem.
  • After 12 years of America at war, a silver lining appears there, too -- the young men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, taking off their uniforms, and volunteering to rebuild America.  From firsthand experience, I can tell you that they will be terrific leaders of the future – men and women who have put their lives on the line for the country, have been tested under fire and want their mission to continue back home. 

Let me tell you about Thomas Rubel.  Tom is a young millennial who graduated from high school in 2003.  He signed up for the Marine Corps in the enlisted ranks, was trained to be a sniper and was shipped off to Iraq – not once but three times. Sniper duty is one the most harrowing jobs in today's military, but he came through.

Leaving the service, he enrolled at Harvard College.  Tom is graduating this spring – just like you – and you know where he will be this September?  In an eighth grade class in Chicago, serving as a Teach for America corps member. He is a walking symbol of your generation.

As you know so well, that spirit echoes back and forth across this campus. From the 1400 students every year who volunteer more than 30,000 hours of their collective time. To the 35,000 meals that have been served at the Campus Kitchen. From your commitment to the at-risk youth in Adams County, to the 50 students who traveled to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild following Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.

This is a generation that is lazy and narcissistic?  Give me a break.  The recent Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, is much closer to the mark.  This is a generation, he likes to say, that is “wired for service”.  

Graduates of the Class of 2013 here at Gettysburg College:

You leave here today with distinction: not only have you earned a diploma from one of our finest institutions of liberal arts education but you are also steeped in the folklore of Gettysburg itself – a symbol around the world of pride, courage and liberty.

You leave here on an occasion that will be long remembered: the 150th anniversary of a battle that reversed the tide of history and in turn, in Lincoln’s words, gave America “a new birth of freedom”.

You enter a world where jobs are scarce, times are tough, and your critics say you are lazy and can't hack it.  This is the very moment for you to prove you are made of sterner stuff -- to show the world just what you have inside. 

A hundred and fifty years ago, a generation didn't hesitate to answer the call.  Many on these battlefields gave their last full measure of devotion.  Those who survived looked back with pride -- a band of brothers for life. They proved to the world just how strong they were. 

Now it is your turn to answer the call to service – to help America and your fellow citizens in a time of need.  It won’t be easy; there will be days when your spirits will sag; change is hard.  But may your generation answer the call with a high purpose.  When the going gets tough, may you sustain yourself with a passion for each other. 

And one day, when you return here to Gettysburg, may you look back and say that when you were young, your hearts, too, were “touched with fire”

Congratulations, Good luck and Godspeed!