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Walter Isaacson

Thank you President Cowen, members of the graduating class, faculty, family and friends.

I feel very lucky to be here. My parents went to Tulane, most of my family went to Tulane, and I grew up in the neighborhood learning to ride my bike on the paths of the old quad and selling parking spaces to fans going to the great stadium that existed before the Dome was built.

I made the mistake of going North to college, to a place where the weather was cold and the professors were colder, because it was time to leave my backyard. But I like to think that had I been born and raised up North I would have experienced the warm joy of going to Tulane.

So here is the first thing you should know about graduation day: every day hence, you will appreciate more how lucky you were to be at such a magical place.

You are lucky in other ways. Your commencement comes at the commencement of a new millennium. Symbolically, that's very cool.

And it's more than just symbolic: You are entering the real world at a time when our nation is experiencing one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity history has ever seen.

Don't screw it up.

Its a period of fascinating opportunities. The digital revolution is transforming the flow of ideas and art more than any revolution since the printing press paved the way for the reformation, renaissance and the rise of individual liberty.

And the biotech revolution now dawning will allow us the opportunity for better or worse, that's up to you to fiddle with our genes, invent new plants and organisms, create designer babies, and someday to clone ourselves.

The challenges you face will not be technological ones, but moral ones.

As I said, don't screw it up.

My parents‚ generation graduated from college during the Great Depression and World War II. They struggled to feed their families, then fought to save the possibility of freedom, then came home to start businesses and build homes that laid the foundation for our current economy.

Not for nothing were they called the Greatest Generation.

My own baby boomer generation graduated from college thinking that we, too, would be involved in causes greater than ourselves.

To some extent, the movements we were involved in the Civil Rights struggle, the women's movement, even the anti-war movement helped transform our world for the better.

But we became, most of us would admit, a generation that was often complacent and self-indulgent. Thats beginning to dawn on a lot of us now, sort of like the joke we used to tell: What did the guy at the Grateful Dead concert say when the dope wore off? Answer: This band sucks.

So once again, you're lucky: as generations go, mine is not a tough one to follow.

Those of you graduating today will do many things, but one thing that will define you is that you are in the third wave of the digital generation.

Those in the first wave were like the pioneers and explorers of early American history: they were geeky hackers motivated by the thrill of a new cyberspace frontier who set out to discover cool and neat digital things.

Those in the second wave of the digital generation were like history's goldrushers and landrushers: motivated more by dreams of IPO wealth, their main purpose seems to be GetRich.com.

In the wake of these goldrushers, your challenge is to be entrepreneurs with a real purpose, a purpose that is greater than the short-term business plan.

It will be up to you to assure that a digital divide does not wreck both our prosperity and our social peace by creating a two-tiered society.

And that means being less complacent than my generation was about a two-tiered educational system that allows some to flourish in an information age and others to stagnate.

The Information Age revolution you were born into has the amazing power to spread freedom.



But the goal of freedom is not just individual material enrichment. It is also the nurturing of the values that we share as a society.

That is what distinguishes great generations, as yours has the opportunity to be, from the self-indulgent ones.

As I said, don't screw it up.

Thus ends the historical part of our sermon today. Now comes the one-piece-of-advice part. That is when the commencement speaker traditionally says, If I have one piece of advice to impart, it is

Sometimes it is grand and mushy, like... Make sure you follow your dreams. Sometimes it is very specific, like in the apocryphal Kurt Vonnegut speech that exhorts: Always wear sunscreen.

My piece of advice-one of many I could give, but you certainly don't have to hear more than one piece on this day is this:

Go on the road. Drive across country. Take a raft down the river. Do it soon. Do it often. Do it wherever you feel you can spare the time. And, most importantly, whenever you are at one of those phases in your life when you feel you CAN'T spare the time.

Go to a rotary club meeting in a town where no one knows you, and to a main street café where the shopkeepers sit around drinking coffee on a slow morning. Stop at a roadside drive and play pool with a trucker who doesn't like the way you look. Go on a date with someone and decide on a lark to drive across Texas together.

You have just spent four years getting an academic view of the world. You know more at this moment than you will ever know in your life. Today you begin the process of unlearning what you thought you knew. That happens by wandering down the road.

The journey of discovery is as old as Ulysses and Don Quixote. But it has become quintessentially American. Even though America did not invent the road as an art form, each generation of pilgrims has perfected it.

From Huck Finn to Jack Kerouac, we've learned to look for adventures around the bend. More subtly, we've learned the relation between commitment and detachment, between roots and rootlessness, between community and individualism.

In college, perhaps, you learned Tocqueville and his thesis that Americans' sense of individualism was in deep conflict with their sense of community.

On the road you'll learn that he was wrong.

The foundation of America's civic faith is that community and freedom are compatible. They are interwoven in our social fabric.

Being at a national magazine is like being in college. People ply you with lots of theories. Every now and then, you have to go on the road.

Since I've been editor, I've taken our staff on two trips.

The first place, a couple of years ago, was driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific on old route 50.

The second was a trip on a small boat down the Mississippi, which ended here in New Orleans last month.

After hearing the national politicians pontificate about school choice, it was useful to be at a PTA meeting in Osceola as parents debated what a charter school would mean for a town that revolves around its one high school's Friday night football games. After hearing debates on capital punishment, it was interesting to meet the inmates on death row at Angola.

As we headed across route 50 two years ago, we saw those who had struck out west in search of new opportunities. The digital revolution allowed people to set up businesses and enterprises wherever they wanted.

Old family-run shops and cafes on main streets had given way to big-box stores and chain restaurants in mega malls.

But we kept noticing a yearning for a lost sense of community. Irwin Miller, the 87-year-old patriarch of Cummins Engine in Indiana, had turned that company from a dying rust-belt manufacturer into a global supplier of high-tech products. By using the Internet, he said, I can hold meetings and make sales on five continents, accomplishing in an hour what used to take two weeks of traveling

But his main effort was revitalizing the town's touchstones of shared community: the local library, the museum, the theater, the abandoned main street. We are a nation of individuals and of cooperators, he said. We got to keep remembering the relationship between the two.

Two years later, going down the Mississippi, we saw that yearning for a restored sense of community even more perhaps since people who lived by a river, just like a tree that is planted by one, tend to be more rooted.

The backlash against the sameness and sterility of the big Wal-Marts and chain stores first took the form of what I call the Rousing of America: the creation by developers like James Rouse of quaintly entertaining renovated shopping areas like Fanieul Hall Market in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore, and even the Jackson Brewery and the Riverwalk here.

Now you can find the Rousing impulse in small towns like Cairo, Illinois, or tiny hamlets like Kimmswick, Missouri, that are exposing every brick and cobblestone in an attempt to cash in on the current prosperity with quaint old shops.

Similarly, you can see a related phenomenon that could be called the Williamsburging of America. Small towns are rummaging back into their history to reassert their unique identity and attract tourists.

Hannibal has become a recreated Mark Twain theme park town.

In Navou, Illinois, Mormons whose families lived there a century ago are returning to recreate their old settlement and reconstruct their old temple.

And the hotel owner in Kimmswick told us of the town's latest scheme which is to do reenactments of the Civil War battle there.

When I said I had never heard there was a battle in Kimmswick, he conceded that it was in his words just a skirmish that involved three Confederate soldiers hiding in a cave. Whatever.

What these faux-Williamsburgs have in common is that they are motivated equally by a desire to have their kids reconnect to their history and a desire to attract tourists.

The result can be a bit surreal and even disconcerting. The quaint new shopping areas sell mainly knick-knacks and souvenirs. The history is really sanitized.

Hannibal features cute kids playing Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, but no one recreates the role of Jim or the runaway slaves.

In Navou the Mormons celebrate their nineteenth century village life but gloss over the bloody religious battles that led to them being pillaged and expelled.

The quest for authenticity has produced its opposite.

And yet its important not to be cynical. In a rootless, road-loving America, one can sense a sincere yearning to reestablish roots, restore community identity, and have a place that feels like home that you can return to.

Indeed, by the time we got near the end of the river, we were amazed by the number of people who had ventured forth and then returned home to where they felt a sense of identity.

Not just white Yuppies, but even blacks who fled the racism of the old South. Alma Smith, who's now 69, left Vicksburg for Chicago with her family when she was only 8. She got a good education, became a psychologist. Now she's back in Vicksburg, where the greatest economic growth comes from attracting retirees. At some point, she says everyone has to come home."

This yearning to return home, this yearning for a community with identity and roots, is one of the most powerful things one learns from going on the road. I know. I feel it myself, here today, here in my home.

As T.S. Eliot famously concluded his Four Quartets: We shall not cease exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

We all drink from wells we did not dig, and we all eat fruit from trees that were planted by people who came before us.

The better we understand that, the more we'll realize that what will distinguish our time on this planet are the wells we dig and the trees we plant for those who come after us.

That's not something you're expected to understand today. You learn it as you go down the road.

It will begin to make sense when you have your first kid.

And by the time you get to the end of the road, you will understand that this is what keeps the whole journey from being meaningless.

Now's the time to start down that road. That's why they call this a commencement. Godspeed.