There’s no better place to celebrate Independence Day than Monticello. This year we marked the 246th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and welcomed more than 45 new American citizens at our 60th annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony. Frank Friedman, President Emeritus of Piedmont Virginia Community College gave the keynote speech.
Thank you for that kind introduction. I want to thank the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair, Melody Barnes, President and good friend and colleague Leslie Greene Bowman, and the entire Monticello team for inviting me to speak today. This is probably the greatest honor I have ever received. In fact, when I told my wife Sue about this invitation I asked her, “in your wildest dreams could you imagine me speaking on July 4 at Monticello?” You know what she said? “Frank, you are not in my wildest dreams.” Despite that remark, let me introduce my wife, Sue, and my son Alex and his wife, Stephanie. I am so glad you are here.
In all honesty, I was quite intimidated when I read the list of past July 4 speakers. That includes five U.S. Presidents, several Virginia Governors and Senators, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, Pulitzer Prize winners, and even local music superstar Dave Matthews.
I had to ask myself, “Why me?” I even asked Leslie. Thanks to her words of wisdom, I came to realize that in my 45-year career in community college education, I have been fighting for the exact thing that our honorees have been working towards: Opportunity.
And today I want to speak with you about two things: Opportunity and Obligation. Let’s start with opportunity.
America is often described as the land of opportunity. Most Americans believe in the American Dream, the idea that in this country our children will lead a better life than their parents, that through effort and hard work, each individual has the opportunity to reach his/her potential, that anyone can grow up to become President of the United States. This belief in the land of opportunity is built on the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But just as Jefferson the man struggled to implement these ideals so, too, America has struggled. Over the years, America has erected barriers to opportunity for too many people. Some have been at least partially dismantled, but too many persist.
Most notable of course is the original barrier, the color of one’s skin, but also gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical disability, and class have been barriers to opportunity.
You might say that America has been on a 246-year journey to make opportunity available to all and although we have made great strides, the journey continues.
Sometimes it appears that we take two steps forward and one step backward on that journey; other times it is one step forward and two steps backward. But we are much closer today to making Jefferson’s words a reality than we were in his day. As Winston Churchill said many years after Jefferson, “You can always count on America to do the right thing…after it has tried everything else.”
The great vehicle for opportunity in this country is education. Education is the great equalizer. For the first 2 centuries after Jefferson, universal, free K-12 public education afforded millions the opportunity to reach their potential and create a better life for themselves and their families. For many, it was the pathway to the middle class. Jefferson believed an educated citizenry was necessary to make the American experiment in democracy succeed. Jefferson said that “Talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth, or other accidental condition. Children of the poor must be educated at common expense.”
After World War II and most recently as our country moved from the industrial age to the information age K-12 education would not be enough to assure an individual a place in the middle class. Postsecondary education would be needed in the knowledge economy. In response to that need and the Jeffersonian ideals, the American community college system was born.
In 1977, after receiving my PhD, I only had one teaching offer – at a community college. I did not know what one was, but they offered me $12,000 a year and Sue and I thought we were rich. It did not take me long in my new job to fall in love. I fell in love with a mission and philosophy. The community college believes in the power of education to change lives and it believes that opportunity should be provided to everyone: Young/old; rich/poor; black/white; gay/straight --- everyone. In a community college, all students are truly equal and are provided the opportunity to overcome all barriers. One of my mentors, President George Vaughan, said it this way, “The community college is a port of entry – the Ellis Island for many of the new immigrants to higher education.”
So, whether a person is an immigrant to this country or, as Dr. Vaughan put it, a new immigrant to higher education, it is all about having an opportunity to reach one’s potential. The 10 million students currently enrolled in America’s community colleges, which are often called the People’s College or Democracy’s College, owe a debt of thanks to Jefferson, who could be considered the first community college advocate. We learn from Jefferson that if we give the people opportunity and freedom to pursue their potential through education, that is the recipe for a thriving citizenry and country.
The inscription on the Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” For hundreds of years that has been the strength of our nation, offering opportunity to the oppressed, the persecuted, and those seeking a better life. So, we gather today to celebrate this land of opportunity, to celebrate the foundation laid by Thomas Jefferson, and to celebrate the entry of our new citizens.
But let’s hear from our new citizens. This is going to be an interactive part of my remarks.
New Citizens, please stand. There they are, the 60 stars of today’s event. Okay, please be seated. Now, please stand if you:
1. Came to the USA to escape religious or ethnic persecution.
2. Came to the USA seeking a better life for yourself or your children.
3. Came to this country seeking opportunity not available in your homeland.
4. Left your homeland with little money or belongings.
5. Spoke little or no English when you arrived in the U.S.
6. Endured time in a refugee camp before entering the U.S.
7. Attended college in the U.S.
8. You or a family member attended PVCC – my college
They came here in search of opportunity; the opportunity for a better life, the opportunity to claim their piece of the American Dream. This is the land of opportunity.
But with opportunity comes obligation – the obligations of citizenship. As John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States said at his inauguration in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” So, let’s talk about what you as new citizens can do for your country. The single most important thing you can do is to vote.
America is less than 250 years old. Compared with countries around the globe it is a mere adolescent. And just as adolescents are in the process of developing into adults, America is still developing. Adolescents have their parents to guide their development, to teach right from wrong. America has its guides, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The problem is that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers are not around to interpret these documents and answer questions about what they meant. It is like an adolescent without parents present to provide guidance. For instance, what did Jefferson mean when he wrote, “All men are created equal?” Did he mean men but not women? Did he mean white men but not African Americans? Did he mean only the wealthy or landowners? And what would the Founding Fathers say about freedom of speech in today’s internet era or the right to bear arms when almost anyone can own an assault rifle? How would they interpret their words in light of today’s developments? We will never know.
So, who interprets those two great guiding documents? It is our elected leaders on the local, state, and national level and the judges that they appoint all the way up to the Supreme Court. And who elects these individuals? We the People and in 15 minutes, you will be We the People.
So, the first thing you need to do for your country is to vote. As Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” So, participate!
But voting is not enough. You must be an informed voter. Today we are bombarded with news and opinions from the political right and the left. You need to listen to both sides of an issue. You then need to think critically and evaluate what you hear to form your position. You need to separate fact from fiction, fact from opinion, fact from conspiracy theory. And then vote.
What can you do for your country? Voting is one form of participation but there are more ways. Participation means communicating your positions by writing to elected officials, writing a letter to the editor of your newspaper, joining the PTO, attending meetings of local boards. You need to participate. But when you participate keep in mind two fundamental concepts…the common good and civility.
We have an expression in the United States – a NIMBY – do you know what that stands for? Not In My Back Yard. It is the refrain of those who will not compromise or sacrifice, will not allow something to effect them negatively even if it is for the common good. Do not be a NIMBY. Recognize that sometimes an individual must compromise or accept less than what he/she wants in order to promote the common good. What’s in it for me should not be your north star; what’s best for the community, the nation, all citizens, the common good; that should be your north star.
And when participating, be civil. Civility does not mean being polite and never disagreeing. Civility involves caring deeply for one’s beliefs and needs but doing so without degrading someone else in the process. How do you refute someone spouting ideas you hate? Do you deny them the opportunity to speak? Do you shout them down or call them names? It is only those who cannot present better ideas who stoop to censorship and name calling. You counter bad speech with better speech, bad ideas with better ideas, words of hate and exclusion with words of tolerance and inclusion.
What can you do for our country? You can develop tolerance for different ideas and different people, and you must protect the rights of the minority. These values are fundamental to the Declaration and the Constitution. Perhaps more than any other country, the U.S. protects the rights of the minority to worship as they please, to speak as they want, to have an accommodation to help overcome a disability, to pursue a better life and opportunity. Providing equal opportunity to those in the minority does not hurt the majority. It makes the U.S. the land of opportunity. It is what attracted many of you to this country.
What can you do for our country? Preserve our democracy. Do not take democracy for granted. History shows us many nations that allowed a strong, charismatic leader to whittle away at liberty and freedom, to subjugate the will of the people, to censor the press, to make voting a sham, to become an autocrat. We think it cannot happen here in the U.S. but in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, one in four Americans agreed that a strong leader that does not have to deal with Congress or elections could be a good way to run the country. That scares me.
Do not let democracy be thrust aside. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”
And finally, what can you do for our country? Pay it forward. In your journey to citizenship, there have undoubtedly been many people who have helped you. They have been mentors, advisors, friends, supporters. They do not expect you to pay them back, but I want you to pay it forward. Provide that same helping hand to someone who needs it, not only someone seeking citizenship but anyone in need of help as they pursue opportunity and their piece of that American Dream. By paying it forward, you help make America the best it can be.
I close with a short story. Have any of you seen the great WWII movie, Saving Private Ryan? In it, the character played by Tom Hanks leads a platoon on a mission to save Matt Damon, Private Ryan. Many are killed during this mission and with his last breath Tom Hanks whispers to Private Ryan, “Earn this.” That is what I say to you. You are about to become citizens of this great country. A dream you have had for years. You deserve it because of what you have done to reach today. But you earn it by what you do going forward. The price of opportunity are your obligations as a new citizen. Be an informed voter. Participate in our democracy, promote the common good, be civil, be tolerant of differences and support the rights of the minority. Preserve our democracy. Earn it by meeting these obligations of citizenship and doing what you can for our country, the land of opportunity.
Congratulations to our newest citizens, thank you to those who have supported them, thank you to Monticello for hosting this great event, and Happy Birthday to America. Thank you.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation wishes to express its genuine appreciation to the Scripps Independence Day Endowment, Sally and Joe Gladden, The Brent and Lindsay Halsey Family, Michie Tavern, and The Richard D. and Carolyn W. Jacques Foundation for their generous support of our Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony.