Education vital to U.S. success, Obama tells Hampton University graduates

Obama's speech here marked his second commencement appearance of the season, and was more traditional than the broad critique of government he delivered at the University of Michigan.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

HAMPTON, VA. -- President Obama delivered a strong argument Sunday on the importance of education, telling the new graduates of the historic black university here that "all of us have a responsibility, as Americans, to change" the comparatively low academic achievement of African Americans in this country.

Before an audience of more than 12,000 students, family members and guests at Hampton University's commencement, Obama said the nation must "offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy."

"But I have to say, Class of 2010, all of you have a separate responsibility. To be role models for your brothers and sisters," Obama told the 1,072 students receiving undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees on the cool but lovely spring morning. "To be mentors in your communities. And, when the time comes, to pass that sense of an education's value down to your children, a sense of personal responsibility and self-respect."

Obama's speech marked his second commencement appearance of the season and was a more traditional address than the broad critique he delivered eight days ago on the role of government, political parties and the media at the University of Michigan.

But he echoed those views Sunday in a passage meant to reinforce his central message -- that in a quickly changing and economically troubled world, a deep education is more important to individual success and the future of the country than ever before.

"This class is graduating at a time of great difficulty for America and for the world," Obama said. "You're entering a job market, in an era of heightened international competition, with an economy that's still rebounding from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You're accepting your degrees as America still wages two wars -- wars that many in your generation have been fighting. " At the same time, he said, "you're coming of age in a 24-7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter."

"And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation," he continued. "So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

The university's red-brick Armstrong Stadium was filled with families under a bright blue sky, a cool breeze fluttering purple school banners that rose among the graduates. Obama wore pale blue robes, the sleeves circled with black stripes and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. He joked, "This is much less expensive than my last law degree."

Although he warned the new graduates of the challenges ahead, Obama also added an element of optimism, telling them that "all of you are ahead of the curve."

He cited the proud traditions of the country's historically black universities and quoted Frederick Douglass's in saying that "education . . . means emancipation."

He also told a story about the late Dorothy I. Height, the civil rights leader whom Obama memorialized last month at her funeral in Washington. Height was accepted at Barnard College in 1929, only to be turned away when the school saw she was black. It had already filled the two spots it reserved at the time for African Americans.

"She stood up, straight-backed, and with Barnard's acceptance letter in hand, she marched down to New York University, and said, 'Let me in.' And she was admitted right away," Obama said. "That refusal to accept a lesser fate, that insistence on a better life, that, ultimately, is the secret not only of African American survival and success, it has been the secret of America's survival and success."

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