Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, June 18, 1997

Breyer's commenecment speech: 6/18/97


Justice Breyer: 'There is so much still to be done. You still can choose to be a pioneer'

This is the text , as prepared for delivery, at Commencment by Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court.

It is a particular pleasure for me to speak at your commencement because my son Michael is graduating - and on Father's Day too. I think I can speak for all the fathers and mothers here in telling you that, however nostalgic we are about the children that you once were, we love and admire the adults you have become. And we are deeply proud of your achievements.

Related Information:

The Stanford Daily asked Michael how he felt about my speaking. "That's fine," he said. "He's been giving me advice for more than twenty years; I suppose another fifteen minutes won't matter." Let me spend those 15 minutes making a most traditional commencement speech: a few personal remarks, the inevitable two or three minutes of free advice and then a prediction (or, at least, a hope).

This morning I gave Michael a Stanford ring - a silver ring with an effigy of El Palo Alto - the tall tree - at its center. As I did so I thought of my father, for it was his ring, given him on his graduation 70 years ago. Yesterday I walked through the Inner Quad and saw the three paving stones that mark my family's three graduations: my father's graduation, my own in 1959 and yours, Michael, now. This was an emotional moment.

I thought about my father's life - growing up on 14th Avenue in San Francisco, working for the School Department for 40 years - and my own early life in California. I thought a little about the enormous economic change that has taken place from the railroads that initially made possible Leland Stanford's founding of this university to the Silicon Valley of today. But I realized that there have been more than economic changes and many of them for the better.

My early childhood, for example, includes memories of World War II and of the relative, a Holocaust refugee who came from Germany through Shanghai, to live with us during the war. For my generation, "the war" means not Korea or Viet Nam or the Cold War, but World War II. Consider, too, that when my father was at Stanford, he could not join any of the social organizations because he was Jewish, and those organizations, at that time, did not accept Jews. Indeed, I can remember, as a child, my mother thinking of going to lunch at a downtown San Francisco hotel with a friend of hers, who was African American, and their discussing whether they would be served. When my colleagues Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from law school, they had trouble finding jobs - because they were women. So did Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein. The world has changed. Often for the better. I think it is very important to remember that those changes did not occur magically - that they represented individual, and collective, pioneering efforts. We need to remember those efforts both because so many of us now benefit from them and because there is so much still to be done. You still can choose to be a pioneer.

This brings me to a more difficult matter - a word of advice, as you try to decide "what next?" Your hearing what advantages your fine education has given you, while true, will not help you with those decisions. When I graduated, we received lots of advice: "Join the Army." "Give Blood." "Travel East." "Stay West." "The Future is Plastics." Have you seen The Graduate? There is always the risk that advice reflects the tunnel vision of one's own career. Supposedly someone asked Conrad Hilton what he might pass on to others after 50 years in the hotel business and he replied, "Always keep the shower curtain inside the bathtub."

And, of course, you will be advised to ask many questions. In your careers, the science graduate will ask, "Why does that work?"; the engineering graduate, "How does it work?"; the economics graduate, "What does it cost?"; and the liberal arts graduate, "Do you want french fries with that hamburger?"

But some advice rings true. Bayless Manning, former dean of Stanford Law School, pointed out to me once that, when we make an important personal decision, we rarely know more than 10 percent of all we would like to know about it, let alone about the other options that the decision precludes.

Sometimes agonizing does not help; sometimes we must simply choose. And our lives then shape themselves around the choices that we make.

I take to heart an essay I once read about Jane Eyre. We look out, says the essayist, over any large city, and we are tempted to think that the lives within it are depressingly similar; but Charlotte Brontë's story of a governess reminds us that that is not so. It tells us that every person's life is a story of passion, with its moments of joy and happiness, of tragedy or sorrow. And each person's story is different, one from the other.

The external circumstances, the material circumstances, of that story are often beyond our control, but they often matter less than we think. We all know many people who complain despite having a glass full to overflowing. And my wife, who works with children at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, sees many families who bring joy to others and to themselves by seeing a glass half-full that others see half-empty.

The most important parts of the story are the personal parts as, through our choices, we create the story. Your story will include friends and family, not just career. And, at times, it will call upon you to participate in the life of the community in which you live and to help those who are less fortunate.

Most important, our stories include our own justifications for our actions and our motives - in light of our own values. We cannot escape the negative meaning that a failure of integrity - a failure to live up to our own basic standards of right and wrong - will give to the story that throughout our lives we tell ourselves. I agree with the philosopher who said that money can vanish overnight, power disappear, even that bubble reputation can evaporate; but character - personal integrity - is a rock that is secure and that no one can take from you.

Now, may I make a prediction? Certainly predictions are dangerous, which is why Casey Stengel said, "I never make predictions - at least not about the future." But, if mine proves wrong, I am in good company. Consider: 1895: The president of the British Royal Society predicts, "Heavier than air flying machines are impossible." 1899: The chief of the U.S. Patent Office announces, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." 1927: The head of Warner Brothers asks, "Who . . . wants to hear actors talk?" 1943: Tom Watson, the president of IBM, announces, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." 1949: Popular Mechanics points out, "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." 1981: Bill Gates admonishes, "640K ought to be enough for anyone."

What is it that one can predict with any certainty at all about the world in which your grandchildren will graduate? Daniel Bell has predicted - and he thought it fairly obvious - that 100 years from now we will have recently inaugurated a president of the United States, following a free election the preceding November. I share that prediction and hope. It sounds unremarkable; yet that very fact - that it is unremarkable - suggests something unique about our society. And our prediction tells us something about our nation - its past, present and future - and about your place within it.