Governor Deval L. Patrick
Nickerson Field, Boston University, Boston
Boston University Commencement Address
Sunday, May 18, 2014

Chairman Knox and the Members of the Board of Trustees;

President Brown and Members of the Faculty and Staff;

Fellow Honorees, Distinguished Guests, Proud Family and Friends;

And most especially members of the Boston University Class of 2014:

Congratulations on reaching today's milestone and thank you for having me.

The main event this afternoon, of course, is getting in hand the degree for which you have worked so hard. I realize that I had better not keep you from that for long. Seriously, giving a commencement address is a high honor but a tough assignment when you know, as I do, that few of you are listening and none of you will remember a single word I say – if even who your commencement speaker was. As if the challenge of being both brief and memorable was not burden enough, imagine how unnerving it was for me to notice over someone’s shoulder just the other day a USA Today headline that read: “A Good Grad Speech Is The One Not Given.”

Like I said, I’ll be brief.

For the benefit of your parents, grandparents and the banks that lent you the money to pay for tuition, I want to certify enthusiastically that you graduates are very well prepared. I know that present here today are future doctors and lawyers, biologists and engineers, soldiers and social workers, nurses and entrepreneurs. I expect there are some who will have more than one career in the course of your working lives. And I hope that whatever you choose to do, you do it with integrity.

There is so much emphasis on education as a pathway to a good job. I get that. Given the changes afoot in the economy and in the world, education will be the key to your success and ours as a Nation.

But your education here at BU is about more than preparation for being good employees. It is also about preparation for being good citizens.

Good citizens take an interest in people and issues outside themselves. They understand community, in the sense of seeing their stake in their neighbors' dreams and struggles as well as their own. They inform themselves about what's happening in their community. They volunteer. They listen. They take the long view. They vote.

Good citizens don't just live and work in a community. They build community.

However, given the level of personal engagement that good citizenship demands, I have been wondering whether this kind of citizenship is in jeopardy. Because I keep encountering young people who at some critical level are not engaged, not really present.

My daughters are in constant touch with each other and their friends by text messages. In the case of my younger daughter she has a right thumb that seems to have a life of its own, flying over the tiny keys typing in that special texting shorthand, sometimes even in entire words, almost as fast as she speaks. She can do it looking me right in the eye while I’m talking to her. But when she does, she’s not present.

I know a young man – smart, insightful, wise beyond his years – who spends his days constantly shifting his attention from one smart phone to another to his desktop and his iPad. He sends text messages, reads and sends “Tweets,” checks his email, surfs the Web – all while you are standing in the same room talking with him. In all the time over all the years we’ve spent talking with each other, I realize I hardly know him at all. He was there, but not present.

My staff never attend meetings without their smart phones, and check them frequently during the discussion. When I’m in the meeting, I ask for their undivided attention – so they wait until I look away, and then steal a furtive glance at their Blackberries. They assure me otherwise, but they are not present.

Modern society is awash in information and grappling with how to make the most of social media. It is a force in casual communication, in business marketing, in celebrity. It transformed politics in my first campaign, in Barack Obama’s, and in many campaigns since. But does it help us to connect as human beings? Does it enable us to be present?

Sometimes, when driving in the car, I look up from my work and ask the name of that special teacher we met or maybe who starred in some old TV show. If the state trooper driving me that day is closer to my age, he will start to wonder aloud, and add some personal recollection to the subject. Meanwhile, the young, always helpful aide who travels with me checks Google and announces the definitive answer from the back seat. And that’s the end of that. I tell him that asking an open-ended question is what used to be called “conversation.”

Sometimes the open-ended question is not about getting to the answer, but rather about the journey, and Google has little to do with that. Real human connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding, is often more gradual and elongated than Twitter. It requires intimacy. And I worry that the demands of constant communication and infinite information through social media are crowding out intimacy.

Social media, as we have seen, can start a revolution. But can it bring peace?

You can break up on Facebook or by text. But can you fall in love?

My wife and I have been married 30 years this month. Several weeks ago we had a rare Sunday without any plans and we spent the day reading. Just reading. We sat with our books in the same room reading silently to ourselves, getting up occasionally to fetch a cup of tea, but mostly speaking not a word to each other. We both commented later what a wonderful day it had been. And I am certain there was more intimacy sitting wordlessly together in that room than if we had each spent the same time apart sending emails and texts to one another.

I’m not the dull middle-aged Luddite that I may sound like. Well, the middle-aged part is accurate. I love the convenience, reach and flexibility of social media. I understand the power of social media to bully or to stir a movement for good. And even I have to laugh at the number of times someone of my vintage asks if they can take a “selfie” with me, and then hands the phone to someone else to snap the picture. (For the parents and grandparents here, it’s not a “selfie” if you don’t take it yourself!)

But my point is that human intimacy still matters. That’s how we build trust, how we convey kindness and grace, how we love, how we heal the world. And human intimacy still depends on looking someone in the eye, touching them, actively listening, being present.

In the days and weeks after the Marathon bombings last year, we were all reminded how few degrees of separation there are between us. Surely, the loss of Lingzi reached deep into the psyche of this community. But the fact is that the loss and senselessness touched the familiar and total strangers alike because we each knew someone or someone who knew someone who was directly affected by what happened.

One of the duties I assumed, as did other public officials and hundreds of private citizens, was to comfort the survivors, our neighbors and friends. That wouldn’t work by text or tweet. It demands intimacy. Whether healing an individual or healing the world, healing itself requires being present.

So, promise me this one thing: Sometime today, put your tablet or smartphone aside, look your Mom and Dad in the eye and tell them you love them. Hold your roommate’s hand and tell them you appreciate them for helping get you through to today. Acknowledge to the person you came to know only in your waning days here how sorry you are that it took all these years to discover that the person you thought was such a jerk before turns out to be such a kind and interesting person. Thank one of your teachers in person. 

Be present – and see what a difference it makes in your lives and in the world.

Congratulations, graduates. Good luck. And God bless you. Thank you.