Ben Stein's Commencement talk focuses on gratitude.
by David Maley
Ben Stein, the former host of the TV game show Win Ben Stein's Money, first achieved media fame from his movie role as a droning economics teacher in the 1986 cult hit Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He has since appeared in three dozen films and TV shows. Before his acting career took off, he was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford. He's also an economist, lawyer, author of more than 20 books, and regular columnist for conservative publications such as the American Spectator. In Stein's own estimation, however, his greatest accomplishment is his sense of gratitude.
He shared his thoughts with the members of the class of 2005, who had chosen him as their Commencement speaker. "Here you are on this beautiful campus, in this beautiful part of New York, in this beautiful America," Stein told the 1,420 graduates and their guests. "We're free people in a free and glorious country."
He noted that just because a country is free doesn't mean it's perfect. "You'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to realize we have problems in this country, especially of extreme economic inequality," Stein said. "But we solve them with ballots and discussion and debate . . . instead of with bombs and bullets. We are blessed beyond reason, beyond any historical precedent, in this country."
Stein warned the graduates against taking their good fortune for granted. "Freedom, prosperity, abundance, opportunity are things that mankind has been fighting for for all eternity, and we don't even think about them every day," he said. "Life should be very largely about gratitude: gratitude to be here at Ithaca College, graduating today, but gratitude also to the fine men and women who made our great lives possible."
Things were different when Stein graduated from college in the 1960s. "Racism and anti-Semitism were a basic part of daily life," he noted. "Quotas at private schools against Jews, restricted neighborhoods, blatant racism in hiring, and against African Americans . . . went away because of the incredible heroism of the civil rights demonstrators who got beaten and jailed and shot and lynched because they wanted to be free. If we as men and women, as Jews, as African Americans, are free, it is because someone struggled and sacrificed to make us free."
Stein urged his audience to not only honor those who came before but also appreciate people currently devoted to the common good, including firemen, police officers, health care workers, scientists researching debilitating diseases, and especially their parents and grandparents.
"Let them know you repay their love," he urged. "If you do that -- if you care about the people in your life who have cared about you -- that by itself is an incredibly successful, great life."
The assembly also heard from board of trustees chair William Haines and from senior class president Leigh Ann Scheider, who pointed out that this class had entered Ithaca College just weeks before tragedy would turn their world upside down. "Our transition into adulthood had been jump-started by the events of September 11, 2001," Scheider said. "From that moment on it would be impossible for us to separate our time at Ithaca College from this fateful Tuesday morning that changed our lives and defined our coming of age." Because of September 11 and its aftermath, she said, the class of 2005 developed a deep sense of purpose.
"A teacher once told me that if you go through life without ever failing, then you haven't made much of an effort," Scheider said. "The teacher who said that was my father, and I think I speak for everyone when I thank my parents and everyone's parents for the strength, courage, and heart that they have taught us to put behind every dream."
President Williams then addressed the gathering, directing her comments to this year's commemorative class medallions and their quote from the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "Light tomorrow with today."
"Her words urge us to do all we can to effect change," said Williams. "Young adults like you break down barriers, question assumptions, and have the guts to try new ways of solving old problems. Your Ithaca experience, or your 'today,' provides you with the tools and perspective to begin your new adventures.
"I believe that all doors are open to you," the president said. "Your possibilities are limitless, and each of you will, in your own way, light tomorrow with today."
Commencement photos by Sheryl D. Sinkow, Charles Harrington, Gary Gold