Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A Navy SEAL's wise advice to graduates

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens was commencement speaker at Tufts
  • William Bennett says Greitens' message was unusual and important
  • He says Greitens stressed service to others rather than self-seeking pursuits
  • Bennett: The message was to sacrifice, to serve one's country and to live magnanimously

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Each spring, I monitor the list of commencement speakers at our nation's leading colleges and universities. Who is chosen, and who is not, tells us a lot about academia's perception of the most important voices in America.

Two of this year's most popular speakers were CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who spoke at both Harvard University and Duke University, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who spoke at both Tulane University and the University of Washington. Perhaps one of the most original choices, and the one who certainly stood out from the rest, was U.S. Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who addressed the 2012 graduating class of Tufts University Sunday.

It's not often that elite universities honor military service members with commencement addresses. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once spoke to a graduating class at an Ivy League university and remarked, "Your business is to put me out of business." So I applaud Tufts University for inviting Greitens.

William Bennett
William Bennett

He is not a household name, but he should be. The 38-year-old Rhodes scholar and humanitarian worker turned U.S. Navy SEAL served multiple tours overseas fighting terrorist cells and received several military awards. Today, he is the CEO of the Mission Continues, a nonprofit foundation he created to help wounded and disabled veterans find ways to serve their communities at home.

To the graduates of Tufts, Greitens issued a unique challenge, one rarely heard at commencements today: to sacrifice, to serve one's country and to live magnanimously. He called students to think above and beyond their own dreams, their own desires, and to be strong. Aristotle called this megalopsychia, greatness of soul, and considered it one of the greatest moral virtues.

Campaign Trail: Commencement speeches
First lady speaks at Hokie graduation
Obama: You'll have unique challenges
High-profile commencement speakers

" 'What kind of service can I provide? What kind of positive difference can I make in the lives of others?' If you work every day to live an answer to that question, then you will be stronger," Greitens declared.

After dodging bullets, withstanding IED explosions and going days without sleep, Greitens realized the strength he needed to excel as a SEAL was found outside his own physical abilities. In his weakest moments, Greitens was able to find his greatest strength in service.

"The more I thought about myself, the weaker I became. The more I recognized that I was serving a purpose larger than myself, the stronger I became," he told the students at Tufts. He served his country and defended the weak against the rapacity of the wicked.

Fifty years ago, Greitens' remarks would have been the norm. But through the years, the focus of education, particularly higher education, has shifted from selflessness to self-obsession. Many commencement speakers today tell students to "Dream big" and "Do what you love." It may be feel-good career advice, but it's incomplete life advice. Philosopher Martin Buber wrote, "All education 'worthy' of the name is education of character." Greitens gave the Tufts student an eloquent firsthand example.

Greitens said it this way: "The best definition I have ever heard of a vocation is that it's the place where your great joy meets the world's great need. ... We need all of you to find your vocation. To develop your joys, your passions, and to match them to the world's great needs."

Not all men are meant to be Navy SEALs, or even serve in the military, but all men can serve. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recognized, "The life of man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams but in active charity and in willing service."

We ask our students, what do you want to do when you grow up? Instead, we should ask them, whom or Whom, and what ideals do you want to serve when you grow up? That is a worthy thing to consider at graduation. Good for Greitens; good for Tufts.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT