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 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT