From the commencement address delivered May 21, 2005 at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I was excited to come back to Calvin, and I was just telling Laura the other night about what fun it would be to come to Calvin College. I said, you know, Laura, I love being around so many young folks. You know, it gives me a chance to re-live my glory days in academia. She said, George, that's not exactly how I would describe your college experience. She also said one other thing I think the graduates will appreciate hearing, a good piece of advice. She said, the folks here are here to get their diploma, not to hear from an old guy go on too long. So with that sage advice, here goes.

I bring a great message of hope and freedom to Calvin College Class of 2005: There is life after Professor Vanden Bosch and English 101. Someday you will appreciate the grammar and verbal skills you learned here. And if any of you wonder how far a mastery of the English language can take you, just look what it did for me.

I thank the moms and dads here for your sacrifice and for your love. I want to thank the faculty for your hard work and dedication. And, again, I congratulate the Class of 2005. Soon you will collect your degrees and say goodbyes to a school that has been your home -- and you will take your rightful place in a country that offers you the greatest freedom and opportunity on Earth. I ask that you use what you've learned to make your own contributions to the story of American freedom.

The immigrants who founded Calvin College came to America for the freedom to worship, and they built this great school on the sturdy ground of liberty. They saw in the American "experiment" the world's best hope for freedom -- and they weren't the only ones excited by what they saw. In 1835, a young civil servant and aristocrat from France, named Alexis de Tocqueville, would publish a book about America that still resonates today.

The book is called "Democracy in America," and in it this young Frenchman said that the secret to America's success was our talent for bringing people together for the common good. De Tocqueville wrote that tyrants maintained their power by "isolating" their citizens -- and that Americans guaranteed their freedom by their remarkable ability to band together without any direction from government. The America he described offered the world something it had never seen before: a working model of a thriving democracy where opportunity was unbounded, where virtue was strong, and where citizens took responsibility for their neighbors.

Tocqueville's account is not just the observations of one man -- it is the story of our founding. It is not just a description of America at a point in time -- it is an agenda for our time. Our Founders rejected both a radical individualism that makes no room for others, and the dreary collectivism that crushes the individual. They gave us instead a society where individual freedom is anchored in communities. And in this hopeful new century, we have a great goal: to renew this spirit of community and thereby renew the character and compassion of our nation.

First, we must understand that the character of our citizens is essential to society. In a free and compassionate society, the public good depends on private character. That character is formed and shaped in institutions like family, faith, and the many civil and -- social and civic organizations, from the Boy Scouts to the local Rotary Clubs. The future success of our nation depends on our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to have the strength of character to make the right choices. Government cannot create character, but it can and should respect and support the institutions that do.

Second, we must understand the importance of keeping power close to the people. Local people know local problems, they know the names and faces of their neighbors. The heart and soul of America is in our local communities; it is in the citizen school boards that determine how our children are educated; it's in city councils and state legislators that reflect the unique needs and priorities of the people they serve; it's in the volunteer groups that transform towns and cities into caring communities and neighborhoods. In the years to come, I hope that you'll consider joining these associations or serving in government -- because when you come together to serve a cause greater than yourself, you will energize your communities and help build a more just and compassionate America.

Finally, we must understand that it is by becoming active in our communities that we move beyond our narrow interests. In today's complex world, there are a lot of things that pull us apart. We need to support and encourage the institutions and pursuits that bring us together. And we learn how to come together by participating in our churches and temples and mosques and synagogues; in civil rights associations; in our PTAs and Jaycees; in our gardening and book clubs, interest groups and chambers of commerce; in our service groups -- from soup kitchens to homeless shelters.

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