U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu called on Princeton University graduates this afternoon to consider devoting part of their lives to public service.
Lu, a 1988 graduate of Princeton, was the keynote speaker at the school’s interfaith Baccalaureate service. The interfaith service for the senior class, which is held in the Princeton University Chapel, is one of the school’s oldest traditions.
At the beginning of his speech, Lu recalled the sacrifices his parents made to pay for his education at Princeton. Interviewed by a reporter about how middle class families were coping with the high cost of college education, his father said, “I told my son that your education is your inheritance.”
“Notice my father used the word inheritance,” Lu told seniors. “He didn’t say gift, and there is a big difference between those two words. An inheritance is something you spend a lifetime accumulating. It is not something to be squandered. There are strings attached, responsibilities to be implied. It is something you grow and pass on to the next generation.”
“Recently there has been a lot of talk around here about what it means to check your privilege,” he said. “Regardless of your family background when you first arrived on campus, each of you is now privileged. Each of you is inheriting a Princeton education made possible by enormous sacrifices…The question I ask all of you is, how will you make the most if this inheritance of a Princeton education?”
Lu then asked graduates to consider public service in its many forms and recalled the words from a 1914 speech by Woodrow Wilson: “We never call a man `noble’ who serves only himself; and if you will look about through all the nations of the world upon the statues that men have erected—upon the inscribed tablets where they have wished to keep alive the memory of the citizens whom they desire most to honor—you will find that almost without exception they have erected the statue to those who had a splendid surplus of energy and devotion to spend upon their fellow-men. Nobility exists in America without patent. We have no House of Lords, but we have a house of fame to which we elevate those who are the noble men of our race, who, forgetful of themselves, study and serve the public interest, who have the courage to face any number and any kind of adversary, to speak what in their hearts they believe to be the truth.”
A career in public service may seem daunting, Lu said, and the problems society faces are significant, varied and complex. “The solutions are nuanced, and do not fit neatly on a bumper sticker,” he said,
He then recalled major achievements of scientists and others who harnessed their passions to benefit the country and the world.
“You too can alter the course of history by being the driving force behind policies and programs that promote innovation, opportunity, and inclusion,” he said, adding that public service takes many forms, including teaching, non-profit work and philanthropy.
“Public service is a mindset,” he said. “It is a commitment to address the problems of our time, not just to pass them along to the next generation. It is a desire to help people you’ve never met…a recognition that, as President Barack Obama has said, we are all connected as one people.”
Lu’s family was not wealthy like Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates, but saving money for his son’s education was his father’s life mission.
“Like those great benefactors, my father understood the best investments also not flashy and do not produce quick returns,” he said. “My father passed a few years after I graduated from Princeton, and he saw only a tiny glimpse how I used the inheritance he provided to me…If you decide to use your education to address the broader challenges facing our world, the impact of your actions might not be apparent for many years, if ever. But by looking beyond yourself, by understanding how we are all connected as one people, by fighting for greater opportunities for all, by continuing the legacy go the progress of our nation…you will realize the full value of your inheritance.”