Home : Media : Speeches

Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the World Affairs Council's Global Education Gala

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Washington, DC, Thursday, March 07, 2013
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: (Applause) – she’s very kind.  You know, Deanie tried to lead – we were sitting together and she tried to lead at least three standing ovations but she stood up and nobody could see her, so – (laughter) – standing ovation, but I can see why she was introduced as a dynamo and indefatigable, whatever that word was.  (Laughter.) 
I’m a little intimidated – Ambassador, where’s the ambassador ?  (Inaudible.)  Congratulations, well done.  (Applause.)  I’m a little intimidated by the fact that the – that the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates would get up here and speak in better English than the American general with a master’s degree in English – (laughter, applause).
I should tell you before I get to my prepared remarks, I was – I was actually surprised that they wanted me to do an interview.  And surprise interviews can be a little bit dangerous, actually.  (Laughter.)  But this one was actually – was actually quite interesting because the questions had to do with education and with the World Affairs Council.  And so the very last question the interviewer said to me – what do you think of this whole World Affairs Council?  And I thought about it for a moment.  I said it’s outrageously aspirational.  (Scattered laughter.)
But think about it.  It is outrageously aspirational that you would come together and try to build a global consensus around education.  It’s also quite remarkable and quite exciting – I think that what makes our country great, by the way, is that we dare to be brave, and god help us if we ever forget that.  And when a nation – (applause).  And I relate that to what you're doing.  You’re daring to be brave.  You that try to put your weight behind education as a catalyst for progress and for a better – a better life not just for us who live here in the greatest democracy in the world but for our friends and partners around the world.  So, well done, and I’m honored to be here with you tonight.
I want to also congratulate the other honorees who we’ve been – who we’ve had the pleasure of meeting and listening to tonight.  I’ll start with this assertion:  that one of the things the chairman does besides the fact that he quiets people during the dessert – (laughter) – is that he also gets to make the odd assertion – sometimes it’s challenged; often times it’s not.  But this assertion is unchallengeable, and that’s that there’s nothing more important in democracy than education. Period. That’s it. (Applause.)  Those democracies that succeed, succeed because education provides the foundation.
As the chairman – and Deanie and I reflect on this often – as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there’s things that we – that we have to do – I won’t actually elaborate on those too often – (laughter) – but there’s also things that we get to do, that we’re lucky enough to get to do on behalf our nation. And this is one of those nights for us; I’ll tell you that. We’re just really honored to be here, and lucky enough to be able to have a chance to spend some time with you who have committed yourselves to education. Being here actually feeds and fuels my optimism about the future, and I need all the fuel I can get right now. 
But it reminds me of a story. Some of you have been – and visited our service academies at Annapolis, at Colorado Springs and at West Point, and – or, if you haven’t visited them, you’ve probably seen them in the movies. When I actually went to the Academy in 1970, tough time in our history, actually, to go to the – to a military academy. But when I showed up at the Military Academy and my parents dropped me off, and I remember I was a little intimidated, but I also wasn’t exactly sure what I was – what was in store for me. And so I’m not sure that I was experiencing what we in the military call that significant emotional event. But there’s always an upper-class cadet there somewhere who’s going to help you understand what you’re actually in for and who will eventually separate you from your parents. 
The particular upperclassman that I confronted was all business – very polite, very respectful and very intimidating. But, at some point he asked us to – the group of us – to say goodbye to our parents and move into another room. So I did. I said goodbye to my parents and began to move. But as I moved down the row, actually, a woman that – I had no idea who she was. I mean, she was the mother of one of my classmates, leaped up. She had just finished having this tearful moment with her son, and leaped up and grabbed me in a big bear hug and said, “Honey, it’s gonna be okay.” (Laughter.)
So I was a little surprised by the affection, but I was more surprised, I think, by the fact that it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t going to be okay. (Laughter.) So I’m thinking to myself, you mean this might not be okay? (Laughter.) So I want to tell you the only other time I’ve had that experience or that emotion, recently, is in my recent testimony before the Congress of the United States. (Laughter, applause.) I’m not making that up. (Laughter.)
Look, like it is for you, education is near and dear to my heart. I have a passionate curiosity. And by the way, that’s a phrase from Einstein. Einstein said, “I wasn’t especially smart, but I had a passionate curiosity.” But I have a passionate curiosity for history and for literature in particular, but more important, for understanding the world. 
Alexander Graham Bell put it this way: “God has strewn our paths with wonders,” he said, “and we certainly should not go through life with our eyes shut to them.” His passion for learning and for teaching led him to discover new ways to communicate. You might be interested to know that on this day in history in 1876, Bell was granted the patent for what he called the acoustic telegraph, which later became known as the phone and which now some of you are using to text your children to tell them that the chairman is up here making an ass of himself. (Laughter.) I know that. I’m okay with it, though. I know you’re out there texting or tweeting. Be kind. 
Every chance I get, and especially when I get to talk to our younger generation, I tell them that part of being a leader is a deep dedication to lifelong learning. I actually believe that if you don’t continue to learn, you’re stagnant and you fall behind. In fact, Vince Lombardi – famous football coach, some of you may know the name – said, “If you don’t improve, you deteriorate.” There’s no standing still in this life, and mediocrity can’t be part of your aspiration.
In fact, I call myself the military’s highest-ranking student when people ask me my duty description. Since I’ve become chairman – even way before that, really – I’ve been on what I call a personal campaign of learning. I try to reach out to industry, to academia, to nonprofits, to anybody I can, to hear their perspectives so that our armed forces can benefit from their insights.
I’d also like to think that I’m the highest-ranking teacher in the armed forces of the United States, and not just because I taught at West Point. Every day, nearly every day, I sit down with our other senior leaders and I talk about them, about clarifying our future, our options and the associated risks as we try to get from here to there.
I talk to the force, and I try to explain what’s happening here in Washington. That’s not easily done, by the way. (Laughter.) And I engage with the public about the amazing things that our servicemen and -women do every single day. (Applause.)
And on a personal note, I’d like to tell you that just today our son completed his tour in Afghanistan and is now in Kyrgyzstan on his way home to reunite with his mother. (Applause.)
Now, in fact, luckily, Deanie and I have been fortunate enough to pass on that kind of love of learning to our own children. In fact, two our children went to West Point. One went to Wake Forest University and also was commissioned in ROTC. Is there a – is there a Demon Deacon out there? Oh, stand up! A Demon Deacon. (Laughs.)
But actually, my children are far more educated and better educators than I – than I’ve ever been.  I should tell you – in fact, I’d like to tell you, if you have a moment – and even if you don’t – (laughter) – about how I opened my first – I taught English at West Point, and I want to tell you about how I opened my first course when I was an instructor at West Point.
I wanted to encourage the – you know, you never – you’re never sure whether you’re going to be a good instructor. Many of you are educators; some of you are the captains of industry. You’re never sure how that first meeting is going to go. But I wanted to set a positive tone for the semester, and so I walked into this class of 18-year-old freshmen plebes at West Point and I said, you’re the most impressive class that this institution has ever seen. 
Now, truthfully, they didn’t buy it. I mean, they didn’t buy it, and they shouldn’t have bought it, in retrospect. But they didn’t buy it. And immediately I harkened back to my – you know, the adjectives that I know from my English studies, and I thought, hyperbole. They’re not going to – they’re not going to sign up for that hyperbole. So I tried to tone it down a bit, and I said, you’re all smart; you’re motivated and disciplined. And they still kind of were on edge.
And I said, okay, look. If anybody in here thinks you’re a moron, go ahead and stand up right now. (Laughter.) So after a few seconds, I noticed nobody stood up, and I thought, okay, finally I’ve got them where they need to be. But just about the time I was going to launch off into my lecture, this one particular young man stood up and snapped to attention. I was absolutely stunned. I said to him, son, do you really consider yourself a moron? And he said, no, no, sir, but I didn’t want to see you standing here all by yourself. (Laughter, applause.)
That’s actually a true story. (Laughter.) And the one – and the young man that stood up is now a one-star general in the United States Army. (Laughter.)
So let me just go on for a moment or two standing up here all by myself. Not because I want to relive that memory, but because I want you to understand how deeply I care about education and the men and women who need it to help script our future.
We care because we know that education is a national strategic resource. We know that the performance of our students and their teachers has a direct impact – a direct impact – on the prosperity of our nation. Education is what feeds the hot fusion of innovation, of trust, of commerce and what makes our nation great. It illuminates the path to our greatness. [1].
You remember what I said at the beginning; we are great because we dare to be great, and it’s education that illuminates that path that allows us to dare to be great. 
In a time when the acoustic telegraph has evolved into a high-powered computer that fits into your pocket or that you can wear around your wrist, education is the price of admission into an increasingly competitive global economic marketplace. But the quality of our educational institutions also has a direct impact on the security of our nations.
Look, the military is a customer of our nation’s education system. We are actually one of its biggest customers. Hundreds of thousands of the young men and women that follow along in today’s classrooms that matriculate through today’s classrooms move on to lead tomorrow’s squads, its squadrons and its ships. And what they learn there matters. 
War remains a contest of wills, and war is also discovery. Preventing wars and winning wars calls on us to outmaneuver our potential adversaries by outthinking them. There’s no more braveheart – you know the movie “Braveheart.” There’s no more braveheart. We don’t just moon them and then attack them. (Laughter.) That’s not the way it works anymore. (Laughter.) Our forces today understand that an international environment isn’t optional, and it’s not a theoretical exercise. It’s actually part of their lives.
We ask these young men and women to solve some of the world’s most challenging, complex problems, and in its hardest places. The more they understand the history, the more they understand the culture, the more that they understand the power dynamics in play, the better and the more enduring the results that they will achieve.
Now, as you recall or as you can tell, I ascribe to the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. He said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” 
Of course – you want to clap, Edie.
MS.: Yes.
GEN. DEMPSEY: All right, go ahead. (Applause.)
The other thing about education is that it teaches us far more than we can learn in a history book or in a – on the periodic table of the elements in chemistry. And by the way, why do we have that anymore since we can Google it now? (Laughter.)
But let me – let me explain what I mean by that with a story about when I was a graduate student at Duke University. I studied – I studied English but I tried to be interdisciplinary. I was a bit of a pioneer – not really – but I thought it would be cute to do that when I was a graduate student, so I decided to take some music, I decided to take some art history and I decided to take some literature and try to knit it together. I was curious, actually, what would happen if I did that. 
And one of the poets I chose was William Blake, and William Blake, you might remember, was both poet and illuminist. He illuminated his manuscripts with artwork. And this professor, when I chose this particular semester-long paper, said to me, you know, this is a very complex topic you’ve taken here, Mr. Dempsey. Are you sure you want to do this? You know, you’re trying to achieve your master’s, not the Nobel Peace Prize in literature. (Laughter.)
And I said, look, I want to give this a shot. So I worked hard. I mean, I really did. I worked really hard for the entire semester. I turned it in and at the end of the semester I got back a C+. 
Now, those of you that have been to graduate school, and many of you have, know that a C+ in graduate school is like, you know, the big L stamped on your forehead – (laughter) – that says, you know, you have not achieved, you have not tried, you are unworthy, why are you here. You know, what is it about Duke that you didn’t understand before you came here? (Laughter.) Why did you insult me with your presence in my classroom? I mean, I was absolutely stunned. 
And I went to the professor and I said to him, you know, is – I’ll say his name now because actually we’ve become good friends over the years – Professor Strandberg, I said, how could you give me a C? I mean, I worked – I worked as hard on that paper for six months, than I’ve ever worked on anything in my entire life. 
And you know what he said to me? He said, let me tell you something, Mr. Dempsey, and he said, it’s important that you leave your graduate education understanding this.  He said, It’s not how hard you work, it’s the outcome you produce.” And I thought, uh-oh. (Laughter.) 
And he’s right. It isn’t just about the effort. It’s got to at some point – if you put your education to use, you’ve got to produce outcomes.
You know, during nearly a dozen years of war, the ingenuity, the imagination and the intellect of the young men and women who wear this uniform that I’m so proud to use on the front lines around the world have just – have done just that. They’ve delivered outcomes.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we gave them tremendous responsibilities, pushing capability, responsibility and even authority to the very edge of the battlefield, to the lowest levels of command. Today a 22-year-old second lieutenant can have more responsibility than I had as a two-star general in 2003 in Baghdad when I commanded the First Armored Division. 

Here’s the point. In the coming years, our force, the United States military force, will transition from constant campaigning and will have to be ready for unknown contingencies. We can talk all we want about what we want to do in the future, but others get a vote. And when the others get a vote, we’ve got to be ready no matter how complex and how uncertain and how surprising it is.
And as these Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen return home from these incredible missions that they have accomplished and as thousands of others like them transition out of the military – and stay in the military – we have to keep challenging them. We need to leverage this incredible resource to drive their energy and their curiosity into productive pursuits that benefit the entire nation.
We’re staring at a moment of national opportunity and we can’t afford to look away.
What you’re teaching in these international relations courses around the country, they’ve actually lived it. What you’re learning or making your graduate students learn in the graduate lab, they’ve actually used it. What you’re hearing from the experts, they’ve actually experienced it. Or, as author Clarence Day put it, “Information is pretty thin stuff unless you mix it with experience.” 
The impact that this generation of leaders who are coming back from 12 years of war will have, this pool of experience can have – can actually have such an impact on our nation’s education system that it can be profound, and I hope we don’t miss the opportunity. 
In a time when industry – and I’m speaking this way because I know I have industry leaders here – in a time when industry is competing for talent, we really ought to find new ways to get our veterans involved in the classroom as well. (Applause.)
Not just as students, by the way, but also taking advantage of the G.I. Bill – who are taking advantage of the G.I. Bill – but also as teachers, guest lecturers, mentors and advisers, sharing their knowledge and continuing to contribute to our national security even after they’re out of uniform. Programs, by the way, like Troops to Teachers and DoD Starbase are a start, but we can do more, and I’m optimistic that we can and we will. 
I’m optimistic because of the leaders that I have met here tonight and those who will follow in your footsteps. I’m optimistic because of the men and women of our armed forces and their dedication to meeting and matching the challenges they face every day. I’m optimistic because through these challenging times, here I am in a room full of people that are passionate about making a difference.
And as I said – you know, some of you know the – that famous beer commercial – I’m not supposed to mention names, but in this particular Mexican beer commercial – (laughter) – that guy with the beard, the most interesting man in the world – (laughter) – other than the ambassador – (laughter) – tells everybody to stay thirsty, my friends. Here’s my advice to all of us here tonight. As we confront a really uncertain future in a very, very complex world, stay curious, my friends. 
Thank you very much. (Applause.)