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Spring 2001 Commencement
School of Communication and School of International Service
Several centuries ago, the Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico, became the first thinker in history to propose that the essential quality that defines human communities, regardless of country or stage of development or religion, is that they all invariably engage in coming-together ceremonies that mark transitions, those special occasions in our individual and collective existence when we publicly and ritually share with others the moments of birth and marriage and death and also, though Vico—who is known as the father of the social sciences—did not mention them as such, graduation observances as well.
All these rites of initiation, where we say goodbye to one state of being and are welcomed into another, are primarily celebrations, and graduation ceremonies are no exception. We are gathered here today so that the society and family that has fed you and paid your way can now rejoice in your accomplishments and in your new maturity and can also declare to the world that you are ready to face the challenges that await you outside the institution of higher learning that has nurtured you for the past years. But just because these moments are jubilant, does not mean that they should be allowed to pass without one last attempt to meditate upon their deeper meaning, what new responsibilities accompany your entry—called for that very reason a Commencement—into a new world.
I believe that the world you graduate into has the means, the resources, the technology and certainly the oft-repeated objective of creating a virtual Paradise for the six billion citizens alive on this planet today. There is some cause for optimism that this goal may be closer than ever before: in the last decade the international community ahs taken gigantic steps towards democratic rule in scores of countries, the quality of life and life expectancy have been steadily rising across the globe, there is an ever stronger belief in the rights of minorities and women and children and an increased awareness of the need for a different, ecologically sound approach to the natural world which sustains and surrounds us. Even so, there can be no denying that the lives of most members of our common humanity in this new millennium are mired in misery and need—and I include among these hapless many millions of your abject fellow countrymen, the fact that one of every six children in America is trapped in poverty.
The paradox is glaring: never have the ideals of perfection been so lofty and the technology to achieve them so sophisticated, and yet never have so many people been so far from controlling their own everyday destiny. At this very moment that I speak to you, terrible things are happening. Words like war and famine and plague and child prostitution and corruption and torture and exploitation should be part of a vocabulary that belongs to the past, whose excesses should be visited in museums or remarked with detached curiosity in the crumbling pages of ancient books. Instead, these words of sorrow are everywhere, overwhelming, degrading, indeed so prevalent that this naming itself has started to lose its capacity to shock or move us, is gradually becoming part of an indifferent landscape. That is why I always prefer to imagine the individual, one plus one plus one: a child is so hungry and emaciated somewhere in the world that she cannot at this very moment digest food even if it were to be fed to her a morsel of pap at a time, at this moment that I speak, a bomb is tearing apart somebody’s father and also destroying the picture of that father’s wedding and the quilt he gave his wife for their anniversary and smashing the toy he had just made for his child somewhere in the world, yes somewhere in the world a woman is being raped at this very moment and another woman’s throat is being slit because she has dishonored her family by getting pregnant, at this very moment in Africa the hear of a young man with AIDS has stopped beating and now his brain no longer sends messages of conjecture or remembrance to his hands and those hands that used to be his cannot ever again soften into another hand somewhere in the world, somewhere in the world at this very moment a blindfold is being strapped onto an old man’s eyes so he will not recognize the men who come towards his naked body, somewhere in this world at this very moment someone is bribing an official so a stream can be polluted, so drugs can poison a street, so guns can cross a frontier, so justice can be undone. And thought the majority of these bodies that suffer survive outside the fortunate frontiers of the United States, we should not forget that your country is not immune to such distress and violence, such malnutrition and poverty, discrimination and abuse.
One might suggest that it is offensive to invite so many troubles, so many unwanted and unwashed guests to a graduation. But if I have introduced these visitors and their innumerably invisible brothers and sisters to this celebration today, it is not to mitigate our joy or dampen your spirits, but rather to lift those spirits up. What a privilege it is that you will soon find yourselves in a position to do something about these troubles. How wonderful that you have received from your University, if it has done its job well, the values and the skills and the intellectual instruments to understand the world, act upon it and change it. How thrilling it is to be young and lookout at humanity and see there, staring you in the face, so many millions who have desperate need of your dialogue and intervention. How lucky that you belong to a nation that is so powerful and wealthy that it can allow itself the luxury of wondering how to help in mending the world—ask itself that question, that is, if it does not wish to lose its moral compass. There does exist, therefore, the possibility of a magnificent struggle for justice and kindness and tolerance ahead, there may indeed be a complex and interesting life awaiting us, as long as we wish to do something about the sufferings of others.
Two assumptions underlie my last words. The first assumption is that the disasters of the world are made by men and women and that it is therefore up to those same men and women to fix that world, in other words, that we can undo the conditions that created those man-made catastrophes.
But there is a second, more subtle assumption. I used the words us and we. Yes. Us and we. Which means that I have taken for granted that you, the young who are graduating, are part of the collective that must confront the grief of the world, that you are accountable, along with your elders, for our common fate.
Yes. We. Because a graduation is the precise occasion when you, the class of 2001, start to say we, when you are included in the vast plurality of those who must face a major dilemma, the paradox, my friends, that though you did not make the world as it is, you are nevertheless responsible for it, that this world now belongs to you.
This coming of age, this coming into the world, then, is no ordinary transition. How unique and unparalleled and enormous this event will eventually loom in your lives can be best illustrated, I believe through a story, a story that was first imagined by the great Greek writer, from the island of Crete, Nikos Kazantzakis, in his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and then reimagined some years ago by Martin Scorcese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, in a controversial film. In the celluloid version, Scorcese brings to life on the screen a prophet who is being taken to his crucifixion. That a prophet is about to be executed for having preached rebellion against the injustices of his age, for having dared to dream of his nation’s liberation from outside interference. He turns to the crowd of bystanders who, along with the young Jesus, are passively watching that prophet being dragged to his death and shouts at them: “Fight, fight. Rise up, rise up, the children are watching. The children are watching.” What that man who is about to die for his ideas is howling to those who stand by in dread, is that, by their inaction and apathy, they are teaching their children to fear, they are educating their children in impotence and despair, closing the eyes of the future. What that prophet and indeed every prophet is proclaiming is that whenever somebody stands aside in the struggle between those who repress and those who rebel, there is a child watching, nearby, nearby there is always a child watching.
And that is why I have brought up the infinite pain of the world at your graduation. Because from this solemn and joyous moment onwards, you will be faced every day with the decision of whether to rise up against that pain or whether to stand by the wayside and let it continue. It would be presumptuous on my part, and perhaps insulting, to suggest that you have not yourselves suffered or witnessed suffering around you, and I am sure and would hope that, in many cases, you have already tried to do something to alleviate that condition. I would never want to accuse anybody young of apathy, the young who are so frequently the most damaged victims of history and are also often those who struggle hardest to contain and stop that damage. This happened recently in Belgrade and Jakarta and in my native Chile where, if it had not been for the extraordinary sacrifices of students of the same age as those assembled here today, we would still be governed by a dictator who is now indicted for murder and whose name I will not mention so as not to ruin our festivities. This sort of activism happened in your own country not so long ago, in the Sixties, when youngsters not older than you are now, found themselves at the forefront of the movements for civil rights and free speech and against an unjust war and it is happening right now in the movement against sweatshops and in favor of fair trade merchandise which is sweeping campuses across the United States. So why is a graduation going to mean anything different?
The answer is that a time invariably comes when those young people, who have up until then been classified by society as the ones who watch, as the children who inherit an earth they have not yet made, a time comes when those young people grow old enough to make fundamental choices that others, younger than them, will now watch.
That time has come for you. You are no longer the children. You are the ones the children will be watching, and soon enough in fact, your very own children will be the ones watching you. And twenty or thirty years from now, you will be at the graduation of those children and will be handing them a world that you had a real chance to remake.
The essential question then becomes: Will the world you will be handing hem be better than the one you inherited?
I am not suggesting that the only way to answer yes to that question, the only way to guarantee that it will indeed be improved, is to dedicate your lives to repairing the wrongs of the world twenty-four hours a day. Some of you may decide that this is indeed your calling, but most of us are not meant to be prophets or leaders or even activists, most of us do not look forward to the small crucifixion of the daily grind and even less to the possible final sacrifice of a real crucifixion, a real death that at times awaits those who believe deeply in a cause. I am aware that excessive demands on our time or our commitment can often be self-defeating, leaving us with a sense of frustration instead of courage, of skepticism instead of hope, of guilt instead of altruism. You must each decide for yourselves how much you wish to do, how much you can do, to bequeath your children a world where speeches such as the one I am giving today can become obsolete. Your energy can be channeled through your job or it can be channeled outside your job, it can be dedicated to a large and lifelong cause or to a series of smaller ones, it can engage injustice and discrimination in your neighborhood or in your city or in your country itself or in lands whose names you can hardly pronounce but whose misfortunes are all to often the result of the policies of your own government or the consequence of the interests of American companies. So the road you take may be a throbbing avenue or a tiny sidestreet, but what you cannot do, what you should not do, what you must not do, is to retreat from the need to journey on some sort of road that leads to service to the rest of humanity. Or as Nikos Kazanzsakis himself stated in another book: “Be always restless, unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, smash it! The greatest sin of all is satisfaction.”
The decision to search and care in this way is not as easy as it looks. Soon, you may be asking yourselves if you can afford to repeat the outrage you felt as students, you may ask yourselves if you can risk your status or your standing or your salary by being as critical as you were taught to be in college, soon you may ask yourselves if you have the time to worry about faraway others when there are needy ones in your own home and backyard. And the day is near when you may ask yourselves the most dangerous question of all: can I make a difference, can anyone make a difference? By then you will have heard many telling you unceasingly that the affliction that surrounds us and saturates us in the media is the natural lot of mankind and that it is therefore better not to tamper with the way things are because tampering only makes them worse. By then you will have heard over and over that it is best to worry about your own children and forget the remote children of the rest of the world.
So let me give you the only true graduation present somebody like myself can offer. Let me bestow upon you these final words: do not believe those who tell you that you do not matter, that you cannot change the world. Hold fast to the dream that a time can come when people do not slaughter each other due to their national or racial or linguistic or religious or ethnic differences, hold fast to the certainty that it is unnatural that street children be murdered or their mothers die of hunger or that someone should be denied a job because of the color of her skin or the sex she was born into, hold fast to the belief that we can indeed imagine a world where certain sicknesses can be conquered and medicine can be reasonably within the grasp of those who need it, where women are free to go out at night without looking over their shoulders, where information or cooperation is not extracted from others with a whip or a threat.
These words, then, are my only advice to you at this crucial moment of transition: the world does not have to be the way it is. And also: you can make a difference. You can make a difference.
Let us hope that as the nearby and faraway children incessantly watch you, let us pray you do not disappoint them.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
Recent Commencement Speakers