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John Feffer

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

May 25th, 2012 6:28 PM

An Alternative Commencement Speech

As it graduates from college, Generation Y has a chance to become the Global Generation.

Get out of town. Go on, scram!

That’s what a graduation ceremony is all about: the big boot. Thanks for those thousands of dollars, here’s a receipt in the form of a diploma, and now hurry up and make room for the next class. Oh, and don’t forget to write: checks that is, once you’ve somehow paid off your mountainous student debt.

I wasn’t invited to give a commencement address this year. But here’s what I would say if an institution were foolish enough to give me a microphone and an audience.

College is a lot like the Garden of Eden. It’s a pretty place. The temptations are many. And just when you get a little taste of knowledge, the administration kicks you out.

As you head out the gate, you are also probably feeling a twinge (or more) of shame. After all, you have a vague sense that you just wasted a lot of money. If you didn’t drink and party away the last four years, you spent an average of 27 hours a week packing a lot of disconnected information into your head, information that even now, in the hot sun beating down on your graduation outfit, you have some difficulty remembering. But it’s not entirely your fault.

College is more about socialization than education. You learn the social rules and make the social contacts that will ease you into adulthood. Fraternities, eating clubs, secret societies: these are not incidental parts of college but central to it. Just ask George W. Bush, who excelled at nothing at Yale but was tapped nonetheless for the super-secret Skull and Bones. There are exceptions, of course: young people who have struggled across race, class, or international borders to join the upwardly mobile world of college graduates. But in its superficial multiculturalism, Skull and Bones turns out to be just a microcosm of college itself. "It has gays who got the SAT scores, it's got the gays who got the straight A's," says conservative columnist David Brooks. "It's got the blacks who are the president of the right associations. It's different criteria. More multicultural, but it's still an elite, selective institution."

College is a lot like the club of advanced industrialized nations. The membership remains remarkably constant over the years, and only the occasional outlier like South Korea or Brazil manages to get by the gatekeeper. Our education system reproduces our class system. The elite schools cater to the elite; state schools educate the struggling middle class; community colleges provide for the rest. America prides itself on being the land of opportunity. But we don’t stack up so well against other industrialized countries. According to Jason DeParle in The New York Times, family background is a much stronger determining factor of economic success in the United States than in Canada and most of Europe. As such, college is not so much a way out of poverty but an institution that perpetuates inequality.

Debt only makes the picture bleaker. You owe, as college graduates, over $25,000 on average in loans. “Students and former students owe more, at this point, for their educations than is owed in either credit card or automobile debt,”writes Anthony Grafton in The New York Review of Books. “Yet many fail to find profitable employment after graduation. Traditionally lucrative professional careers like law and medicine no longer promise a firm stairway to top incomes. Even finance, on which Ivy League graduates have been descending for some years like hunger on a loaf, generates fewer jobs than it did.”

Given the challenges that lie outside the gates of this academic Garden of Eden, it might seem a bit rude for me to add yet another burden to your shoulders on your special day. But as Americans, and I’m focusing my remarks on American citizens graduating from college, we have an even greater debt to pay. You have grown up in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of the world. You are also citizens of a country that has run roughshod over international law in its many wars, subversions of democracy, and contempt for international institutions. We have benefitted at the expense of others – their resources, their low-paid labor – and most of us simply continue to rack up this debt.

What can you do to discharge this obligation? One important action step is: get out of town. Go and live in a very different community. Become fluent in another language and another culture. Learn humility. “Love it or leave it,” Middle America told the Vietnam War protestors back in the 1960s. Let me turn that sentiment around: love it and leave it. To save America, we must all learn how to act as global citizens.

So, go out there and don’t just see the world, but become involved in the world. It’s what I did, and it changed my world as well.

Here are three reasons why you should leave the country: developing cultural literacy, understanding American power, and transforming America’s position in the world.

A common joke is that a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, and a person who speaks one language is an American. Whether our infamous monolingualism is literally true or not, Americans are notoriously parochial in our engagement with the world. When newly minted college graduates or degree students in international affairs come to my office for informational interviews, I recommend that they hone their fluency in another language to give them a competitive edge over their peers in their job hunt.

But learning another language is not just useful. It’s a way to break out of the cultural assumptions in which we are all born and raised. Learning a language is a way to immerse yourself in another way of understanding the world. It is empathy on a grand scale. Learning Chinese, for instance, introduces the student to the stunning visual poetry of the characters. But even obscure languages have something important to offer.  Linguist K. David Harrison describes the knowledge of the Arctic environment that the last speakers of the Yupik language possess. “Besides winds, they have specialized names for many kinds of ocean currents, stars and constellations, and all manner of seasonal phenomenal. All this information feeds into a sophisticated weather forecasting ability honed over a lifetime of careful observation,” he writes in his book The Last Speakers. “We are losing one of the finest, most sensitive systems ever devised to detect weather patterns and climate change.” We should force all climate change deniers to do an immersion language course in Yupik.

Part of the learning process overseas is to understand the impact the United States has on the world. You can see the pervasive influence of Hollywood, of McDonald’s and Starbucks, of the U.S. military. The world has a love-hate relationship with America. The love part is easy to understand – French fries and Frappucinos and Frank Sinatra and Freaky Friday are popular exports. But it’s the other side of the equation that’s critically important to understand. We have to listen to the anger expressed at U.S. policies – around U.S. military bases, around polluting U.S. factories, in communities pushing back against U.S. cultural influence. We also have to carefully observe how other peoples do things in order to counter the prevalent belief that we do everything the best in America.

Finally, it’s important to move from education to action. And here is your chance to make a mark as a generation. The names that have been used to describe you are not exactly flattering. You are Generation Y, for want of a more descriptive designation. You are the Peter Pan Generation, because you don’t want to grow up. But you can still reclaim your generation. You could become the Global Generation by serving as the young people who, with your language skills and more nuanced understanding of global politics, usher in a new U.S. relationship with the world. America doesn’t play well with others. You can change that.

Going overseas is an investment, and it’s not easy for recent graduates with debt. But before you take on more debt for graduate school or accept that unpaid internship in Washington, consider spending that money to get yourself to another country to work or volunteer. The Peace Corps also helps pay off your debt.

Living abroad is no guarantee of a transformative experience. Mitt Romney spent a couple years in France, but it didn’t exactly turn him into an internationalist. After all, you could go overseas to spread the gospel of America. But I’m not asking you to become missionaries. You should go overseas to listen, not to lecture. 

And with that, I’ll stop my little lecture. Now that you’re finally finished with college, now that you’ve had one very small bite of the apple, let the real education begin.

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