Commencement Address to The 1989 Graduates of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences
The University of Maryland College Park
May 25, 1989
I am delighted to be here today to celebrate with you and to honor you. Because whether or not you receive any special awards today, you all graduate with honor. You accomplished what you set out to do. You overcame all the obstacles placed in your path. You persevered. Maybe you think endured is the word. It doesn’t matter, because here you are, and this is a moment you can treasure for the rest of your life.
The rest of your life. That’s a long time. Too long to contemplate on commencement day when your vision probably extends only as far as that last party. Like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, you can say, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” and it’s true that today is for celebrating, but tomorrow will be for cerebrating as the effects of the partying give way to more sober thoughts about your future.
Whatever that future holds and it holds more surprises than you can imagine for your professional life, your personal life, and your spiritual life, because that’s the nature of the future-go forth and meet it with a will. Remember, as Emerson said, “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Whatever path you choose, make sure that your passage is not like that of a breeze, that lightly touches whatever it encounters, and merely ripples the surface of life. Our task is not to tread lightly and leave undisturbed the world as we find it, to tiptoe
Through the years the way people do in a museum, embarrassed to leave even an echo behind to mark their passage.
As Ingrid Bergman said, “it’s the talent and the passion that count in success.” whatever you do, do it intensely. If you want to leave your mark behind to show which way you passed, you have to use all the force and wits and stamina and character that you were
Fortunate enough to inherit and smart enough to develop along the way.
And remember that there is no change without conflict, no cause without controversy. In our pluralistic _society-, we must try to reach consensus on what to do about the great issues that face us as a people. But we as individuals must not prostrate ourselves
Before the idol of consensus when central, inalienable principles are at stake.
Some of those principles are now at stake in the world outside these walls, as you’ll discover. Soon you’ll be asked to take sides in what I call “the great American raft debate” that is going on underneath the rhetoric of our public and social policies.
Many of you have probably heard a raft debate. To set the situation, assume a boat has sunk in mid-ocean and five people have survived. There is one raft, but room for only four. The survivors make the best case they can for winning a place on the
Raft. Typically, the survivors might include a minister, a philosopher, an artist, an engineer, and an economist.
Which of these educated, articulate, valued members of society shall be declared expendable?
Raft debates are stimulating learning experiences. But if you add to the debate an inner-city black, an illegal immigrant, an Hispanic, or one of the homeless, the debate becomes a simulation game that mirrors all too well our current policy debates.
Two major trends point to a growing politics of exclusion.
The first is the increasing discussion of what we cannot do as a nation.
The era of rising expectations that began in the 1960’s is giving way to a new era of rising limitations. Our society is increasingly seen as a closed system, with no frontier, limited resources, and disappearing markets. This new consciousness of limits is fed by
Our inability to control the world financially, economically, or militarily.
The second dangerous trend is the tendency of our society to split into smaller and smaller groups. Every. Day our society fragments further. More and more people identify, not with the nation as a whole, but with their region or their state or their city or their neighborhood or their block association.
Modern society seems to be splitting up into enclaves of special interest groups and specialized associations.
If we think for a moment of our society as a raft, who has been declared expendable, either implicitly or explicitly, in deeds if not in words?
The homeless are expendable. They must be, or we wouldn’t allow the situation where our fellow human beings sleep in cars, in abandoned buildings, or on heated grates.
We simply step around the homeless who litter our city sidewalks like debris from the shipwreck of civilization.
It’s been said that a rising tide lifts all boats. But that’s not quite true. The rising economic tide of recent years lifted our boats, but others capsized, and the survivors are washing up on the shores of our great cities, from San Francisco to New York.
Who else has been excluded from our imaginary raft? The new underclass of the urban poor, predominantly black, who are chronically unemployed, barely educated, and subsisting on welfare for two, and now three, generations. In their daily lives they run
A gauntlet of gangs and drug dealers. And a black baby is more than twice as likely as a white baby to die before reaching the age of one.
There is no space on the raft for the 20 to 30 million illiterate adults in our midst. No room for poor Hispanics, whose numbers increased 73 percent between 1970 and 1980. No room for those who lack the skills needed to make it in our increasingly complex, technological society
What can we conclude from these harsh facts if not a harsh conclusion? There is no room on the great American raft for the underclass. As long as the underclass remains unseen and unheard in their ghettos, and they don’t rock our raft, our society is content to let them drown in despair.
What can we do, to whom so much has been given and of whom so much will be required?
First, we can recognize a raft debate for what it is: an excellent exercise for an ethics class or as the highlight of a liberal arts week. But as a model underlying social policy, it is fatally flawed. Because the assumptions on which it is based are false.
Our society is not a raft.
To share is not to shrink.
No one is expendable.
To think of our society as a raft, as a closed system where sharing diminishes all of us, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. instead, we can think of our society as a banquet table, to which all of us have been invited. We were not invited because of our intelligence, or our educational attainments, or our business achievements, or our table manners. We were invited because we are all children of god.
Who are we to tell the host that it’s time to bolt the doors, that there’s not enough food to go around, that those people outside have lost their invitations, or didn’t deserve them in the first place, or will embarrass us with their lack of etiquette?
This is not primarily a political or economic issue. It is a moral issue. Political and economic means are always found where moral commitment is strong. But if that strength is lacking, then an abundance of reasons-political, economic, and sociological- spring up overnight to explain why things are as they are and why nothing should or can be done.
But such misery in the midst of our abundance simply cannot be justified.
The day should be long past in America when any person is scorned or excluded or left by the wayside because of his or her religion, race, gender, or place of birth.
Too many individuals in too many groups have been denied full participation in American life, to their regret and our loss. One of our greatest strengths as a people is the very diversity, the richness of our differences, that exclusion, intolerance, and benign neglect seek to deny.
It seems to be a natural law that without growth, there is decay. Because a static community does not survive for long. If there is not new growth, a dynamic reassertion of purpose and vision, a continuing process of renewal and rebirth, then that community becomes a fossil, a relic, a piece of debris left behind by the flow of time.
But growth need not be measured only in terms of economics and political power. Communities can also grow in mutual understanding, in reverence for the individual, in recognition that every person carries the divine spark of life.
Community growth ultimately depends on the actions of individuals, and there is much that we as individuals can do, both in our private and public roles, to foster that growth.
No one would deny that it is sometimes difficult to see the divine operating in our fellow man. Our human vision too easily blurs with misunderstanding, or hatred, or indifference. But we must not cease in our struggle to create a true community that includes all the children of god.
Taking sides in “the great American raft debate”–or refusing to accept its premise-is one challenge you will face in the future.
Another is making sure that you never compromise your integrity, whatever you seek to accomplish and whatever goal you pursue. Remember that the glory of scaling the heights lies in the method of ascent.
Once you have a secure foothold, you will be in position to help others along the way. And that involves the greatest challenge- one I issue you now-one that has been faced by every generation that has preceded you. When you prepare to graduate from this life, make sure that you can look back and say that the world was a little better because you were in it.
A quotation from Hillel says it all in a very beautiful and simple way:
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?