College of Education and College of Liberal and Fine Arts
Tarleton State University
December 16, 2006, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon
President McCabe, family and friends, fellow faculty, librarians, the staff who work behind the scenes to help this place run smoothly and, most important, graduates. On this day in 1945, a four year old boy stood on the platform of the Johannesburg railway station in what was then called the Union of South Africa, waiting for the train that was to take his mother to Durban, the port city where his father was due to disembark, having sailed from Singapore where he had spent the previous three and a half years as a prisoner of war. Waiting on the platform was a woman, dressed in black from the neck down with an imposing veil covering all of her hair and a good bit of her face. She was a nun and, as it turned out, billeted with the boy’s mother in the same sleeping car compartment. Looking at this strange apparition the little boy asked, “What are you for?”
This afternoon, sixty one years to the day later, that boy, fast approaching the twilight of his life, stands before you to ask the question again. What are you for?
It is an innocent question, a simple one to ask, but hard to answer. For if your experience is anything like mine it is a question that will engage each of you for the rest of your life. For the past four, perhaps five, even six years, it is likely that your major pre-occupation was to “get out of here.” This afternoon you reached that goal, and we are all gathered to mark the occasion, the end of one phase of your life and the beginning of another. So now I ask you to ask yourselves, as you commence to take on the world: “What am I for?” I have a couple of suggestions for your consideration that may help you find some answers.
First, be for learning, always and all ways. You are off to a good start, having completed Baccalaureate Degrees, but don’t stop now, for there is work to be done. And always remember that learning is mostly about talking. I know this is not how we conduct things here at Tarleton, where people like me do most of the talking while people like you sit passively listening. It is a habit that is hard to break, derived from the days when there was a paucity of books. The lecturer would condense the information contained in them to deliver to the student, a most efficient means of conveyance, but not particularly effective. How many of us, once the final is over, remember anything from the lectures we heard, no matter how brilliant they were. Yet put us in a seminar, dedicated to the principle that the best learning takes place when people talk and then real learning takes place. So get into the seminar habit. Be a talker, whether at work or at play, in the office or on the shop floor, in the kitchen or around the dining table, at the end of the day.
Learn a language other than your own. This will increase your vocabulary, give you new ways to talk and therefore to learn and, most important, enhance your understanding of the world in which we live. Language is a key to understanding other cultures, the booming, buzzing confusion of this world, and understanding is what we lack most of all in these parlous times. This view is echoed in the title of a recently published book, What the Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. The author, Louise Richardson, argues that the global war on terror is unwinnable because its fundamental premise, that terrorism can be vanquished by military means, ignores the lessons of history. Many years ago, in the midst of the cold war, which held my generation in its thrall far too long, the economist and Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling suggested in his book The Strategy of Conflict that if the world’s super powers, then the U.S. and the Soviet Union, would open up their borders to each other, they would soon learn the true motivation of the other and conclude that their respective commitments to building ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction was both futile and, in the end, unnecessary. Twenty or more years were to pass before the truth of this assertion began to be played out and, for a brief shining moment, it looked as though the promise of democracy spreading like wildfire across Eastern Europe, once dominated by Soviet military power, would be fulfilled. Then a new world of disorder began. The catalyst was the break up of Yugoslavia. A consequence was the unleashing of an ancient practice made all the more deadly by the use of modern technology, the tactic of terror, an asymmetric form of warfare, so very difficult for civilized people organized in nation states such as ours to deal with, never mind comprehend. Yet comprehend it we must, if order in our world is ever to be restored without losing something even more precious, our liberty.
As some of you know I am a child of empire, an empire upon which the sun never set. Well, it did, as it will on our empire too, one of these days. True, America is not a colonial empire in the ordinary sense, though we do possess some islands in the Pacific, managed by the Department of the Interior as virtual colonies. Then there is the matter of our westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Our predecessors called it Manifest Destiny, which belied the often bloody reality of conquest. And now our nation’s reach is imperial in its global commitments, both civil and military.
This brings me to the matter of your destiny, and my second piece of unsolicited advice. Always be a teacher. I am not talking here about teaching in its formal sense, though many of you will pursue careers in that honorable and vital profession. Instead I am advocating something broader, deeper, and more significant. I am urging you to become good listeners. For just as learning is mostly about talking, teaching is mostly about listening. Listen to the rhythms of life pulsing through your bodies and in the environment all around you, both natural and cultural. Listen to the music of the spheres, as the ancients described the rhythms of the cosmos. Most important, listen to each other, your friends and neighbors, of course, but your adversaries too. Because if you do I know that you will find they share the same aspirations as you, even though the path they choose to attain them is different from yours. I know the burden I have just put on your shoulders is a heavy one indeed, one that I have recoiled from more often than I care to admit. So to ease the burden a bit let me suggest one way that will help you down this path. Listen to the immigrants in our midst. They like you, if you are like me, or like your parents, or grandparents or great grandparents unto the nth generation, if they came to these shores at earlier times, have made America what it is today, a huge tossed salad in an enormous bowl. Be kind to them. Welcome them, not only because they are human beings like you, but because the future of this nation, which is to say your future and mine, will be far more secure if we can reclaim the spirit of optimism and possibility that was the hallmark of our country in the days before 9/11.
I do not mean to minimize this event. It was cataclysmic in every way, shaking the confidence of our nation to the core of its being and teaching us in shattering ways that we, the world’s only super power, are just as vulnerable to the forces of evil as “the least of these my people.” But what lesson have we learned? It is still far from clear to me, but I fear the possibility of a renewed closing of our minds along with the closing of our borders. The building of walls, the deployment of troops, the actions of some cities and the proposals of our state to make life more difficult for those immigrants whom we dub illegal, on the assumption that these measures will make us safer. Perhaps they will, but at what cost? Consider this. It is commonplace for those on the other side of the fence, those who favor minimal restriction on immigration to echo the admonition of the apostle Paul who once said “where there is no law, neither is there violation,” to cite the many jobs performed, often by illegals, that simply would not get done if they were all shipped back to where they came from. And speaking of illegal behavior, have you ever noticed how routinely “we the people” of this great state and nation flaunt or outright ignore the “highway code?” These rules are law and their violation is illegal. Imagine what the country would look like if every driver who committed an illegal act was deported? Pretty soon only the very young and the very old would be left. Certainly you can dismiss the idea as the product of a mind weakened by years of toil in an ivory tower. But I have a very practical reason for urging you to think seriously about immigration. We need immigrants not only to come, but to stay, to contribute to the continued growth and prosperity of this nation. And you especially need them to help you shore up our soon to falter Medicare program and our eventually to falter Social Security system, unless of course you are prepared to birth a lot more babies than you have been birthing of late.
You and your generation are simply not reproducing at the rate of your grandparents. Meanwhile, their offspring, the baby boomers, will soon be in line behind me drawing on these funds in ever increasing numbers while your generation, depleted as you are by changing lifestyles and different choices will be faced with ever bigger bills. A rational immigration policy that conserves our fundamental values and does not needlessly and cruelly divide families could be the salvation of our nation. And if none of this persuades, let me remind you that our president, wrong about so much, is right about this. We need an immigration policy that welcomes strangers and makes them friends which, unless I am very much mistaken, is also a precept of the faith which so many Americans proclaim, in word, if not in deed.
So there you have it, two thoughts for today, which I hope will inspire you to think bigger thoughts and take bigger actions as you proceed down the path of life. I have enjoyed this brief time with you, even though I did all the talking and you did all the listening, reversing the advice I have just dispensed. But that is the way of things in the academy. There is a form to follow; we all have our appointed roles. Mine is about to end, others will perform theirs, and then you will be free to go on your way to celebrate. Before I stand down, however, I want to share another story with you, an immigrant’s story, told by one whose ancestors came to these shores before there was any law other than the laws of nature and of nature’s God. She was a Cherokee, an elder who was talking with her grandchildren about life. She said to them.
“A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents pride, anger, fear, greed, envy, arrogance, and indifference. The other wolf stands for humility, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope, and love. This fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.” The children were silent for a while, and then one of them asked her grandmother, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee woman replied, “The one you feed.”
Congratulations graduates. It is time for me to say Au revoir, Hasta luego, and, as the Amandabele say in faraway Zimbabwe, Hamba gahle, Go well, and may the sun always enlighten your path wherever it leads.
Professor of Political Science