This Spring, Samantha Retrosi delivered the following graduation address at her SUNY Plattsburgh commencement.
Three years ago I found myself pouring over the SUNY Plattsburgh course catalogue to fulfill the university’s world systems requirement. I chose a study of the history of the Caribbean. About a month after I had entered Dr. Voss’s class, his academic leadership had drawn me into the Latin American Studies program. At the time, I was unaware of the significance of this decision, the imprint it would leave upon my character and the impact it would have in forming my life’s direction.
Today I stand before you utterly transformed by the path upon which I set out that day. My academic community has become my spiritual home. Leaving this university is truly bittersweet, because it is here that my intellectual awakening has occurred; it is here I have felt most gratified, stimulated, empowered and committed. It is here I have found my passion, my true identity. All of this is a reflection of the transformative capacity of the program in which I have been immersed, and those who have invested in my academic development.
But today marks the day that we must move away from our experiences at SUNY Plattsburgh, to the world that awaits us outside these halls. And, to be forthright, this world is sick. We stand at the precipice of unprecedented responsibility. We are being held accountable for the mistakes of our predecessors: those who have flattened our economy with their own greed, those who have orchestrated the greatest level of income inequality in the history of our nation, and those who have destroyed our future prospects for employment.
We are the recipients of a legacy of inadequate public policy that taints our future. We inherit unprecedented debt, saddled with the obligations of those who came before us, as well as those we ourselves incur along with the rising price of education in this country. This year, student debt surpassed credit card debt, topping $1 trillion. Yet this will not be the extent of our trials. We also inherit an energy crisis that threatens the most basic underpinnings of our future sustainability. We inherit an economy in which jobs are auctioned off internationally to the lowest bidder, and where multinational corporations outsource capital in order to avoid taxation. We inherit a revolving door of technologies that seduce us into the purchase of each new product and the isolating glow of a neon monitor or computer browser. We inherit a media system that floods our minds with so much information that we no longer know where to find the facts. We inherit an environment that is clogged by pollutants, degraded by the failure of our society to value the big picture and long-term sustainability. Our form of globalization is complicated by the violence of both military conflict and skyrocketing poverty rates created by a lack of transparency in our institutions. There is no question that the challenges we face are formidable.
We must acknowledge that our generation is truly unique. We will live our lives out in a different context than all those who have come before us. Our inheritance is a global order, a reality defined by international citizenship. Can we re-orient ourselves to a world without borders? Can we find our way into a spirit of global communion, rather than one of competition, violence and discord? I believe that the prerequisite to this healing is the rejection of the concept of “The Other.” This rejection is fundamental to the formation of policies that can heal the wounds inherent to our sickly form of globalization.
Why do we continue to divide ourselves along social, gender and racial lines? Why do we create imaginary boundaries amongst ourselves and our fellow humans, instead of seeking to see the commonalities that unite us? When will we begin to understand that the well-being of “The Other” is, in fact, the well-being of each of ourselves? What will it take to tear down the boundaries that have left us with conflict, discord, genocide and exploitation?
As evidenced by the rise of the Tea Party on the one hand and the Occupy Movement on the other, no matter what side of the aisle you fall upon, there are so many among us who recognize that something is just not right. We are not blind to structural inequality. The issues our society faces are not about Right and Left. They are not about Liberal or Conservative beliefs. No. The most significant questions we must address are about the Haves and the Have-Nots. Those who have economic power and those who do not. Those who have purchased political power and those who cannot afford it. Those in our society who matter, and those who do not. One thing is for sure: The Haves do not discriminate among themselves. They do not discriminate between black and white, citizen or immigrant, Democrat or Republican. So why do we? Now is not the time for division. Only when we reject outdated modes of political discourse defined by only two options can we then overcome the division of the disenfranchised, coming together to demand a different kind of society.
While a similar balance of power is surfacing in nations throughout the world, given the strategic significance of U.S. power in global affairs, the reforms we pursue here will resound on a global scale. The pre-requisite of structural change is a change in values. We must reject the directives fed to us by the divisive allure of the dying American Dream, which tells us to pursue self-interest at the cost of all else. Now is not the time for individualistic pursuits. Now is the time for community. Now is the time to reject division both at home and abroad. Now is the time we must empower ourselves by empowering one another.
When Whitney Houston passed away in February, I was struck with an odd sense of discomfort. Across the globe and here in our own society, millions of people continue to suffer under the burden of poverty, starvation, war and genocide, yet not much is said about this tragedy. Instead a 24-hour news reel rattles off each detail of the untimely death of a faded, drug-addicted pop star, and little is said about profoundly more important topics. Graduates, let us seek a higher truth than celebrity worship, status obsession and infatuation with our own material pursuits.
Let us be on the forefront of a better society.
We must refuse to think about the past four years as simply a means to a job, a way to find career success and financial gain. Let us begin here to re-examine the values that tell us to continue with the status quo. We should view our education as enlightenment, as empowerment, as a way to begin to find our way back to one another. The good news is that the future is ours. We have the power to usher in a different system. We are tomorrow’s leaders. The ability to create a different arrangement is in our own hands.
We must not bow down to those in front of us, who tell us which subjects are appropriate for us to believe in, debate or engage with. Clearly the results produced by those in power have fallen short of their promises. Their policies have failed the vast majority of our citizenry on both a domestic and global scale. And despite their shortcomings, our predecessors have transmitted the repercussions of their actions to our generation. Their directives hold no credibility, and we should not adhere to them.
Graduates, with the gift of these diplomas, allow us recognize and be grateful for our privilege. And yet we must also feel the weight of that privilege. In this world that we inherit, the playing field has never been level. Those who find themselves in a position of privilege are also those who become responsible for leveraging that privilege in order to give some of it back to others who have not been graced with this random gift.
In “The Republic,” Socrates suggests that in order for an ideal city-state to ever come into being, its guardians and leaders must be lovers of wisdom and knowledge: Philosopher Kings and Queens. Though today we leave this campus, diploma in hand, let us never cease to be students. Let us continue to seek a truth that is independent from the sound bites of media conglomerates competing for airtime and viewers.
Each and every one of us can walk out of these doors as philosopher kings and queens. For we are armed with the greatest weapon of all: knowledge. We have at our disposal an arsenal with which it is possible to usher in a revolution in values. We have the power to begin a new chapter in the history of this nation, and this globe. My fellow graduates, let us embrace the chaos that is the future. We must be the change we wish to see in the world.