Remarks from Convocation 2016 -
Let me put forth an early disclaimer. This is not a political speech. I am not advocating for a particular candidate. When I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you as we begin this academic of year of such great promise, I was genuinely conflicted. On the one hand, the ugly political climate that we have all witnessed thus far, coupled with the concern that any comment I make about the presidential race could be construed as either supporting or denouncing one of the candidates, made me not want to touch this topic with a ten-foot pole.
On the other hand, the history teacher in me, the educator, and the proud optimist about our democracy is bothered by the fact that “talking about the election” is now taboo because our politics have become so estranged. I mean, isn’t this what your education is about? Sure, you are here for us to prepare you for college, and perhaps to teach you some viable skills like writing or coding that will help get you a job one day so you spend the rest of your life living in your parents’ basement playing Xbox and eating the leftover meatloaf that your mother made the night before. So your education is certainly about the building of your intellectual selves and the development of useful skills.
But it is also very much about you becoming men and women of great character - to help you become responsible, thoughtful, and educated citizens, who will leave the world that you will soon enter, a better place than how you found it. Not to mention the fact that we only have a presidential election once every four years, and this is a BIG DEAL! How do we teach you to be good citizens of this country if we don’t talk about the election?
Somewhere along the way, our politics, which have worked so well for so long in this country, have started to fail us. We have lost the ability to listen to each other. To “hear the other side.” Our media outlets have become shameless purveyors of entertainment. Our politicians no longer work together. The very concept of compromise for the good of the country seems like a noble sentiment practiced in a different era.
But lest you think this is the ugliest election ever, ask Mr. Wahlgren about the 1828 presidential election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. As a teaser:
The wife of one of the candidates was accused of being an adulteress, and the other candidate was accused of being a pimp... I kid you not.
So I’ll take a safer route - I won’t focus on what either Hillary or Trump have said. Rather, I’d like to leave you with some strategies for navigating the stormy political waters of this presidential election.
This year, we ask all of you to commit to our Core Values. You will see these posted in every classroom. Soon you will see them hanging from the facade of the new Science Cottage. These are values that we believe are important for all members of this community to uphold. They are values we believe are critical to your success in college. They are values we believe will help you live a happier and more successful life. And they can help to guide you, remind you of a set of principles to both evaluate our presidential candidates and govern our actions in the months ahead. They are:
As you have conversations with friends about the candidates and about the issues, make sure that you are doing so with respect for each other and the ideas of others. Steven Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.” Learn to listen and to put yourself in the shoes of someone else.
You are too young to vote, but when you are old enough will you do so? As a citizen of this country, or of any democracy, do you have a RESPONSIBILITY to vote? We are a great democracy and take pride in our balance of powers, our constitution and the words of our founding fathers. Yet only 53% of Americans voted during a presidential election. This ranks 31 out of the 35 most developed countries in terms of voter turnout.
Compassion literally means “suffer together.” It implies that we are moved by the suffering of others to the extent that we seek to relieve that suffering. Compassion should compel us to care about the problems in our country and in the world. If we are authentically compassionate, it should likewise compel us to put aside politics and to compromise in order to find solutions to these problems.
“The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” If we adhere to a code of conduct that is decent and right, that is noble - then we are well-equipped to have constructive conversations and make difficult personal choices. Indeed, one could argue that if you operate from a place of deep respect for others, are a responsible citizen, and show genuine compassion for others, that you are a person of great integrity.
Our final Core Value is pretty important at an academic institution. Knowledge is power, and yet there is a confounding anti-intellectual thread that has seeped into this election. What do you do when opinion or belief prevails over fact, when someone makes a case for something not supported by any facts? The American Psychological Association recently published a study that shows we often stand by a belief even when it is not supported by facts. Well, yes you still need to be respectful in your conversations with each other. Yes you need to be compassionate and show a concern for others. But you darn well can ask that a statement is supported by real facts. This is the essence of knowledge - Don’t believe something unless there is evidence to support it. Has it been checked? Has it been tested? Just because a presidential candidate says something, it does not make it true.
I hope you will look to these core values as you measure the worth of our presidential candidates this year, and to guide you as you have conversations with each other about important issues facing our country with appropriate grace.
The good news is that there is hope when I look out at you. Real change won’t come about in the halls of Congress but through this generation of young people. You hold the power to bring about positive change, to move us forward, to revive our sense of community, who knows... perhaps even to save our democracy.
I wish you all the best this year!