Wendell Phillips speech

Using your education to change the world

Four years quickly pass us by and, regrettably, we spend very little time reflecting on the purpose of our education at Tufts. But now, during our last weekend on campus, it is especially important that we reflect on this experience, that we take note of who we are, where we come from and where we hope to go.

Eitan Hersh © Melody Ko

We are reminded this weekend that we come from many different places and from disparate circumstances. We have all come to Tufts to learn together, and we see that what unifies us, in spite of our differences, is that our families have placed a high value on the education of their children and that they, along with our mentors, have guided us to being thoughtful and successful students. I think that it is our responsibility now, in their presence, to honor our parents and teachers by reflecting on what this education has meant.

It seems to me that Tufts has had three educational goals for us. The first has been to give us a liberal education. To embrace the value of liberty, we need to know something of all the major disciplines out there. This is the purpose of the liberal arts and of our beloved distribution requirements. We have now explored the arts and the sciences, the humanities and foreign languages, and we have selected an area of focus at which we can succeed. In this process, we see, amazingly, that people find meaning in fields different from our own field of interest. And with our divergent interests and skills combined, we each contribute our part to a consummate society.

The second goal has been to give us a vocational training—to teach us how to get jobs and do well at them. Some of us are here primarily for this reason. We hope that we can work hard and enjoy our labor and the benefit we reap from it.

Courageous citizenship
The third goal of a Tufts education is one we hear much about but one that remains somewhat of a mystery. Some call it “education for active citizenship.” Even though this idea has become sort of a motto at Tufts, it still may not exactly be clear what that means. This goal—the goal of cultivating thoughtful, courageous, active citizenship—is the goal that matters most. If Tufts is not graduating a class dedicated to exemplary citizenship, then this institution has not done its job. So before we graduate tomorrow, let’s get clear about what it means to be active and effective citizens.

Each of us has come here from different circumstances. We are poor; we are rich. We are white, black, gay, straight and of many religions. Tomorrow when we graduate, we become part of the educated elite. By the good fortune of our circumstance, by our opportunity to learn here, we now and for the rest of our lives must make a choice. We either choose to accept the burden of leadership—to use our education to strengthen our communities, countries and world, to care about the places we inhabit and the people with whom we live. Or we choose to serve only our personal interest and ignore the world. We either use our education for the communal benefit, or we ignore civic obligations and forsake our communities.

And why can we not just mind our own business and seek our personal agendas? We cannot do this because we realize that our liberty, our ability to do as we please, requires our communities and our world to be safe, stable and free. When there are people among us who are enslaved, or in pain or angry, and we don’t care, we are implicitly saying that we are not interested in freedom or justice, neither for others nor for ourselves.

Learned lives
So what do we do? Tomorrow after we graduate, how do we go off and act as good citizens? I’d like to point out four ways. First, we must continue to learn. It is the responsibility of active citizens to take an interest in their lives and in their world. Thus, we can never stop reading newspapers and books, learning from our friends and neighbors and educating ourselves. A life continuously dedicated to learning is a paramount goal of citizenship because it is the only way to refine our views and reach closer and closer to the notions of truth and justice.

Second, we must live conscientiously. Every day when we are faced with choices about how we interact with other people and with our environment, we have to act in virtuous ways. We must leave here and lead lives of good deeds. We must help our neighbors when they need us, teach our neighbors when they are ignorant, learn from them when we are ignorant, defend them when they are being wronged and oppose them when they are offending. Much more than acting as smart people or as strategic people, we must set the highest priority on living as good and caring people. That is the second aspect of exemplary citizenship.

Third, citizenship is about living as a member of a community, and part of living in a community is bridging the differences among individuals. At Tufts, some of us have thought quite a lot about our differences of race, ethnicity, religion, politics and others, but I want to point out one community divide that we don’t spend enough time talking about—that is the financial divide that separates most Tufts students from the rest of the world. As America is being increasingly populated by a small number of very wealthy people and a vast number of lower-income people, it is time for the students and the faculty to begin seriously discussing the financial status of students here and the appropriate uses of their wealth.

Before coming to Tufts, I had never seen so many people with nearly unlimited access to their parents’ credit cards, people with SUVs and sports cars, people clad in designer clothing and dripping with lavish accessories. To me, this kind of conspicuous consumption that is all too present at Tufts is deeply problematic behavior, and we need to start talking about it more. Of course, in our country and in our world, earning and spending money are not evil, but if Tufts aims to create a virtuous student body, we need to begin scrutinizing foolish, extravagant use of wealth just as we should scrutinize blameworthy behavior like racism and other forms of intolerance. In the strikingly unequal world we are soon entering, part of our civic obligation must be to find ways to use money thoughtfully and beneficially. In this world, we really must condemn excessive consumption like that found in some circles at Tufts. It is corrosive to our community, and it stands in the face of exemplary citizenship. Especially as the university moves to create a more economically diverse student body, I hope the faculty, staff and students begin to find ways to talk about economic disparity on our campus.

A philanthropic life
We, the graduates, must also do our part by being mindful of the vast economic inequality that exists in the world. All of us have to make a commitment—not just to a life of good deeds, but to a philanthropic life. We must be a generation that takes pleasure in earning money so that we can use it to help our communities solve our common problems. And we cannot wait until we are 50 or 40 or even 30 to begin. From this moment, we must dedicate part of our salaries to charitable causes. Charity is an integral component of active citizenship.

A final way that we can live as active citizens is by taking an interest in politics. As frustrating and senseless and sometimes-unfair as the political world is, we must involve ourselves in the political process if we want to solve the problems that face us. The drive toward apathy and apolitical behavior is very strong. We have to help our friends and neighbors realize that politics can’t just be left to politicians, can’t just be left to the political science and international relations majors. All of us as autonomous, free citizens need to be political.

As educated citizens, we cannot blindly take sides either. We cannot blindly follow a party line. We have to infuse politics with reason. We have to scrutinize the important political decisions of the day and make our thoughtful voices heard.

When infusing politics with reason, we must realize that our generation must do better than those before us in respecting religion but in keeping faith far away from politics. Our time in college has largely been defined by the events of September 11. And more than September 11 has cast a shadow of mass terrorism over our class. It has cast an even larger shadow of extreme religious behavior, both abroad and in America.

We are in trouble when citizens of this country or of others believe that they know what God thinks about politics, that God will save them if they believe in one thing or another and that all who oppose them are destined to rot forever in hell. We need a better balance between embracing religious practice for the good it serves and at the same time coming down very hard on those who think they can access the will of God.

Reason and politics
When our neighbors say, for instance, that homosexuality is an affront to God and that gays in this country should not be allowed to marry, we must be very clear about our response: Such people are enemies of liberty, and they are bigots, and no religious dictate, no biblical passage, justifies their position. Of all the political questions that have arisen in our time in college, the issue of gay marriage is especially significant because unlike most other issues, this issue does not have a reasonable oppositional side. This is where reasonable liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, must unite and sharply reject those who believe that their religious faith should determine the lives of their neighbors. And it is especially the obligation of religious people, of which I am one, to make very clear the separation that must exist between faith and politics. Neither hatred, nor bigotry, violence nor any political position is justifiable on religious grounds. Only reason—reason that we can all understand and debate—must be our method of operating in politics.

When we encounter our political opponents, we need to respect them by challenging them and by engaging them in meaningful dialogue, as we have learned to do at Tufts. We must encounter our opponents civilly and sensibly and try to convince them of our views. We must also be open enough to hear their views and allow ourselves to be swayed, if reason dictates so. Thoughtful political participation is the fourth component of active citizenship.

If the 1,200 or so students in our class can fulfill these demanding civic expectations—living lives of education, of good deeds, of philanthropy and of political activism, what can we accomplish? With the knowledge, experiences and skills we have gained here, we can adjust the course of the world.

History has a remarkable way of repeating itself. The current issue of gay marriage is not the first time civil rights have been violated in this country. The current battles in the Middle East are not the first time civilizations have clashed. As citizens who care to work toward a better society, we have to find ways to guide our communities away from repeating a history of more war, more oppression and more pain and instead move toward more peace, more compassion and more wisdom. We need to make sure that the domestic and international issues of our time do not replicate the dark moments of history, but instead are beacons of progress in a quest for peaceful coexistence.

Lessons from the past
Let me just close with a personal story. In the fall of 1941, 60 fall semesters before our first year, my grandfather entered college. That semester, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan just as New York and Washington were attacked 60 years later. My grandfather, at age 17, enlisted in the military reserves and within months, was called to duty. In the years that followed, he served as an infantry rifleman in four European campaigns.

He came back to finish college and was asked to be the graduation speaker at his commencement in 1947. In his opening remarks, he said this: “Our classmates have all had extraordinary experiences. Most have faced the hell of war, and a few are not with us today because we have failed to give our full measure of devotion to mankind.” Most of us here today have not had to see the hell of war. The generation that came back from World War II and the generation that followed tried to give their full measure of devotion to humankind. But, of course, they have not completed the task. We may not complete it either, but we should spend our lives trying. History repeats itself, and we need to ensure that it is the history of justice and reconciliation that gets repeated.

My grandfather left the battlefields of Europe with the hope of leaving the history of bloodshed behind. He came back to America, stood before his classmates and said this: “As the living of this class, we know we have great responsibilities to human society, to those who gave their lives that we might return to school. It is our task, like that of every educated group, to continue in search of knowledge for our mutual benefit. We pray that we may never become cynical, that we may never believe that ‘all is vanity and vexation of spirit.’ But rather let our minds remain curious that we may continue our pursuit of knowledge and truth, that this pursuit may lead us tomorrow to a society of mankind which knows no intolerance, no bigotry, no prejudice, no hatred.”

My grandfather had the hope that he fought in a war to end all wars, but enemies of liberty abound both in our country and throughout the world. We have not been bequeathed a utopia from the preceding generations, but we have been given a clear directive of hope, articulated by my grandfather in his address: We must use our education to work to bring about a world without war, a society without injustice, a community without fear and hatred. This is the legacy of all the classes that have come before ours, that we will commit ourselves to and that we will pass on to the future.

Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from a speech Hersh gave during baccalaureate services on May 21 as the winner of the 2005 Wendell Phillips Memorial Scholarship. He is spending the summer traveling in Thailand before beginning work as a research assistant for the Progressive Policy Institute, the think-tank of the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington, D.C., as a 2005–06 Dutko Fellow. The 10-month fellowship is sponsored by the Dan Dutko Memorial Foundation in partnership with the University College of Citizenship and Public Service.