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Responsibility of the Educated

by Mary Catherine Swanson, AVID Founder


Chancellor Katehi, Honored Guests,  Graduates, Parents, and Friends,

I am honored to be with you today as we celebrate the privilege we have been given to live in a country that has provided us, regardless of our backgrounds, with the opportunity to learn at the highest levels in one of the top universities in the nation.  Today we honor your completion of at least seventeen years of academic commitment. None of us could have imagined the collective hours of toil and sacrifice by both you and your families that have made this moment possible.  Through good fortune and hard work, you now join the favored minority within our society, the educated minority with multiple college degrees.

Within a few hours most of you will scatter to the four winds literally and figuratively.  You will go in many directions professionally, intellectually, and geographically.

There will be fond farewells among friends who have laughed, and loved, and cried together for the past several years.  Now distant ports of call beckon to each of you.

All of us, family and friends, rejoice with you at this exciting point in your lives, but this is just a beginning.  The commitments behind this moment are but a prologue to all that lies before you as you now chart the next stage of your journey.

As you leave these halls of learning for your careers, your consciences as well as your minds will be tested at every turn.  As certificated, diplomaed, educated people, what is your responsibility for which this university has prepared you?  You undoubtedly already know what you will demand of this world, but what will you contribute to it?

Whatever answers you find to this question will contain elements of character and conscience.  Your life will never be greater than the conscience that powers it and the human dignity it inspires in others.  Your lives will be made richer in the end more by what you have shared and inspired than by what you have listed in your book of financial assets.

As you reflect on your college career and the wonderful opportunities you have been afforded here, you have become cognizant of the good fortune we have to live in the United States, the only country in the world that accepts everyone into our educational system regardless of background and tries to address their needs so that they, too, may reach the heights you celebrate today.  And as you ponder this amazing republican experiment, you have also begun to become aware of the many obstacles this goal presents to us, and you are awakened to the responsibility of the educated.

We witness acts undermining our notion of democracy and freedom each day.  Some of these threats come from outside our country where terrorist organizations recruit from their own neighborhoods and bring the disaffected and fanatic to camps in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan where these malcontents are trained in tactics of terror.  But gangs and other fanatic groups in America use these same strategies, luring those who yearn to belong to a power structure into drugs and violence. You see, acts of exclusion, and the inevitable ignorance which follow, lead people to seek revenge against their oppressors whether they be those who live in poverty or students left behind in the American school system – those denied the opportunity to attend a university such as UCD.  Denying people an education leads to on-going acts of exclusion and ignorance, with hatred and violence the subsequent consequence.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a native of Transylvania, captured by the Nazis at the age of 15 and imprisoned in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, tells us that “political and religious fanatics are undereducated and therefore simplify matters.  Intellectual exercise is distasteful and the art and beauty of dialog is alien.  Other people’s ideas or theories are of no use.  They feel distain toward educators whom they believe spend precious time analyzing, dissecting, and debating philosophical notions and hypotheses.  They are never bothered by difficult problems.  Everything is right or wrong, black or white, and, therefore, can be easily solved with a bullet or a bomb.”

It is clear that without access to a quality education, people are subjected to becoming what others intend for them to become thus enabling the few in power and privileges to weave the fabric of society.  Throughout the world we witness the struggle of the downtrodden to gain access to basic human rights and freedom.  The undereducated and dispossessed come to hate that of which they are not a part.  They suffer leaders who are self-appointed, whose goal is to destroy the principles promoted by an education based on the values of freedom. 

So we must fight a war against ignorance.  How must we fight to win this war?  How will we win the war and not just the battle?  The answer is that we must educate well all of our citizens, just as you have been educated.  We must do whatever it takes to educate all who come to school in America, for if we don’t, we will all suffer the consequences.  We have a choice: defeat ignorance or be defeated by it.

To this day I am stunned that I have been recognized as a graduate of this university for fulfilling a teacher’s job in developing AVID, a program to help those who are less fortunate in our country to fulfill the American Dream of rising from the bottom through hard work and determination to take their rightful places on the playing field of American society.  Assuring this kind of opportunity for people and thereby honoring their dignity is my responsibility as a teacher, and it must be yours, too.  You have been given the tools and you must now exert leadership in response to the educational challenges which will face you.  We, the educated, must affirm ourselves as a community of conscience.

C.S. Lewis points to the essence of education in a moving and powerful statement in the concluding volume of his space trilogy:

“If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family – anything you like – at any given point in history you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is less room for indecision, and choices are even more momentous.  Good is always getting better, and bad is always getting worse.  The possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing.  The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”

I submit to you that the potential for neutrality in the face of hard issues has disappeared.  We the educated must see ourselves as a community of conscience dedicated to providing an excellent education for all.  Education gives us the wit and will to reshape civilization closer to our ideals than we have been able to do in the past.  Education gives us the capacity to move people out of the shadows of the past and into a new era of light.  Our educated, diverse masses can be the key to spreading freedom’s light to nations trapped in darkness.  Our military defends democracy, but only educators can create democracy.  America’s influence as an ideological model for achieving liberty throughout the world grows with every student we educate. To quote Eighteenth Century England’s Samuel Johnson:  “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

You and I have the choice to use our gifts for improving the human condition or for being passive and making it worse, but it’s easy to see that in effect we have no choice at all.  Integrity demands that we educate all well in order to uphold human dignity.

As you assume your places in this world in the third millennium, I urge you to build your own sphere of influence – whatever your personal destiny may be.  Your generation must now pick up the torch that will light the way so that all may see the vision that empowered you to experience this high moment of personal accomplishment.

We must define our times rather than be defined by them.  Because our education at this university has taught us to become strong and determined leaders, this will not be an age of ignorance and terror.  The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.

And so as those of us who graduated from this university in the 60’s have seen the advent of competent medicine with the arrival of penicillin, antibiotics and sulfa drugs, have seen the almost casual cruelty of racial segregation end, have seen the advancement of women in the work place,  have seen the era of technology born, and have seen the struggle for freedom ring around the world, we pass the torch of unimagined possibilities on to you.

Thank you for allowing me to share this special day with you.  My highest hopes and very best wishes are extended to each of you.

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