The Graduation Speech I Never Gave

May 1, 2012

We have gathered here today to celebrate the end of one story and the beginning of another. Our transition brings excitement – friends and family show up in support, pictures are taken, mimosas are made, and we revel in our achievement. It also awakens a bit of anxiety, as we look out at our world and realize it’s big and open and we each have to choose our path before it gets chosen for us. But mostly, I believe our graduation from UC Berkeley offers an opportunity for reflection, a chance to take stock of who we are and how our personal narratives collide to create the world we’re walking into.

We chose international studies for reason. We wanted to know why the human world is the way it is. Holding mom’s hand in the check out line at Target, we looked at the “Made in Malaysia” t-shirt tag and wondered, where’s that? Do they have Targets there too? When we refused to finish our vegetables at dinner, there were always those children in Africa that would eat them. It was just a matter of getting them UPSed there before they spoiled. I was eleven when the Twin Towers fell. We watched the war on TV. Desert Storm was a video game.

We came from all different directions, and showed up at the steps of Sproul looking for answers. We were drawn to the invisible strings that connect human activity across the face of our planet. Why are wars are fought, why do some people have freedom and others don’t, why do some people have food and others don’t? Was their good fortune predicated on others’ subjection? Was ours? And was it intentional or inadvertent?

We took classes about poverty, economics, development, resource distribution, media, race, biology, evolution. We turned to our collective past in an effort to understand the forces that brought us to where we now stood within a complex, interdependent world. And we learned that, as far as the most qualified experts know, it’s complicated. Scientists have more questions than answers about who we are, how we behave, or how our decisions build on one another to decide the course of history. It’s hard to say what caused any single event. Was the U.S. invasion of Iraq a product of executive decision or the public reaction to 9/11? Or was it the historic artifact of U.S. oil dependency, or something else, or a combination?

While the driving forces of our actions may be blurred, but it’s easy to see that they produce winners and losers. Our walk across this stage is testament to the fact that we’ve so far won history’s lottery. Personally, as white male receiving a degree in higher education, my privilege is undeniable.

Scholars have been trying to explain human inequality for centuries. Adam Smith blamed government monopolies, Marx pointed to capitalism. Others have emphasized culture, environment, religion, or talent. For centuries, Europe’s expansion and dominance across the world was evidence that the Western “race” was more innovative, industrious, and generally superior to those that came second or third in the marathon for power. Even into the late 20th century, people have justified our “First” world status on intrinsic talent and drive.

We know now that this is not the case. The societies of our descendants were no more clever than those civilizations of Africa, Asia, or South/Central America, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Before there were national borders or the word “European,” nomadic tribes in the Fertile Crescent stopped foraging and looked to farming as a more effective means of survival. Strategies for growing and storing food quickly expanded across Eurasia, reaching the societies we now call the “Global North.” Agriculture and sedentary living allowed them to build boats and train armies and conquer the world faster than anyone else. Our standard of living was not decided, but predicated on a long path of lucky breaks, from the invention of the wheel to the engine to the Internet. We, and those who made us, were left with the spoils of past conquest, and used them to turn a profit.

Do we deserve our degrees more than anyone else? Probably not. Definitely not any more than any other kid that wants to learn. So how do we justify our privilege? I’ve tried to explain it in terms of human history – a series of fortunate events for some and unfortunate events for others. But history is not that innocent, and we have uncovered how our standard of living has been predicated on the exploitation of millions of people who we’ll never see. The European empires grew rich by extracting raw materials from the America’s, Africa and Asia, converting them into manufactured goods, and selling them back to their colonial “subjects.” The indigenous peoples of Central and South America were forced at gunpoint to mine and carry gold to ships headed for Spain and Portugal. The U.S. jump-started its economy with the slave trade, and has since used coercion and force to guarantee monopolies abroad. Under this light, maybe we deserve less than the historically oppressed. Whether or not my ancestors were conscious of the suffering implied by their privilege, it happened. Should they be held accountable? Should I?

We finish our studies at Berkeley with an acute understanding of our agency in creating the world in which we live. We recognize what the historical accumulation of wealth has meant for the billions of people that haven’t accumulated wealth, and as we begin to decide how we want to make a living our world (what I want to do, where I want to be, who I want to work for…), we understand that our actions can either exacerbate or alleviate the human condition on earth. The biggest question now is how to best use these resources to secure a stable future for those who may follow after. In my four years here, the most profound realization for me has been that there it is no longer possible to do that without thinking about the children living on the other side of the world. Whether we like it or not, we are all now more intimately connected than ever before, and the success or failure of one is predicated on the success or failure of everyone else. We cannot end extreme poverty, or solve climate change, or do anything that we plan on doing without the rest of the world’s help. Our problems are global, but so are the solutions.

We do not leave this university afraid for our future, but ready to redefine how humans live on this planet. We are not bitter of past blunders, but aware of our common fate and thrilled at the challenge. I end with a quote: “Our planet is facing the greatest problems it has ever faced. Ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored, because this is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive.”

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