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178 - Graduates, and Today's Loss of Truth and Integrity
Putin and Trump, Conjoined
This is the season of college and university graduations. At many, if not all, of these joyful commencements, as they are known, the institutional president and a featured speaker brought in from the outside offer welcome bromides. They encourage the newly emancipated young people who have finished four exacting years at a liberal arts college, a technical institution, or a major university to embrace and employ their accomplishments in order to help the world and themselves. As President Kennedy excited Americans at his inauguration in 1961,
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man,”
so commencement speakers urge their eager listeners to use their newly obtained talents well, and to better the world into which they have entered.
By their very nature, and within the genre that they embody, these addresses to young people about to commence their heady post-college years are intended to be inspirational. They are designed to be uplifting, encouraging, wise, benevolent, even metaphysical. Sometimes they challenge the respectful but impatient listeners to soar to imaginable lofty personal heights. Sometimes they urge the black-gowned assemblage to persevere, no matter the hard and trying days ahead. Occasionally they give advice about how to cope with a troubled world. And in these post-Covid times presidents congratulate students and students congratulate each other on surviving remote classrooms, interrupted episodes of Covid-imposed isolation, even meals delivered to dorm rooms and the consequent loss of togetherness. As a smiling Gloria Steinem told a Tufts graduation many years ago: “You’ll remember nothing that I am saying to you now, except the good cheer that I bring and the warm platitudes that I wrote late last night to inspire you to visions of greatness and achievement.”
Yet, this year’s graduates have far more to worry about than their speech givers have let on. It is not that their job prospects are less promising than prior classes or that graduate, medical, law, and business school entrance exams are harder than before and acceptances fewer.
Nor is it that there is more inflation than they might have expected: that bread costs more, that prices at Starbucks and in ale houses have shot up, or that rental insurance rates have risen enormously.
What is new and frightening for those newly fledged from college, whether scientists or English majors, is that almost everything that they have been learning and much of the dialogue that they have absorbed inwardly and taken for granted for four years is not shared by a hostile and paranoid real world.
Truth, a search for truth, and using evidence to come to conclusions have been forsaken by powerful movers and shakers in the world that graduates are about to enter. Candidates for the presidency of these United States refuse publicly to accept the results of the 2020 national election. They utter not occasional half-truths or questionable truths but falsehoods that pile up against each other like flotsam butting up against forlorn Hudson River piers, sloshing back and forth with the rising and ebbing tides.
Someone elected to the House of Representatives lies about not only his resume, about his athletic accomplishments, about the universities he falsely claimed to have attended, about his mother and his mother’s experiences and whereabouts, and about every aspect of his finances. He may end up in prison on federal charges, but his fellow Republicans refuse to remove him from office.
Other representatives claim worries about real monies when they use power over a wholly technical matter – raising the official U. S. debt limit in order to continue paying already accrued borrowings – to imperil global finance and gain leverage over the Biden administration’s policies. The falsity of their efforts, and their mendacity, is evident. Again, the prevailing discourse is entirely bogus. Taking funds from the underprivileged and imposing new work requirements on those who are struggling is both immoral and inefficient. But it provides red meat for constituencies who have been lied to, over and over, by women and men theoretically elected to serve, not destroy, America as we were taught to know it. Fresh graduates deserve integrity, not calumny from the political reality makers of their new surround.
How can freshly matured graduates, fed years of intellectual discourse and heady conversation about meaning and principle, enter a world that is distorted as never before by persons of power and ambition? Philosophers have carefully discussed moral matters and raised questions in their classes about the resolving of ethical conundrums. But those important considerations fall on deafened ears.
Some commencements may deal with such dilemmas. Some may even warn their new graduates to beware the dark days of ethical confusion that await them, and engulfs all of us here and abroad.
Few commencement speakers declaim of a world deteriorated in terms of discourse. Earlier generations graduated into a world consumed with a nuclear arms race, with an atomic Armageddon around the corner. The Cold War was made us anxious. But the defenders of freedom won the Cold War and Soviet Communism collapsed in an all-consuming bonfire of the vanities. That was supposed to be “the end of history.”
But today’s world for our new graduates is both more perilous and more irrational – hence full of endless angst. Putin’s Russia invades Ukraine, ending peace in Europe but, even more significantly, ending the new legal and moral order that we thought had succeeded Soviet imperialism and made all parts of the world more secure and more successful.
This month’s graduating classes are surrounded by uncertainty and acres of deceit in as manner unknown to their predecessors. Putin lies about the very existence and composition of Ukraine, lies about his motives, lies about what he and his military forces are about, lies about atrocities, lies about why he shells civilians in cities, and abducts orphans who are not really orphans. And he does so for reasons of personal vanity. The merciless invasion of Ukraine kills the innocent and destroys whole cities for no strategic purpose.
We must all celebrate and salute the graduates of 2023. But we must also remove their veils of innocence. We can no longer promise our new graduates an honest or a safe world. We cannot even suggest that they are entering an era with hard problems and yet well-intentioned leaders who know right from wrong. Wokeness is not the danger. Nor are the words in this book or that book. Let us therefore hope that a new generation of trained scientists, humanists, and artists can re-assert the critical importance of integrity in personal, political, and international dealings. Otherwise, must these newly minted graduates -- and the rest of us -- wander aimlessly in a valley of despair – and perish?