| The following iare John Hope Franklin’s commencement remarks presented during Wesleyan 174th Commencement Ceremonies on May 28. Franklin is professor of history, emeritus at Duke University.
A video clip of Franklin’s speech can be found at: http://condor.wesleyan.edu/openmedia/ur-media/video/comm_06/FranklinSansIntro.mov.
This is a glorious, memorable, exciting occasion and each time that I have the opportunity to participate in this ritual, even after my 50th anniversary of receiving my own bachelors degree, my excitement has not abated. I am greatly honored, therefore, Mr. President, that you and your colleagues have invited me here, not only to say a few words to those particularly, but to join them in becoming an honorary classmate as they leave this hallowed institution. I join with them in appreciating once more the benefits, as well as the challenges, of higher education.
Although I could envy you who graduate today for your academic achievement, I will not do so. That would be both selfish and unseemly. Instead, I will add my congratulations and best wishes for what you have done and hope that what you have learned here will bring credit to you and to those whom you will serve, so that your efforts will redound to the benefit of society in general.
You have had a remarkable opportunity here to receive an education comparable to that of any place that you could have obtained anywhere. That is because Wesleyan University and its benefactors have assembled here a faculty and facility of which we can all be proud and of which you have every reason to be grateful. Higher education in the United States is a modern miracle. A century ago only a very tiny fraction of Americas men and women had access to higher education. Most were compelled to be content with secondary school education, and in some rare instances, ad hoc training to prepare for a career in industry or business.
Today, those who have little idea of what they wish to do with their lives postpone the decision until after college or later, a luxury that some would regard as frivolous. Some say as casually as they remark about the weather, that they will take a year off to rest and to play and to think. Congratulations. Be my guest!
As you pursue your own careers and pause to contemplate the future, I very much hope that you will find time — take time — to work for the improvement of our society. Not long ago, a victorious presidential candidate said during his victory speech that for the next four years his agenda would be “putting people first.” I am not persuaded that this was his watchword for the ensuing four years, but I sincerely hope that “putting people first” will be your resolution for a much longer period of four years.
It is difficult to imagine, for example, a situation where our schools could be worse than they are at present. It has been a source of great embarrassment for our schools at all levels to rank far below the standards that a great nation can reasonably expect to maintain. And it is equally embarrassing to discover that most of the nation’s educational system could well be designated a disaster area.
You know the scenario as well as anyone: ungovernable students, rampant gangs, drug and alcohol abuse extending down into the middle schools, an over-emphasis on athletics and an under-emphasis on serious study and academic achievement. And the best our government in Washington can do is to pay a private publisher a quarter of a million dollars to write a column praising No Child Left Behind. And others similar in attitude, are using the resources of the government to develop a viable, workable program to improve education and its accessibility to all of our children.
We wring our hands and wonder how and why the Asians surpass us in some things and the Europeans have the edge in other things. This need not be. What better way for you who graduate today to make a proper beginning than to make a solemn resolve to rescue our schools from their present degraded status, and thus assist in providing our students with the opportunity to start a better life.
One of the most rewarding experiences you can possibly have is to guide some child or some adult in education, even the ability to learn to read and write. I had that experience when I was 20 years old, during my first year as a graduate student at Harvard University. One evening, during my first month in Cambridge, a man twice my age, who lived a floor above me in the rooming house that I lived in, rapped softly on my door and I invited him in. He said that he needed help in making out the words in the poorly written letter that he had received that day and he wondered if I could help him in reading it. When I looked at the letter, I saw that it was well-written, and I wondered, to myself of course, who had been reading his letters to him.
When I completed the task of reading the letter to my visitor, I suggested to him that it would be a good idea if he and I could work together and brush up on his reading. He protested that I did not have time, but it was obvious that he welcomed the invitation. I told him that I would take the time. If he would come to my room at five o’clock each evening, I could work with him for about 45 minutes, just before I would leave to wash dishes at a club where I earned my evening meal. For the next eight months he and I worked together six days a week, and by the end of the term, I who knew nothing about the teaching of English had transformed a person from illiteracy to one who could read and write simple sentences. Two days before I received my Master of Arts degree, my student for the first time in his life wrote a letter to his family in Virginia. During the week that I graduated from Harvard, I can tell you that the most exciting thing that happened to me that week was not receiving my own degree but to read a letter that this older man had written to his family. It was this experience, more than any other that inspired me to dedicate myself to the educational enterprise.
Thus, I did not need to leave my rooming house to step down from the ivory tower and engage in a modern time for improving the community. You may not have the privilege of teaching an illiterate person to read, but you can certainly be a voice for your concern about the school system in your community, about the need to make it organized in order to give evidence of your strength as you make representation about the needs of your community.
Those of us who are not physical scientists can do little more than stand on the sidelines, wringing our hands knowing and caring that this world of ours can go and what a bright place, or to go slowly from strangulation or suffocation. If you are a social scientist, you know that our institutions at home seem unable to preserve their own integrity, while the crises in the larger world seems susceptible to greater disruption than they have ever witnessed in the last four years.
Whatever your fields are and whatever the specifics subjects you have received you have pursued, you are infinitely better prepared for a career than any preceding generation. Not only is there more to know, but you in fact know more than your own predecessors. And if the ivory tower ever existed, it existed in the minds of those who never understood the nature and mission of Wesleyan University.
For those of you who graduate today, act as if the ivory tower will never exist. So in the days ahead, if some selfish heckler or demigod implores you to get down from the ivory tower, I hope that you will them that you were never there and you dont even know what it is. You can tell him what the task of the educated man and woman are and where they do their work. Tell him that your role will be to walk among your people, as philosopher kings would want to do, to work with them and to share the great storehouse of the worlds knowledge that youve helped to open.
Something has brought about the recrudescence of racism in this country. What triggered this bizarre demonstration of a trait that has too long been a portion of Americas life? I do not know. Perhaps it was the competition for the limited employment opportunities between recent immigrants and long-time citizens, such as African Americans who have been mistakenly regarded, and treated, as recent immigrants. Perhaps it was the view held by some that the civil rights movement had ended, and thus no longer holding all of us accountable for this incipient racism. Perhaps it was the mistaken view that the best way to preserve American values is for each American to take the law into her or his own hands. Perhaps there were other forces at work: the sense of insecurity in the workplace on the part of some, the palpable re-segregation of the public schools in many of our cities, the resistance to racial equality that has ever been present at all levels of American life and in every period of American history, and the mistaken belief by some that African-Americans should be made to understand that their rightful place in American society is one of subordination. But what better way for you to take on your role as responsible, mature citizens than to insist that the American ideal of equality of race, sex, religion and ethnic groups be adhered to because the ideal was bought for and paid for, was fought for and died for by all Americans, regardless of race.
And so, congratulations to those of you who graduate today. It has been a high honor and a great privilege to participate in this ritual, and especially to become an honorary member of this graduating class. May your days and years ahead be filled with the light by which truth is revealed. May you become activists in the promotion of the highest ideals of learning and service that are central to what you have experienced here at Wesleyan University. And may you take with you those ideals as you assume your respective roles in life as you go down from this place.
Congratulations, best wishes and God speed!