Connect the Dots

Every year, I have the great privilege to honor and celebrate our new graduates. This is an excerpt from my 2019 commencement address:

When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was “connect the dots.” You know the idea: from what looks like a random spray of dots on a page you draw connecting lines to bring up a hidden image, like a dog or a fire engine or a baseball. For me this was more fun than trying to beat my older brother or father in chess, or trying to get picked for the schoolyard basketball team…

Here are some dots I’m trying to connect.

The first one – a stain, really – is about inequality in America, which has exploded in the past 30 years. Our most wealthy 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent, and upward mobility is becoming more of a memory than a promise.

Now, we have always tolerated some inequality. Our nation was founded on eloquent revolutionary rhetoric about inalienable rights and other self-evident truths, but for a long time our politics and practices perpetuated racial persecution and economic disparity. Still, through much of the 20th century things began to improve: already by the mid 1950s the percentage of our teens enrolled in high school was 5x greater than in many European countries. And when our government focused on equity, so that the great bounties of our democracy could be more evenly distributed, sure enough, achievement gaps narrowed, enrollment and completion for all groups improved, and family wealth for black and Hispanic Americans rose. We faced our difficult history and fought in schools, in the streets, in the courts, and in Congress to fulfill the promise of our founding ideals –– and the result was renewed hope with real results.

But today schools in most major cities are resegregating, child poverty is among the highest in the world, social mobility for black youth has stalled, and the poor are getting poorer. You want to know what inequality means? Try this: according to a recent report, in Washington, DC, life expectancy for residents in SE is about 20 years less than in NW.

And despite what some political pundits liked to say, it’s not just the economy, stupid: we see all around us how unregulated “me-first’ism” erodes our democratic and civic infrastructure too. In a nation built by immigrants, families of newcomers are separated by border police; violence, bullying, hate crimes, racism, and antisemitism are on the rise. We mourn the fallen of Charlottesville, Parkland, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Poway, Denver, Chicago, Las Vegas… and the list goes tragically on.

How did this happen? I know what some of you are thinking. But the roots of our current crisis didn’t start spreading in November 2016 (though they have been getting much irrigation since then…).

In the 1980s we were offered a seductive image of America as a “shining city upon a hill;” and then we were conned into believing that if we got government “off our backs” and people just chased their own self-interest, the magic of markets would “lift all our boats.” We were tantalized by the idea that market competition would also save our schools.

It was tasty Kool-Aid, and many of us imbibed it. We became obsessed with selfies long before Apple invented the modern version. Had it not been for brief periods of enlightened and dignified leadership, God only knows how much worse off we would be.

Yes, dot #1 is a messy blob. But my second dot is more promising. It reflects our better angels, so to speak. Across America we have fought the scourge of self-interest obsession, and have remained resilient and beneficent and determined to work together for shared goals. Economists have long known that markets can fail, self-interest can produce harmful results, and, to survive, the system needs to control itself. If most Americans don’t know the fancy theories, they do know, intuitively and morally, that it takes a whole crew team to lift the boat and keep it moving. Here are some examples:

• Charitable giving topped $400 billion in 2017, and we are now ranked fourth in the world for generosity.
• More than 2,700 certified “B” companies are balancing purpose and profit and using business as a force for good.
• A growing number of the super-rich have pledged to give back large portions of their wealth.
• In their tour of small towns across America, authors Jim and Deb Fallows found evidence of the power of community for coping with dislocations of technology and trade.
• Economists Richard Murnane and Greg Duncan have shown that evidence-based initiatives can produce real progress in our most disadvantaged schools.
• And at the Truesdell School here in DC, Principal Mary Ann Stinson and Assistant Principal Michael Redmond, both GSEHD doctoral students, are transforming the lives of poor children with inspired evidence-informed programs.

Which brings me to dot #3, which is all about evidence, and it emits beacons of hope.

Some of our highest government officials today don’t seem to have an appetite for factual knowledge, especially when it confuses their ideological fantasies; but here on earth most sane people do. There are thousands of smart and dedicated public servants, working in all our government agencies, who care about evidence and deserve our encouragement. Just think of DC, where we will soon have an exciting research-practice partnership aimed at bringing objective evidence to bear on school improvement. That gives me great hope.

There’s more from the evidence dot. Call me naïve, or congenitally optimistic, but I believe for most of us the moral compass points toward goodness. And here is reassuring news, backed by scientific evidence: biology and psychology are on our side! Studies show that we are rewarded with better health and other favorable outcomes for acting on our generous instincts: adults who volunteer report greater quality of life; frequent helpers report more vitality and self-esteem; generosity makes us happier. In other words, not only are recipients of charity made better off, but so are the donors. Isn’t it wonderful to think that a biblical teaching gets the added power of modern science?! I’d like a bumper sticker that says “Doing good helps us do well.”

One more hopeful bit of evidence: it’s about the virtue of enlightened government. Legislators who established incentives to reinforce our naturally generous impulses, through mechanisms such as the “charitable deduction” in our tax code, were on to something. They must have sensed a virtuous cycle -- helping people help others helps us all – and they codified it in law. So, the evidence shows that government isn’t always the problem, after all; it is often the solution.

When I connect these dots two messages pop up.

First, don’t let the demagogues of self-interest discourage us. You’ll be taking lots of selfies this weekend, and that’s fine. But be careful: you may have seen those news stories of people taking selfies and dropping off cliffs or walking into polar bears? Those are scary images, but worth keeping in mind as metaphor of rampant me-first’ism. As you celebrate with smartphone in hand, flip it back around and take what I’d call “otheries.” It will remind you of a core message in GSEHD: we’re in this together.

Second, don’t despair from today’s threats to our democratic values and don’t let the anti-science fools fool you. You have been trained as researchers who put evidence ahead of advocacy, prepared by the magnificent faculty seated behind me to collect and interpret data to guide policy and practice. That’s not naïve idealism, but a foundation of our way of life. As Jill Lepore argues in her masterful history of the United States, our revolution in governance brought another revolution: the celebration of scientific inquiry as antidote to ideological and religious zealotry.

Stick with the program, resist the temptations of complacency and apathy, and keep strong the connections between research and practice. Take the passions and knowledge you cultivated here and commit yourselves to the public good. Do that and you will reaffirm what really makes this country great. Happily, the evidence suggests you’ll feel a lot better for it!