Look Through Your Windshields - 2017 GSEHD Commencement Address

by Dr. Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University
As Dean, I have the great privilege of addressing each year's graduating class. I am sharing with you the transcript (a bit abridged) of my commencement speech to GSEHD's class of 2017.

Good morning to the wonderful class of 2017! Is anyone in the mood to graduate this weekend?

It is a great honor and pleasure to be here. As I was heading out this morning my wife offered her usual good advice: “Don’t try to be charming, witty or intellectual…just be yourself!” Right. But I will break character and promise to be brief -- no matter how long it takes.

As I look out over this magnificent mosaic of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, nationality, and religion, and as I listen to the symphony of your many languages, I am relieved: we live in interesting and challenging times, but I know when I look at you that we are up to the challenges and that together we will continue to pursue the dreams that have always made this country a light unto the nations.

At the risk of sounding politically relevant, let me share a few interesting findings from the most recent study by the nation’s premier scientific organization. In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences noted that “the US … has been populated, built, and transformed by successive waves of migration from almost every part of the world… is home to almost 1/5th of the world’s international migrants …” and that “the 23 million who arrived from 1990 to 2013 … is three times larger than the number of immigrants received by any other country during that period…”

The Academy report emphasized that “Across all measurable outcomes, integration increases over time, with immigrants becoming more like the native-born with more time in the country, and with the second and third generations becoming more like other native-born Americans than their parents were… increased prevalence of immigrants is associated with lower crime rates… incarceration rates for the foreign born are only a fourth of that of the native born…etc.”

Let me also note that roughly 12% of foreign-born persons 25 and older hold graduate and professional degrees – slightly higher than the percentage of native-born Americans. At the same time, our economic situation, as measured by productivity growth, employment and unemployment, and other indicators, is robust; we remain among the most competitive countries on earth; and, most wonderfully, based on international comparative metrics we are the second most generous people in the world, in terms of our personal and organizational charity, voluntarism, and abiding commitment to make the world a better place than we found it.

I mention all this because as I look at this room and eavesdrop on your conversations I see the collage and hear the cacophony that makes me super proud to be connected to you, super grateful to live in this country, and super happy that we are all associated with someone named George Washington. (More on him in a moment)

But wait -- some of you must surely be wondering: is this guy for real? Does he think we don’t have problems?? Well, you can relax: in fact, I’m not blind to the less charming parts of our past or to the very real threats to our future.

Let me elaborate. On the one hand, it’s true, universal education began in America long before it became fashionable in most other places. By the early 1950’s we had 5 times as many teens enrolled in public high school than in most European countries. That’s a wonderful record, for sure.

But here’s the bad news: we were abysmally late in spreading our spirit of inclusion and access to people of color. We cannot overlook, and we underestimate at our peril, the ugliness of the blemish on our beautiful democratic tapestry: African Americans – who contrary to some nonsense that we’ve heard lately were not “immigrants” in the traditional sense of that word but rather came here in chains against their will – weren’t “included” until the mid 1950's and even then, it was slow and painful. Thankfully we had enlightened leaders, in Congress, on the Supreme Court, in the White House. So, things have gotten better… but we still have a lot of catching up to do. (I grew up in Queens, and we didn’t have black children in my elementary school until – get this – 1961! And even then, they had to put up with the biases and racism of the white majority, ironically many of whom were themselves lucky to have survived bigotry and fascism and the horrors of early 20th century Europe.)

Yes, things are better now, in some important ways – lunch counters, public housing, buses, schools are no longer places where some people are legally excluded or separated because of their skin color. And educational attainment as well as academic achievement for African Americans has been rising steadily. By substantial margins we twice elected an African American president.

But let’s not forget that fifty-three years after passage of the civil rights act, four in 10 black and Latino students attend segregated schools and life expectancy in neighborhoods in places like Baltimore, just 35 miles from here, is lower than in some parts of the developing world. In the last 30 years we’ve let income inequality increase to levels never seen. The achievement gap, though narrower, is still unacceptable. Do we think it’s OK that 22% of our children live below the poverty line? Is it OK that some of the best schools in the world are a half mile away from some of the worst?

What’s my message here? It’s this: We cannot afford either despair or complacency. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are people in this country who want to reverse decades of progress, who willfully ignore mountains of evidence that good government can make us better off, who resort to the most vile stereotyping and bigotry to score political points. Against these forces we must be vigilant, we cannot afford to be complacent. But we must also not sink into despair.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby and other American classics, once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Here we have two opposing or at least significantly complicated ideas: can we hold in our minds at once the great American past and the great risk to the American future? I don’t think I have Fitzgerald’s first rate intelligence, so I try to manage these realities by remembering my mother, of blessed memory. She used to say that although she understood why we need a good rear-view mirror, she preferred to look out the front windshield.

And that brings me to our university’s namesake, the amazing George Washington. In his letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, he wrote this: "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation... which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…” Thinking of our great American past and its amazing first leader, I am confident that even in stressful times, our noble traditions will prevail. I’m glad to be living in a country whose capital is named after him, and as thrilled to be working in a university named after him.

Look through your windshields, and as you contemplate your future stay strong and remember we’re in this together. Your power comes not only from yourselves—but from your community: your family, friends, colleagues who have joined you here today to salute and celebrate and, in a way, reassure you that as you leave and continue in the struggle to make the world better you will not be alone. Graduates, look around and give this amazing cheering section a much-deserved round of applause. And while we’re at it, let’s remember our GSEHD family: Will the great faculty and staff of GSEHD please rise!

I’ll end my remarks (now there’s some good news!), with a suggestion. You came here with a passion to make the world a better place. You have certainly made THIS place better. The work continues and as you think of what good you as an individual can do, in the face of seemingly huge and insurmountable obstacles, you might find encouragement from this 2nd century rabbinical teaching: “whosoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world…” Do your thing. Every bit helps.

We have your back. We love you and will be here cheering for you. Congratulations to all of you!