Friday, December 17, 2004

Communal Aspirations

This is from a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan done by a sociology graduate. This speech just really inspired me, and I thought I would share it. Feel free to comment on it, I know some of you will have opinions on it.

COMMUNAL ASPIRATIONSBy: Cedric de LeonRackham Graduation CeremonyDate: May 1, 2004 When I arrived in Ann Arbor six years ago, I knew that I liked sociology and that I was good at it, but to be truthful, I didn't actually know what sociology was. What I learned at Michigan was that sociology is the study of the relationship between "structure" and "agency," between patterns among groups of people such as racial inequality or poverty on the one hand and the individual freedom of people to transcend those patterns on the other. No matter what the issue, sociology compels us to ask certain key questions of one another. How much freedom does each of us have, really? Are there constraints to our freedom, and if so, which ones?

Beyond this particular take on the discipline, Michigan sociology is also unique in its tendency to blur the line between the intellectual concerns of the academy and the issues confronting society-at-large. This past Fall semester, for instance, I taught a course on the effects of race and class in Detroit.

This orientation is due in no small part to the fact that the wider university takes itself seriously as a public institution. The University of Michigan does not shield itself from contemporary social issues, but rather tends to join the fray. It should be of no surprise, then, that there are some similarities between the lessons I learned in the sociology department and those that I learned in the course of graduate life in general. One such similarity is the tension on this campus between aspiration and access.

On the one hand, the university expects us to act like academic entrepreneurs. Each of us is encouraged to make good grades, publish, and write an entire dissertation on our own. But in addition to stoking our personal ambitions, the university also expects each of us to have an opinion about affirmative action, about who gets to be part of the university community and who does not.

Though both sets of expectations seem important, they also seem somewhat disconnected from one another. For example, I was a member of three groups that fought to preserve affirmative action here, but the unspoken rule was that my advocacy on behalf of people of color was my public life, while my research was my private life.

Now I should let you know at this point that sociologists do not do well with tension; we seek answers, and in this I am no exception. Today I would like to offer a resolution that might bring our personal hopes and dreams together with the distinctly public character of this university.

In preparation for the next crisis (and it will come), I believe we should start asking each other the following question: what are your individual aspirations … for your community? Let me put it another way. Instead of asking each other, "where are you going?" ask instead, "what kind of community do we want to be?"

Some of you might be wondering, "Why ask such a question? Why do we need to resolve the tension? In fact, there isn't any tension at all: listen here, sonny, you came here to get a degree, not to change the world!"

Well, for one thing, people in positions of power have a special obligation to act responsibly. Whether or not we deserve it, the graduates in this room are now authorized to speak about the world in a way that most people are not. What will you do with that authority? If Michigan celebrities like Gerald Ford and Arthur Miller are any indication, your answer to that question may have lasting implications for life as we know it.

Moreover, access and aspiration are not mutually exclusive: my ability to go where I want to go depends on whether or not my community will let me go there and support me along the way. You are graduating today, not just because you are especially smart or talented. I'm sure you are, but you are also graduating today, because in 1817 a community decided that what would amplify their freedom and humanity was a public university here in Michigan. For those of you who are women and people of color, you are graduating today, in part because your antecedents struggled for your right to be here. And all of you are graduating today in one way or another because of the support of your friends and family.

I am a living, breathing example of what happens when access meets aspiration. I come from a working-class family. My dad is a cook and my mom works at a meat packing plant. We live in a neighborhood called St. Jamestown, which is one of the poorest areas of Toronto. For the past two years, my sister, who is a sophomore at Queen's University, has been one family paycheck away from never realizing her dream of a college degree. Without meaningful public education and affirmative action, I might never have put my sister through college. Instead I stand before you today as a doctor of sociology, and you can bet your bottom dollar that my sister will graduate.

So I congratulate you, the graduates of 2004, for having realized your individual aspirations. But as a proud product of public education and affirmative action, I would be remiss if I did not appeal to your communal aspirations by suggesting that your lives can be enriched in other ways when people like me and my sister can share in it more fully.

Let the legacy of this class be a renewed sense of collective ambition that compels us to seek out the meaning of our actions beyond our front door, to the city down the road where high school students have no hope of a college education, to the country next door where farmers are forced off their land because credit is available only to large commercial exporters, and to the continents beyond our shores where children have never known the meaning of the word, peace. Let us understand that this is not a failure of individual aspiration on their part, but a failure of collective aspiration on our part. And when we finally come to live and work with those whom we have overlooked, let us at that moment rejoice in the realization of our hopes and dreams, for we will have done more than aspire to a degree; we will have achieved a community.

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