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Living in the Future

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 27, 2012

An address to the graduating class of 2012, Harambee House Senior Reception, Wellesley College, May 24, 2012.

May I say how honored I am to be asked to address you at your Senior Reception. The last time I did a similar thing was about thirty-four years ago when I shared the stage with the poet Nikki Giovanni at a similar gathering of black graduates at Harvard University. Tonight is even more special since I have spent most of my academic life here at Wellesley College and have come to know some of you and certainly many of our past graduates pretty well. So it is with nostalgia and an abundance of love that I address you here this evening about what it means to prepare yourself to live in the new world that you will be making.

When Danielle invited me to address you on your marvelous celebration, I thanked her for being so kind to which she replied: "I didn't invite you. The graduating class of 2012 selected you to speak." Such a sentiment made this event even more special for me. When I asked what I should say to the graduates, she said that all I had to do was to offer some words of wisdom to the seniors as they leave this place to continue their journey into this experience called life. So let me take this opportunity to thank the class of 2012 for inviting me to share my thoughts with you as you take your next step on your journey of life.

As I thought of what words of wisdom I could bring to you this evening, I remembered the wisdom offered by one of my students about a month ago during a debate/dinner that we had at my house. On April 20th I had invited my two classes to debate the pros and cons of Michele Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow subtitled Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Each class had to take a side, either for or against the central premise of Alexander's work which argued that the "mass incarceration [of young black males]—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement;" that in fact, "mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow and that all of those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system" (my italics).

I had become enamored with the book because it touched on one of the most inscrutable topics of debate that persists amongst my nieces, nephews, and members of my extended family whenever we get together on family occasions. Sometimes it takes this form of an attack when the younger women in the family postulate accusingly: "Why do black mothers spoil their boys and leave us, the girls, to deal with the wreckage? That is why we cannot find proper mates." In fact, these young ladies contend that the mothers spoil their sons leaving them to deal with these brats which really make their lives—and their finding a spouse—very difficult business.

I am fortunate. Most of my nieces are college educated and possess a language that is very difficult for me to respond to sometimes. One is even a Wellesley graduate. In fact, they are so well educated and conversant on topics such as gender relations and feminist discourses that sometimes they leave me battered and bruised intellectually. So when I discovered The New Jim Crow I thought that I had found an answer to a problem that I was trying to express but did not have the language with which to articulate it. Alexander made a plausible case as to why so many black mothers are so afraid for their young black sons and why, as she says, their induction into the "community correctional supervision," nice words for probation or parole, makes them live in constant anxiety about the fate of their young sons. The anxiety of these mothers is not misplaced. Alexander observes: "No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington D.C., our nation's capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all of those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America."

It is estimated that the United States spends more money on incarcerating prisoners than in educating students. Most states spend three to four times more per capita incarcerating prisoners than educating students. Research done by the Department of Justice reveals that Georgia lawmakers "dole out almost $18,000 a year to house one inmate in a state prison" but spend only "one third of that [amount] to put a child through the public education system" according to the National Education Association. California spends "about $47,000 per inmate while spending about $9,000 for every student enrolled. New York State spends about $56,000 per inmate and approximately $16,000 for every student in the school system. Michigan pays about $34,000 for every prisoner and about $11,000 for a student." (Elizabeth Fox, "States Spend Almost Four Times More Per Capita on Incarcerating Prisoners than Educating Students,", March 14, 2011).

These statistics frightened me. On reading them, I thought of my immediate family but I wanted to share them with my larger family, my students at Wellesley College. The debate at my house went fairly well and I was very pleased with myself. I saw it as a wonderful teaching moment. After each team—the affirmative and the negative—had presented its point of view, Michael Jefferies, one of the judges of the debate, asked the presenters what they found most useful about the debate. To my surprise and delight, one of my students answered, "In our class Professor Cudjoe said there is a big difference between an intellectual and an ideologue. An intellectual is always willing to embrace a new point of view in light of new evidence whereas an ideologue can never be persuaded against her entrenched beliefs. She is never persuaded by the facts. I want to be an intellectual. Although I do not agree with everything my opponents said, I learned a lot from this discussion."

Those words were very important to me. During each of my courses I had encouraged my students to keep a Vocabulary List of all the ideas that had struck them during the class and which they used as keys to unlock the central concepts that were being advanced. The distinction between an ideologue and an intellectual was a point I had emphasized in my class. So that when my student voiced that thought—that she wanted to be an intellectual rather than an ideologue—I felt one of those special moments that only a professor or a parent can feel: a moment of pure intellectual delight. I was getting through to my students; some of my ideas were sticking.

That was important. As time goes on you will forget most of what you learned in your classrooms here at Wellesley. However, a few ideas will stick with you that I trust will serve to guide you throughout your adult lives. In fact, one of the most important things you will discover as you move from this place to any other place is the ability to open up yourself to new ideas; be willing to be persuaded against your best judgment if a competing idea makes sense; be determined always to challenge yourself and to think new thoughts; and to make choices from among the many competing propositions that will come your way. To me, it is the cultivation of this sense of discernment, in big things as well as in small, that will make a difference in your life.

Developing this sense of discernment is important. It should be accompanied by what I will call a capacity for self-knowing. In fact, as you go along the course of your life, you will discover that the things you learn on your own will be more valuable than what you learned in schools; that is, your ability to leave the beaten path; trust in your abilities; and lean upon those self-discovered truths. Some people call it intuition; others call it that little voice within you. I call it obeah. But once you uncover the ability to listen to those finer stirrings within you, then you will be on the way to discover your own freedom.

Carter G. Woodson, another scholar whom I examined in my class, puts this idea a little differently in a book he called the Mis-Education of the Negro. He wrote it in 1933. He could use that word. He said: "Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every [wo]man has two educations: 'that which is given to her, and the other that which she gives herself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed, all that is most worthy in [wo]man she must work out and conquer for herself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves."

What you make of your formal education is up to you. You can learn much from your environment and your friends, but your ability to teach yourself as it were; to be bold enough to reach within yourself and have the courage to stand by what you believe are important components of what it means to be an educated person of the twenty-first century. Much will depend on your ability to step out of your comfort zone and confront the unknowable.

A few weeks ago, I attended my nephew's graduation ceremony at Howard University School of Business. At their Recognition Ceremony, I had the pleasure and profit of listening to an address delivered by Dr. Laurence Morse, co-founder and a managing partner at Fairview where he manages 3 billion dollars in funds. He made two points that are applicable to you here at Wellesley. He said "As a combined class, you hail from 20 states within these United States, and from five countries (Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States of America). In this alone there is incredible richness and diversity." Here at Wellesley, students from 53 countries will be graduating tomorrow. This means we are blessed many fold. He continued, "More importantly, the network of friendships you've established here form a potential support base for you throughout your career. You will find that over the coming years, you will lean on one another, share good news and the occasional disappointment, news of openings in your companies for which this or that classmate would be a perfect fit. You will counsel and consult one another around issues you're confronting at work and ways you might resolve them. You have met people here you've come to know well, to love and to trust—and that forms the basis for partnerships in business and in life. And this network is priceless."

He made another point that was equally valuable. He said: "Over the course of your lives to this point, you have witnessed the pace of creative destruction at the core of capitalism quicken in a way that is almost breathtaking, as companies that did not exist when you were born have become dominant players in their industries, and the kind of career trajectory common when I was a student—of possible lifetime employment with a single company, or in a single industry or occupation, even in a single country—has gone the way of all things.

"And while none of us has a crystal ball—we cannot project with any precision the ways in which competition for control and effective stewardship of our planet's resources will alter present geo-political alliances, or how or when technological innovation will provide solutions to problems now thought unsolvable—what we do know with certainty is that change—significant change over the course of your likely careers—is a given."

And this is where being prepared for the future comes in. Since change is a given, learning to confront ideas rather than being trapped by ideological certitudes; pushing towards self—discovery; and being mindful of the ever-changing world become an important route to success. I remember taking my daughter to her inaugural class at New York University some years ago when the instructor proclaimed: "Rather than teaching you about the past, we will teach you in and about the future," by which she meant that her students would be more concerned about what to expect rather than what transpired in the past. In other words, teaching students to think in and about the future is just as important as teaching them to think about the past. As someone who is historically bent I know the past is important. Unfortunately we should not let ourselves be trapped in the past. It must be seen only as a point of departure.

This brings me to my penultimate point. Since 1875 Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. That is what our propaganda says and which I think is generally true. Our motto reads, "Not to be served, but to serve" and that's the ideal to which our students should strive. Woodson also had some thoughts about the notion of service and being served. He had the prescience to distinguish between the shortcomings of leadership in our community and the call to service. In a chapter entitled "The Need for Service Rather than Leadership," he observed: "If the Negro could abandon the idea of leadership and instead stimulate a larger number of the race to take up definite tasks and sacrifice their time and energy in doing these things efficiently the race might accomplish something. The race needs workers, not leaders. Such workers will solve the problems which race leaders talk about and raise money to enable them to talk more and more about. When you hear a man talking, then, always inquire as to what he is doing or what he has done for humanity. Oratory and resolutions do not avail much. If they did, the Negro race would be a paradise on earth. It may be well to repeat here the saying that old men talk of what they have done, young men of what they are doing, and fools of what they expect to do. The Negro race has a rather large share of the last mentioned class."

"If we can finally succeed in translating the idea of leadership into that of service, we may soon find it possible to lift the Negro to a higher level. Under leadership we have come into the ghetto; by service within the ranks we may work our way out of it. Under leadership we have been constrained to do the biddings of others; by service we may work out a program in the light of our own circumstances. Under leadership we have become poverty-stricken; by service we may teach the masses how to earn a living honestly. Under leadership we have been made to despise our own possibilities and to develop into parasites; by service we may prove sufficient unto the task of self-development and contribute our part to modern culture."

All this to say, that in everything we do we must be guided by the desire to serve others. Wasn't it the Master who said that he who would lead must also learn to serve? And wasn't it Jesus, the Christ, who said that "whosoever would be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many" (Mark 10: 43-45). Even Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

So it is quite a curious thing when Wellesley's motto; Woodson's injunction; and the Lord's command all point in the same direction: to the need to give oneself in service to others rather than live for oneself. As Bob Marley said, "Live for yourself and you live in vain,/Live for others and you live again." And perhaps the conundrum of all conundrums as uttered by Countee Cullen, "Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: to make a poet black, and bid him sing;" or perhaps to make us all poets and songstresses in the service of our people.

And just in case, you did not get my drift, I want to end with two quotations from Albert Einstein. In an address in 1936 to the student of the California Institute of Technology he reminded them that "the aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service to the community their highest life problem." It is a lesson we all might heed. On another occasion, Ernst Straus quotes him as saying, "If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or objects." Such a message may be difficult to understand when you are twenty-one or twenty-two but trust me, at forty-one or forty-two, it may ring with greater clarity. This is a sentiment that your parents will be better able to appreciate. Of course, this is just a reminder that you must think in the future or certainly of the future.

Much of your continuing education and intellectual growth will come down to you. For those of you who haven't had the benefit of an Africana Studies course while you were at Wellesley I hope that you come to agree with Woodson that "no one can be thoroughly educated until she learns as much about the Negro as she knows about other people." In the end though, the business of life is in the living and I hope that you do your share of living. In all that you do, you will have to come up with the courage and intellectual curiosity to live your life meaningfully and make it worthwhile. And remember that whatever you do, please have faith in yourself and always remember the words of Edgar Guest:

You are the one that must decide
Whether you'll do it or toss it aside.
You are the one who must make up your mind
Whether you'll lead or linger behind
Whether you will try for the goal that's afar
Or be contented to stay where you are.
Take it or leave it. There is much to do!
Just think it over—It's all up to you.

Dr. Cudjoe is the Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.