Sunday Forum: Dear graduates ...
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This is adapted from a commencement address Mr. Foerster delivered at La Roche College on May 9. He can be contacted at sky@worldaffairs pittsburgh.org.
This is a pivotal year in American and world history.
Twenty years ago this November, the Berlin Wall fell. As young men and women graduating from college, you will not remember it. Nonetheless, we all have been feeling the aftershocks ever since.
One shock is the accelerating rapidity of change -- technological, political, economic, social.
The effect of globalization on all our lives is staggering. In many ways it is good, making our lives easier, bringing us closer together, enabling growth in productivity and the development of human capacity.
But in many ways it is not good. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow across the globe, within the United States and down to the local level in Pittsburgh.
We are experiencing an economic collapse the likes of which we have not seen since your grandparents' generation. This collapse is systemic. It is global. It cries out for us to tend to our neighbors -- internationally and locally -- as much as to ourselves. It reminds us how interdependent we are -- that we grow together, decline together and must recover together.
Last November's election also was a pivotal point in history. We hear a lot about "resetting" America's policies, priorities and relations with the rest of the world. The resetting has begun, but much of the heavy lifting will fall to you. I pray you are up to the challenge.
Let me offer three messages. Pay attention. There is a quiz at the end -- it's called "life."
First: Never stop educating yourself.
You have heard it before -- most of the jobs that will be filled 20 years from now have not been invented yet; much of the knowledge that will be at your fingertips 20 years from now does not yet exist.
Be careful of assumptions based on a world that is going out of existence. Most of the mistakes that decision-makers make seem based on what used to be true but no longer is.
How does a country exercise its power and influence in the world? The means and methods have profoundly changed in recent decades.
How does a business remain competitive in a world where consuming and producing markets are growing by hundreds of millions of people each year -- in cultures much different than our own?
Be critical in your thinking. Don't take things at face value. Education is not about seeking information to support your preconceived notions of the world. Education is about challenging your beliefs. There is always another point of view, and truth usually is discovered in the murky grays of discourse and reasoned debate.
Second: Engage with the world.
I hope most of you have begun to do this, by studying and traveling internationally and by engaging with whatever global community has been resident in your campus neighborhood.
Americans remain a relatively inward-looking people, even though we are increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for the peace and prosperity that we take for granted.
This was perhaps understandable 15 years ago. Then, 85 percent of the gross domestic product of the planet was produced in fewer than 20 countries, all of whom were our allies, representing less than 15 percent of the world's population. Then, the stock market offered double-digit growth year after year. Then, America felt itself invulnerable.
That world is gone.
Meanwhile, another 40 percent of the world's population is joining the global marketplace, producing goods and services that compete with ours, providing new markets, polluting just like we did and competing for resources to escape poverty and sustain their growth.
Travel. Understand that others do not believe what you believe, don't see things as you see them, don't necessarily want what you want, have fears that you don't have and may not fear the same things you do.
Be empathetic. Otherwise you'll never understand the real world, which you cannot escape.
Third: Be kind to yourself and to others.
A lot is written today about the need for "civility" in American life. We have become in many ways a society dominated by the combative exchange of talking points rather than a willingness to listen seriously to an opposing point of view. Political disagreements have become personal. Debates about issues get distorted by attacks on personalities.
I do not believe this reflects America's true character. It is, however, an image increasingly portrayed through our media, where the line between news and entertainment is blurred, if not erased.
Your generation needs to change course. Begin by understanding that we are all human and fallible. Begin by believing that we each deserve respect and compassion.
Being kind to others means trying to understand their worldview and empathize with their challenges. Neither we nor others have all the answers -- and we are more likely to find answers together than separately.
Be kind to yourselves, too. As you graduate, you have expectations of yourselves. No doubt your families and friends do, too. Those expectations should be high, even if you may not meet them.
But be careful of extrinsic standards -- money, fame, position. They are elusive, often out of your control. If you need evidence, look at today's economic turmoil.
Find real standards for your life -- fulfillment, happiness, service.
When asked about her decades of work to alleviate suffering in Calcutta's slums, Mother Teresa once said, "It is not important that you succeed; it is important that you do what you can."
You are setting off on a new and exciting chapter in your lives. Keep learning. Engage with the world. Be kind to others and to yourself. Do what you can.
First Published May 24, 2009 12:00 am