Posted May 25, 2012

Categories: Articles, Featured

Get out of town. Go on, scram!

That’s what a graduation ceremony is all about: the big boot. Thanks for those thousands of dollars, here’s a receipt in the form of a diploma, and now hurry up and make room for the next class. Oh, and don’t forget to write: checks that is, once you’ve somehow paid off your mountainous student debt.

I wasn’t invited to give a commencement address this year. But here’s what I would say if an institution were foolish enough to give me a microphone and an audience.

College is a lot like the Garden of Eden. It’s a pretty place. The temptations are many. And just when you get a little taste of knowledge, the administration kicks you out.

As you head out the gate, you are also probably feeling a twinge (or more) of shame. After all, you have a vague sense that you just wasted a lot of money. If you didn’t drink and party away the last four years, you spent an average of 27 hours a week packing a lot of disconnected information into your head, information that even now, in the hot sun beating down on your graduation outfit, you have some difficulty remembering. But it’s not entirely your fault.

College is more about socialization than education. You learn the social rules and make the social contacts that will ease you into adulthood. Fraternities, eating clubs, secret societies: these are not incidental parts of college but central to it. Just ask George W. Bush, who excelled at nothing at Yale but was tapped nonetheless for the super-secret Skull and Bones. There are exceptions, of course: young people who have struggled across race, class, or international borders to join the upwardly mobile world of college graduates. But in its superficial multiculturalism, Skull and Bones turns out to be just a microcosm of college itself. “It has gays who got the SAT scores, it’s got the gays who got the straight A’s,” says conservative columnist David Brooks. “It’s got the blacks who are the president of the right associations. It’s different criteria. More multicultural, but it’s still an elite, selective institution.”

College is a lot like the club of advanced industrialized nations. The membership remains remarkably constant over the years, and only the occasional outlier like South Korea or Brazil manages to get by the gatekeeper. Our education system reproduces our class system. The elite schools cater to the elite; state schools educate the struggling middle class; community colleges provide for the rest. America prides itself on being the land of opportunity. But we don’t stack up so well against other industrialized countries. According to Jason DeParle in The New York Times, family background is a much stronger determining factor of economic success in the United States than in Canada and most of Europe. As such, college is not so much a way out of poverty but an institution that perpetuates inequality.

Debt only makes the picture bleaker. You owe, as college graduates, over $25,000 on average in loans. “Students and former students owe more, at this point, for their educations than is owed in either credit card or automobile debt,”writes Anthony Grafton in The New York Review of Books. “Yet many fail to find profitable employment after graduation. Traditionally lucrative professional careers like law and medicine no longer promise a firm stairway to top incomes. Even finance, on which Ivy League graduates have been descending for some years like hunger on a loaf, generates fewer jobs than it did.”

Given the challenges that lie outside the gates of this academic Garden of Eden, it might seem a bit rude for me to add yet another burden to your shoulders on your special day. But as Americans, and I’m focusing my remarks on American citizens graduating from college, we have an even greater debt to pay. You have grown up in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of the world. You are also citizens of a country that has run roughshod over international law in its many wars, subversions of democracy, and contempt for international institutions. We have benefitted at the expense of others – their resources, their low-paid labor – and most of us simply continue to rack up this debt.

What can you do to discharge this obligation? One important action step is: get out of town. Go and live in a very different community. Become fluent in another language and another culture. Learn humility. “Love it or leave it,” Middle America told the Vietnam War protestors back in the 1960s. Let me turn that sentiment around: love it and leave it. To save America, we must all learn how to act as global citizens.

So, go out there and don’t just see the world, but become involved in the world. It’s what I did, and it changed my world as well.

Here are three reasons why you should leave the country: developing cultural literacy, understanding American power, and transforming America’s position in the world.

A common joke is that a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, and a person who speaks one language is an American. Whether our infamous monolingualism is literally true or not, Americans are notoriously parochial in our engagement with the world. When newly minted college graduates or degree students in international affairs come to my office for informational interviews, I recommend that they hone their fluency in another language to give them a competitive edge over their peers in their job hunt.

But learning another language is not just useful. It’s a way to break out of the cultural assumptions in which we are all born and raised. Learning a language is a way to immerse yourself in another way of understanding the world. It is empathy on a grand scale. Learning Chinese, for instance, introduces the student to the stunning visual poetry of the characters. But even obscure languages have something important to offer.  Linguist K. David Harrison describes the knowledge of the Arctic environment that the last speakers of the Yupik language possess. “Besides winds, they have specialized names for many kinds of ocean currents, stars and constellations, and all manner of seasonal phenomenal. All this information feeds into a sophisticated weather forecasting ability honed over a lifetime of careful observation,” he writes in his book The Last Speakers. “We are losing one of the finest, most sensitive systems ever devised to detect weather patterns and climate change.” We should force all climate change deniers to do an immersion language course in Yupik.

Part of the learning process overseas is to understand the impact the United States has on the world. You can see the pervasive influence of Hollywood, of McDonald’s and Starbucks, of the U.S. military. The world has a love-hate relationship with America. The love part is easy to understand – French fries and Frappucinos and Frank Sinatra and Freaky Friday are popular exports. But it’s the other side of the equation that’s critically important to understand. We have to listen to the anger expressed at U.S. policies – around U.S. military bases, around polluting U.S. factories, in communities pushing back against U.S. cultural influence. We also have to carefully observe how other peoples do things in order to counter the prevalent belief that we do everything the best in America.

Finally, it’s important to move from education to action. And here is your chance to make a mark as a generation. The names that have been used to describe you are not exactly flattering. You are Generation Y, for want of a more descriptive designation. You are the Peter Pan Generation, because you don’t want to grow up. But you can still reclaim your generation. You could become the Global Generation by serving as the young people who, with your language skills and more nuanced understanding of global politics, usher in a new U.S. relationship with the world. America doesn’t play well with others. You can change that.

Going overseas is an investment, and it’s not easy for recent graduates with debt. But before you take on more debt for graduate school or accept that unpaid internship in Washington, consider spending that money to get yourself to another country to work or volunteer. The Peace Corps also helps pay off your debt.

Living abroad is no guarantee of a transformative experience. Mitt Romney spent a couple years in France, but it didn’t exactly turn him into an internationalist. After all, you could go overseas to spread the gospel of America. But I’m not asking you to become missionaries. You should go overseas to listen, not to lecture.

And with that, I’ll stop my little lecture. Now that you’re finally finished with college, now that you’ve had one very small bite of the apple, let the real education begin.


MENA Immobility

The Arab Spring has not bloomed yet in Morocco. The government there passed a new constitution and held a parliamentary election last November. But the protests that began in February 2011 have returned to push for more significant reforms.

“Morocco’s management of its internal demands for change in 2011 was similar to the short-sighted manner in which the country has handled the Western Sahara conflict,” explains Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Anna Theofilopoulou in Morocco’s Short-Sighted Politics. “A side-by-side analysis of the two trajectories reveals that Morocco’s democratic deficit and limited strategy, too often abetted by allies, have contributed to an unsustainable status quo both at home and in Western Sahara. For anything to change, Morocco’s allies—especially the United States and France—must start demanding better.”

In Syria, the government is holding firm and the opposition is fissuring. One group that has increasingly decided simply to leave are the Kurds. “Since the start of the uprisings last year, the violence and repression in Kurdish areas have been less bloody than other parts of Syria,” writes FPIF contributor Samer Muscati inSyrian Kurds Fleeing to Iraqi Safe Haven. “But many Syrian Kurds – mainly young men – who fled to Iraq told Human Rights Watch that they felt they were in danger back home. Some feared arrest by security forces because of their political activism or participation in anti-government protests. Others left to avoid being conscripted into the Syrian army, or they deserted…after witnessing abuses and the targeting of civilians.”


Demanding Economic Justice

Farmers in Sierra Leone are fighting back against corporate land grabs. As FPIF contributor Heath Mitchell explains in Sierra Leone Up for Grabs, “A 2012 report by the International Land Coalition estimates that international conglomerates like Bolloré and Monsanto gobbled up more than 200 million hectares of land for large-scale monocrop production between 2000 and 2010, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of Sierra Leone, investors had already bought up 17 percent of the country’s arable land by early 2011.”

Last month, more than 2,000 women gathered in Istanbul for a conference organized by the Association of Women’s Rights in Development. “Amid the diversity in Istanbul, women came together with a surprising level of agreement on key premises,” writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in 50% of 99%. “First, economic inequality is the sign of our times, and as economic inequality grows, women face even deeper inequality in a system designed to discriminate. The use of women’s unpaid labor in what some feminist analysts call the ‘care economy’ intensifies with inequality and is exploited to extremes under austerity measures.”

You’ve heard about looming cuts for the Pentagon in these austere times. As I explain in The Pentagon’s Obesity Problem, the administration has proposed “approximately $500 billion in Pentagon reductions in the next 10 years. That might sound like a lot of belt-tightening. But it would leave the military budget in 2021 only 8 percent lower than it is today. After the Korean and Vietnam Wars, by contrast, U.S. presidents reduced military budgets by nearly 30 percent.” Next year, the Obama administration plans to spend nearly $1 trillion on national security, as Christopher Hellman and Mattea Kramer itemize the bill at TomDispatch.

Finally, our FPIF Pick this week is Why Taiwan Matters by Shelley Rigger. “Rigger offers a picture of Taiwan’s economic miracle featuring its high-tech industries,” writes FPIF contributor Yunping Chen in her review. “What may be more intriguing to readers is Taiwan’s political miracle. From an authoritarian government under Chiang Kai-shek to today’s hustle-and-bustle democratic elections, Taiwan is showing with its home-grown democracy that Asian culture is compatible with democratic values.”

And don’t forget to check out our FPIF blog with contributions on the Colombia free trade agreementSomali pirates, and the psychopathology of terrorism.


World Beat, May 22, 2012, Foreign Policy In Focus


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