Skip to main content
Expand AU Menu

College News

On Campus

A Call to Action

Words of welcome to the Class of 2018

By Patty Housman

Max Paul Friedman

Professor Max Paul Friedman

“We need world changers.”

That’s the message history professor Max Paul Friedman gave the Class of 2018 at American University’s fall convocation ceremony. “But before setting out to change the world, try letting the world change you.”

Friedman, winner of the 2014 American University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, delivered a powerful opening speech that was greeted with enthusiasm by students in the audience. On social media, students called it the best speech they ever heard and said it confirmed that they had chosen the right university.

Friedman attributes his inspiration for the speech to different sources: history, current events—and his students. “We build our identities through a combination of our own backgrounds and decisions and how we are perceived by others,” he says. “First-year college students are often in transition between being someone’s child and becoming an adult, constructing their own personalities even as they are subject to the perceptions the wider world has of them.”

He drew on the events of 100 years ago, when college students were going off to war. “World War I can some- times seem like a dusty photograph in sepia tones, a conflict as remote from us as the Peloponnesian War,” he says. “It was a conflict that brought the death of a generation of young Europeans. I wanted the students to realize that people who lived in the past were filled with the same kinds of hopes and anxieties and desires that they feel today— which makes the loss even greater and the need to avoid such tragedies more urgent.”

Friedman also wanted to pay tribute to the students at AU—and to those who came before them. “I have been impressed with their idealism and determination to find pragmatic ways to serve their community or the world,” he says. “When I started teaching in the early ’90s, many students were more careerist and materialistic. AU students today are understandably worried about finding jobs, but they want those jobs to be meaningful.”

Turning to history for insight, Friedman urged the Class of 2018 not to expect social change to come from the top. “Great men often cause tragedies in their search for great- ness. There’s certainly a place for our heroes, as long as our heroes don’t make us ordinary people feel small. Ordinary people are huge. Together, they make history.”


Max Paul Friedman on... 

... today's students

“I know that AU students do want to change the world. The sixties activist Abbie Hoffman complained, before he died, that the nation’s universities had become hotbeds of rest. But our students have made this the most activist campus in the country. They’ve worked with youth groups in DC and Nairobi, helped farmworkers and adjuncts organize for better pay, got the sweatshops out of their sweats, and made their campus green.”


... social change

“Children learn that Lincoln freed the slaves. . . . Instead, the enslaved freed themselves by throwing down their tools and marching by the hundreds of thousands toward Union lines to volunteer, creating a new reality Lincoln had to accept. Change doesn’t happen because great men do great things: it happens when ordinary people do extraordinary things.”


... the past

“It’s not that people in the past were so different, but their circumstances were. Looking out at the class of 2018, I think back to Europe’s class of 1918. They, too, assembled with excitement on a warm August day a century ago, but with a very different four years ahead of them. When the guns of August started firing, they marched off to World War One with bands playing and flags flying, the French soldiers dressed in brilliant uniforms of red and blue. Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops: ‘You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.’ But there would be no homecoming for 10 million young people.”


... idealism

“This isn’t an indictment of idealism. We need idealists. The problem was the notion that we alone know how to change the world—and we don’t have to listen to the people who live in the part we’re changing, whether it’s a faraway jungle, a desert, or downtown. We need world changers. But before set- ting out to change the world—try letting the world change you.”


... changing the world

“So let the world change you—but then please do change the world. We need your help. We need you to build an economy that values work as much as capital. We need you to fix Congress and get more women into it, which may be the same thing. We need you to find a better way to deal with America’s troubled neighbors than by deporting children. We need you to learn to produce things and move them around without using the same old Industrial Revolution-era fuels that are destroying the only planet we’ve got. Lincoln called America ‘the last best hope of Earth.’ Your generation may well be the Earth’s last best hope.”