"We need world-changers," Max Paul Friedman told the Class of 2018 at American University's opening convocation on August 23. "But before setting out to change the world, try letting the world change you."
Friedman, professor of history and recipient of the 2014 American University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, the university's highest faculty award, offered students words of wisdom for their years at AU and beyond.
His speech was greeted with great enthusiasm by the students in the audience and on social media. Corina Chao (BA international studies '18) said, "After that speech, I know I chose the right school." Zakiya Jacob (BA psychology '18) tweeted, "Professor Friedman just gave the best speech I've ever heard."
See what advice professor Friedman offered the Class of 2018.
I asked a young man starting his first year at a school down the hill from here, "What would you like to know from someone like me on your first day?" I thought he might say something like, "Professor, how can I change the world?" Instead, summoning all the earnestness of youth, he held my gaze and replied, "Where can I get a fake I.D.?"
A fair question. A fake I.D. promises not only libations but access to places that seem irresistibly exciting. And since nobody knows you here, you could become anyone. You could shave your head. College is the perfect place for you to think about a new identity, or to think anew about identity. You'll hear professors talk about the difference between sex and gender. Sex is what parts you've got. Gender is what part you play, in a performance with strict rules and penalties for breaking them. You'll learn that race is invented; it isn't the shade of your skin, it's what the culture says that shade says about you. The news from Ferguson or Iraq shows that whether you survive your next encounter with a man in uniform may well depend on how others read your identity. That's what's at stake. Race and gender are a fake I.D. You've already got one. The question is, can we learn to stop checking them?
Having fulfilled my professorial duty by answering a simple question with a complex non-answer, 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. What could a historian tell people like that?
Well, one thing we study is how change happens. Children learn that Lincoln freed the slaves. But the small print of the Emancipation Proclamation says it applies only in the Confederacy. It exempts the Border States and the parts of the South under Union control. It orders the end of slavery where Lincoln couldn't end it, and didn't end it where he could. He wanted stability, and a labor force. 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.
What historians do is to ask questions of the dead. Because the dead know things we don't know. They know things about you that you haven't found out yet.
So I asked George Fullerton Evans, who wrote The College Freshman's Don't Book in 1910, what to tell you today. He offered these words: "Don't pawn your watch during your first year" and "Don't buy cigars in wholesale quantities from mysterious-looking foreigners." Beyond student loans and substance abuse, he also had advice about studying.
"Don't try to fool the College Doctor into believing that you can't go to lectures, or are going to die, because you've sprained your left thumb.... Take notes in lectures; if this serve no other purpose, 'twill keep you awake."
Finally he added: "Don't hesitate to hear other people's opinions. The World did not begin, nor will it end, with you."
You see, the dead are not so different from you and me. College students a century ago may have carried hats and kid gloves and said things like, "let's take the hayburner to the juice joint to get ducky," but they were just making plans for Friday night, in their own hip language carefully crafted to exclude their parents.
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."
(Note to my fellow Californians: he meant October. You'll get used to what they call "seasons," including one called "winter," when cold white flakes of crystalized water appear suddenly out of the sky. Don't be alarmed;this is normal, and when those flakes accumulate on the ground, they make possible special sports and games, and they also shut down the government of the most powerful country on Earth. And your university. Welcome to Washington.)
There would be no homecoming for ten million young people. And when the war was over, Woodrow Wilson put on his top hat and joined other leaders in Paris to change the world. We know what this did to fuel hatreds in Europe. We forget that when a young Vietnamese student named Ho Chi Minh showed up to ask Wilson whether self-determination applied to his country, he couldn't get in. He didn't have the right I.D. He took his disappointment to Moscow and his next hero, Lenin, and would lead his country in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile the top hats in Paris carved the map of the Middle East into new states that replaced overlapping ethnic identities with cleanly-drawn lines, marking Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq. Mission accomplished.
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 setting out to change the world, try letting the world change you.
AU students are well-placed to do this. You'll learn in your classes, which are engaged with the burning issues and questions of our time. Maybe you'll study abroad, where you'll discover that they have their own answers, and they want to know yours. Maybe you'll escape the American disease of monolingualism, and learn to speak another language.
We'll also ask you to read a lot, but not because reading is good for you, like fiber. We ask because printed words are a distillation of all the wisdom of all the people who have come before. And they were young once, and now they're gone, and they want to tell you what happened in between. The "annihilation of distance" through social media means you can keep up with people you already know. Some of you are doing it right now! But try putting down your phone and look around. Some of your lifelong friends are sitting in this hall and you haven't even met them yet. Maybe you'll meet someone from DC, who can explain to you that taxation without representation isn't over. Or someone from Colorado, and you can explain to them that you're from a state where a plant is still illegal. Most importantly, you'll meet people who grew up differently, with different ideas. That's good. Listen. Argue. You're going to learn as much from one another as you ever will from us.
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.
So, no pressure. You are here to enjoy yourselves too, and to enjoy figuring out who you are. Try new things, take classes outside your comfort zone, engage in discovery, work hard at things that are hard. It won't get you a fake I.D. But by the end of your time here you'll have a real one that takes you to places that are truly exciting. The world has been waiting for you, and we're so glad you're here.