Rules for Engagement, From the University of Vermont

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The scene this morning in Burlington (Josh Brown, UVM).

This morning I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at the University of Vermont—UVM, home of the Catamounts, in Burlington. My wife Deb and I, and our colleague John Tierney, visited UVM several years ago and wrote about it in our American Futures series, notably with John’s piece about the school’s emergence as a “public Ivy.”

Seven Days, the financially-and-journalistically successful weekly based in Burlington (which I’ve also written about), has a story about today’s commencement, here. The University’s story is here. Since the talk drew on various themes that recur in this “American Futures” thread, I’m attaching the text, below.

Go Catamounts!

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Commencement remarks

University of Vermont

May 21, 2017

James Fallows

President Sullivan, Governor Scott, honorary degree recipients, faculty and staff, friends and family, people of Vermont and beyond, and above all members of the class of 2017 — greetings, and congratulations!

On behalf of your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, and all the known and unknown supporters who have cheered and aided your journey to this glorious day, I salute you on your achievement. And I am glad as well to use the words I heard at my own college commencement many years ago, and officially “welcome you to the company of educated men and women.”

Every one of you realizes that not a one of you made this journey entirely on your own. Thus I’d like you to take a moment to stand and turn around, and look for a face of one of those crucial supporters in the crowd —or to envision an absent one in your mind—and express with cheers and applause your gratitude for what they have done.

I’ve just completed the first part of my job, which is to celebrate this moment. I turn now to the second part, which is to be brief.

In these next few minutes I’m going to try to convince you to feel good—energized, confident, important—about this very uncertain-seeming world onto which you’re about to make your mark. I’m going to argue that the generations ahead of you, including people like your parents and grandparents, and me, and those that will follow you, like the children and grandchildren you will someday have, need you to feel as if you can change the world, and to get busy doing so by putting your UVM training to maximum use.

Let’s go into that case. What’s most worth noticing about the circumstances in which we meet — right here, right now, as you begin your post-college life?

One answer would obviously be the splendor of the environment, natural and cultural alike, in which you have spent these years of study — and where, if past evidence is any guide, many of you will do your best to stay, as you start your families and build your lives. Vermonters think theirs is an exceptional place, and they are right.

Another might be the nature of this institution — supportive and adaptive, both innovative and traditional, strong in the liberal arts and the sciences — to which you should always feel indebted in more than the obvious ways, and that you, and I, should always feel proud to call alma mater.

But what I hope you’ll focus on are the times in which we meet. The times of our 45th president. Of challenges to liberal democracies and open societies all around the world. Of contested news, and siloed news, “fake news,” and ever-emergent real news. Times of imperiled science—when science matters more than ever. Of social and economic divisions, as technology unites us and drives us apart. Of increasingly urgent global threats, starting with sustainability in all forms and extending to disease and disorder and terrorism and forced migration, at a time of increasingly frayed global ability to focus on what matters and cooperate.

And the message I have about this era, your era, is that it is a terrible time—and a wonderful time, and that only by keeping that dual reality constantly in mind will you be prepared to contain what’s worst and foster what’s best. I even have specific suggestions of steps you can take toward that end.

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The idea of good and bad coexisting — of triumph and tragedy, of hope and despair — is as old as American history, as old as the Bible, as old as human beings grappling with our own fallibility.

The most famous opening lines in English literature may be “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which as all UVM grads know is from A Tale of Two Cities. When I was attending my own commencement ceremony, a young historian named Michael Kammen was about to win the Pulitzer Prize for a book called People of Paradox. It was about the coexistence at every moment of U.S. history of the very best and the near-worst of the human enterprise: America as arena for unprecedented opportunity, but also of slavery and attacks on a native population and centuries of excess and strife. What I consider the most important essay about American self-governance, “The Moral Equivalent of War” by William James in 1910, explores why the greatest American disaster, the Civil War, brought forth its greatest presidential leadership and countless acts of selfless behavior.

Because we know that the United States has survived its past eras of turmoil and failure, we are naturally tempted to think it was destined to do so, and that the previous eras’ challenges could not have been, or felt, as serious as our own.

But I think back to my own graduation, in 1970, in what we now consider a stylistically embarrassing era but a time of middle class prosperity. Yet I remember that in those times hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese were dying each week in combat; and that the world environmental crisis was dawning; and that discrimination of kinds you would find incredible was still enshrined by custom and law; and that many American cities were literally in flames.

It was a terrible time, which felt more on-the-edge even than the world does to you now; yet because of the social and environmental reforms, and the scientific and technical breakthroughs, that flowed from it, was a wonderful time as well.

I could think back to my father’s graduation from college, in the era we now revere for the “Greatest Generation” coherence of American society. Except, he never had a graduation, since he was rushed through college in two years for training as a Navy doctor as part of the all-out effort to save the world from Nazism and fascism. A terrible time, which brought out wonderful traits in people.

Or I could go back a generation more to my grandfather’s graduation, during the early-1900s flowering of American innovation and expansion that laid down much of the physical look of the country today. Except that he, like 99 per cent of the American population at the time, never went to college — and was unusual even for finishing high school, which barely a tenth of Americans did.

My point is not that things used to be tougher – this is not a “kids today!”
speech -- but that they have always been challenging, even in this overall most favored of lands. And that in the moment our forebears felt as troubled and uncertain about national prospects as many of you do now.

More fundamentally I am suggesting that remembering the travails of the past helps us be precise about what is distinctively challenging in this time, which will be your time. To me the precise statement of America’s problem in your times involves national level politics, which are in stark contrast to most of the rest of American life.

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Let me explain.  National policy and politics matters, obviously — this is how the United States won its wars, expanded its frontiers, invested in technologies, supported universities and advanced social equality.  But national politics and policy — the ability to address collective problems in a reasonable, compromise-minded, fact-based, and future-oriented way — are the major failure of national life right now. It’s not as bad as during the Civil War, but by any other standard we’re at a low ebb.

Each of you has an illustration of what you like, and don’t, in the national politics of the moment. For me, personally, the main point of pain is the rejection of the thing I most love about my country. My wife Deb – who one year ago was an honorary-degree recipient (at the University of Redlands) -- and I have spent many years of our life outside the United States. And the experience of living elsewhere has reinforced the idea that what is noblest and more powerful about this country is precisely its openness to talent from around the world. My America is a place that gives immigrants and “the wretched refuse” of the world — the words on the Statue of Liberty — a chance to make this arena for their dreams and ambitions, despite all the difficulties of adjustment. My America is not the one that builds a wall. Many of you have seen that process of absorption underway here in Burlington; some of you have lived it in your own lives.

I’m sure some of you see this differently from me. Some may be pleased with the national direction; some are more concerned about other questions, from climate to health care to criminal justice or drug abuse to a dozen others within the United States and worldwide. But whatever your views, whatever your loyalties, I am here to say that this is as promising a time as it is challenging, and we need you to stay engaged where the promise exists — which for the foreseeable future is not at the national but the local level of American life.

How can I say this about local possibilities? I’ll try with a test. How many of you think of UVM and Burlington and Vermont as special places? As places that are exceptions to the national trend? That are moving forward?

I bet many of you do. And you have better grounds than most. But having spent several years traveling around parts of the country less obviously special than this, I can tell you that in much of the country people feel just the same way about where they are from. They feel that they are doing better, in the part of the country within their own experience, than what they hear about the country as a whole. They say that in Mississippi, with all its burdens. They say it in South Dakota. They say it in Arizona and Oregon and South Carolina and rustbelt Michigan and Pennsylvania. Everyone in this country is aware of the nation’s problems. But most places, most people feel that the greatest possibilities are through local involvement, and that they are moving ahead rather than falling behind.

They’re local in their emphasis on new manufacturing models. New models of conservation and sustainability. New ways of matching underemployed talent with decently paying opportunities. New accommodation for refugees and immigrants. New practicality in politics and health care and education and law enforcement— which is what Deb and I have been chronicling in our travels around today’s United States.

Local solutions can never fully substitute for national or global approaches. But for now they are what’s possible, and for the long run they are the fabric from which larger solutions are woven.

At the time of my graduation, the saying was: think global, act local. That’s one of the few 1970s mottos that has held up well. Local economics, local politics, local schools, local communities — that’s what the world, and the country, needs from you. Historians tell the story of America’s great post-Gilded Age reform through the tale of presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning to his distant cousin Franklin at the end. But what those presidents did would never have been possible without labor activists in the midwest and far west, women’s rights activists, environmental activists, black activists, muckrakers and civic reformers and community organizers and a thousand illustrations more. Theirs is the example we need you to follow.

Which means, in particular, what? Here are some illustrations.

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First and always, vote. It sounds simple and stupid and pointless, but you have to do it every time, and crucially for every office. School boards have a tremendous say over our nation’s future. Vote for them. Mayors have more control over local environment and livability than most US Senators. Vote for them. After the next census state legislatures will determine whether our politics continue in a dysfunctionally gerrymandered system. Vote for ones who will fix that. Control of the House and Senate next year will have ramifications for decades. Vote.

Second, run for office. No joke—as soon as you’re old enough, of course. We need you. In the late 1800s, the aristocratic Theodore Roosevelt shocked his social set by deciding to join the squalid hurly-burly of asking the public’s support. You may not all be aristocrats. But you can make a difference as he did then. Someone will hold these offices. Let it be you — at the city and county and state and congressional level. If you don’t run, work for and give money to people who do.

Third, subscribe — to a newspaper, a magazine (like the Atlantic!), to the sources of news that will keep us free. Independent information has never been more important, and it’s rarely been under more serious economic challenge. Even if you don’t think you have time for a given publication, even if you disagree with parts of its outlook, even if you can get it for free, vote with your dollars, for your future, and subscribe.

Fourth, engage — in anything. Join. Participate. Meet. Go out of your way not to cocoon but to build and maintain face-to-face connections wherever you end up. Join the library board, a dance group, sports leagues, the YMCA, a church or synagogue or mosque. To put it differently, serve. The United States will not again have mandatory conscription, and today’s military is so small that barely one percent of the population has served during all of our current long wars. But consider joining the reserves or going on active duty; make a point of knowing people who have served.

When public life is going well, we have the luxury of not thinking about it. It’s like going to a restaurant, rather than having to shop and make dinner yourself. We’re all needed in the kitchen now— starting with the freshest and brightest and most idealistic among us, by which I mean you.

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There are other lessons-of-life I would love to give you, but for which there is no time. I will say that when in doubt, please call your parents to say hi, especially your mom. In your own role as mothers or fathers, spend more time with your children than you think reasonable. You will never regret it, and you will regret doing anything else.

Your habits become your life, so pay attention to them. Get in the habit of sports and exercise  Get in the habit of being happy. Get in the habit of being excited. It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored.

And get in the habit of engagement. We are counting on you, and on this day we celebrate what the University of Vermont has done to prepare you, for the service we need from you, starting right now.#