Focusing on domestic issues
Abridged form published 9/4/02 at the Duke chronicle
Commencement speeches should be given on the first day of college, when their inspiration to aspiration would exert more influence than as the last words before getting one’s diploma, for concentrating young minds on what needs to be done in the world is an important aspect of college too often forgotten by society.
Nothing concentrated minds more than Sept. 11, a moment of revelation about the world and who our true friends are; the upcoming anniversary should also be a moment of reflection on our country and what needs be done. Important issues before last September are still critical; policy in domestic arenas needs to be tackled, blunt questions posed, and tough choices made.
- Energy: Oil addiction perverts foreign policy, fuels fundamentalism & repression, and wreaks environmental destruction. Alternatives --gas-electric hybrids, fuel cells, renewable sources, and conservation-- exist but remain untapped due to lack of political commitment.
- Education: Public schools are a vital but crumbling pillar of our social, intellectual, and economic fabric. Neither throwing money nor piecemeal privatization can nourish the foundation of future citizenry, prosperity, and integration of immigrants. Watered-down standards are no substitute for leveling the playing field with better opportunity & higher expectations for all. A national curriculum, rigorous standards for students & teachers, incentives for teaching, increased resources, and cultural emphasis on academics need to be brought to bear.
- Fiscal Policy: Two of every three federal dollars are spent on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and interest on the debt. An aging population, greater defense needs, and a budget-busting tax cut have wiped out the surplus and threaten to bankrupt the country’s future in the prime earning years of today’s freshmen. Reversing tax cuts & corporate welfare, slowly raising retirement age over the next 50 years, means-testing benefits, and paying off the debt need to be tabled.
- Health: Over 40 million uninsured, costs of $1.4 trillion now forecasted to rise to 16% of GDP by the end of the decade, and tremendous patient dissatisfaction reveal a system adrift. Medicine is no longer about patients and doctors but about insurance companies. Health care rationing, national health insurance, arbitration screening frivolous malpractice suits, limits on drug marketing coupled with societal return on its investment in medical research, all need to be considered.
- Environment: Global warming, habitat destruction, & pollution are insidious dangers to which indifference will only reap future suffering. Cleaner energy, shifting income taxes to pollution & conservation taxes, debt reduction in return for rainforest preservation, and smarter corporate regulation are all essential.
- Integrity: While the business of
may be business, not everything should be reduced to profit motive. Commodification of practically everything coarsens life and taints society not only in business scandal but in political influence-peddling, grade inflation, perverse incentives in health care, and special-interests valuing their pockets over their purposes. Educators and parents must find better ways to impart the knowledge that a dollar value cannot be placed on character; special interest influence should be curtailed by public campaign financing and free TV time. America
- Vision: Not since JFK’s call to put a man on the moon has the nation been rallied to a mission that captured the imagination. Why not challenge the American can-do spirit with a call to cure cancer or AIDS, involve youth in national service, or put a man on Mars?
- Science and Society: Advances in cloning, genetic manipulation, information technology, and robotics have outpaced public discussion, threatening a future where definitions of personhood and freedom may be made in a vacuum of ethics. Scientific progress must not relegate the meaning of humanity to statistics.
and Security: The old rules on individual rights and governmental responsibilities were unfortunately part of the rubble of ground zero; we have to write a new book, keeping in mind both basic principles and current needs. Security protects the liberty that is the purpose of Liberty ; guardians and advocates of both need each other and must remember this critical symbiosis. America
Sept. 11 dispelled the illusion that individuals can ignore the world, and discredited the hubris of the conformity cops of the right and the apologists of terrorism of the thought police of the left, who share shrill hysteria, historical amnesia, and intellectual flaccidity. Society is often the best and sometimes only guard of the individual, as public initiatives are needed for public goods. It behooves tomorrow’s leaders to take an active interest in matters of state, develop an appreciation for society’s concerns, and be the cornerstone of the wellspring of domestic renewal to replenish America’s vitality. As a poet once said, the meaning of life is not a fact waiting to be discovered but a choice about the way we live, a truth best heard at the beginning of one’s journey through higher education.