When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts during the 1970s, we spent a lot of our classroom time under our desks. This wasn’t some sort of insipid punishment for bad behavior in which we had to look for petrified chunks of gum and candy to scrape clean. Rather it was survival training in the case of nuclear attack—or any other form of mass destruction. We lived under a constant threat of such attack. That threat manifested itself–overtly as well as indirectly–in nightly news broadcasts and political speeches as well as the entertainment industry, from cinema to popular music to children’s programming such as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. This was simply reality for those of us growing up in the United States at the time. It was one that didn’t truly start to change until Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the (unofficial) end of the Cold War in 1989.
I cannot tell you how fortunate I feel that the generations born from the mid-1980s through the present day have not had to live under those same levels of constant anxiety. The fact that I have to explain to my 6-year-old daughter that a Cold War isn’t about temperature and what it was like to live through mandatory emergency drills signified by firehouse klaxons going off each Friday at noon gives me great relief—but also some pause for reflection.
Because as difficult and anxiety-filled as that childhood was, it also shaped my generation’s sense of engagement with politics and government and reinforced a truly global experience. We grew up, after all, realizing that the actions of a single person in a single nation could affect—even to the point of annihilation—all humans everywhere. Politics wasn’t simply local or national—it was global. (No film is better at depicting this than Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove” (1964), which I first watched with my dad in the late 1970s and would view with fellow undergraduates throughout the 1980s straight through the 1990s and graduate school.)
It was precisely the recognition that each of us bore some piece of responsibility for the fate of us all–the entire human race–that propelled the world into one of the greatest moments in modern history: 1989. A year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall; Poland’s first free elections in over 40 years; protests for democracy across the world, including in China, Georgia, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania; concluding with Presidents H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev (USSR) declaring the end of the Cold War.
My point is that an entire generation of individuals–East and West and North and South–felt compelled to become involved within their political, social and cultural world—to become agents of change within their societies. And the results were, quite literally, revolutionary.
There is a great deal of talk today about “outsiders” and the argument that today’s world can only be changed by these “outsiders.” Social media sites, both Left and Right, establishment and anti-establishment, are replete with such arguments. Yascha Mounk, writing for Slate.com, makes a good point about this all in concluding: “But if we are to respond to the effects of social media on our political system, we must start by understanding its nature: Neither wholly good nor wholly bad, social media favor the outsider over the insider, and the forces of instability over the defenders of the status quo.” (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_good_fight/2017/02/social_media_isn_t_bad_or_good_it_favors_outsiders_regardless_of_their_aims.html)
My point, though, is that social change—the drive to create a more just and civil and equitable society—comes not from “outsiders” who impose their will upon a “broken system” or the dreaded “status quo.” Rather, it comes from the great majority of us who work within that system and are dedicated to making a better world than that within which we first found ourselves. The fear of nuclear war, of near-instant annihilation, didn’t lead millions of people in 1989 to lose hope—it led them to take action. (Or, as one of the lines in one of my favorite recent films goes: “Rebellions are built on hope.”)
That’s why days like this past Sunday—our Academic Awards ceremony at UMPI—are so important. Because the recipients of those awards–teachers and mentors and students and scholars and educators–are those of us who work, day in and day out, in ways both large and small, to make a better and more hopeful world for all of us. They are truly insiders—individuals who work hard to succeed and inspire and create and who, as a collective, make this both a remarkable institution and a remarkable corner of this world.
My thanks to all of you, to those who teach and those who learn (and what learners are not also teachers and vice versa?), to those who are graduating and those who (thank you!!!) are returning to our university next year, for having the continued courage to make change from the inside. To engage the university, your friends and families, your local communities and, yes, even your political leaders. To quote Martin Luther King, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” And it’s the small things, in 2017 just like in 1989, that collectively lead to great change.