June 09, 2011
This is Bono giving a commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania. It is customary at universities in the United States to have a notable speaker to celebrate another year of graduates leaving the institution with a degree. I wish this was also a tradition at universities in Germany because it gives graduates like me something they are very much in need of: inspiration.
Now you might say "come on, you just got a degree, you are young and successful, so if you can't come up with brilliant ideas for your life, no one can", but it is not as simple as that.
Yes, it is true, people with masters degrees are certainly less likely to end up unemployed (statistics tell me this, while the clichee still goes about students of humanities driving cabs and selling hot dogs). I acknowledge that I am privileged. I am well-educated, safely funded, and able-bodied.
Nothing can stop people like me. Except for ourselves.
Inspiration is the spark that can make this generation live up to its potential, but it does not grow in an environment of "no, you can't" or of "yes, but". When there is high unemployment we are told to go for security and are discouraged from our dreams because really, what does my generation know about making a career. When the job market is good, we are encouraged to go for the jobs that pay best. Security and money seem like the most obvious categories by which to judge the quality of a job. And it feels limiting. When I turn on the news I listen to politicians naming job creation as their highest priority, as if work was a value in itself. It is not. A healthy, happy, and just global society however is! The shortsighted requirements of creating jobs for our economy to sustain the unsustainable goal of infinite growth are sending a signal that does not lead to the best outcomes.
Everybody has something that inspires them! For me it is the interaction with people, the collaboration to do something good. I also draw energy from things that upset me, from phone companies' bad service, to educational inequality, preventable environmental disasters, global poverty and disease, and the incredibly slow pace of change. If I can harness my passionate instinct to help out with the emergency situation of poverty, environmental change, migration, lack of education in most parts of the world, I am sure to be more productive and more fulfilled in the long run.
The inspiration to help must be steeled against frustration, shielded from cynicism and, very often, from pragmatism. Bono speaks about idealism under attack, and he is right. For years I have learned about the inequalities that our society produces, about the structures that keep the poor in poverty and the uneducated dumb. I know that the time to act has come.
I know that my role in this world is somewhere out there, helping to organize a future that is more just that our past, setting up the structures that will lead to less violence and more education. I have a dream that my children will live in a world that is not shackled by the responsibility for a neglected Global South. In my dream university graduates will not have the odd feeling of choosing between their ideals and a sensible career. This is my mission statement. Feel free to make your own!