September 3, 2008
It is wonderful to look out today and both see and feel the energy of the start of a new academic year. We are called together – the literal meaning of the word convocation – called together at Vassar on this occasion as we are every year to recognize, celebrate and reaffirm the value of education: the value of learning and teaching, research and scholarship, expression and appreciation, and all of the satisfaction and sacrifice that we know will fill our lives for the next several months.
We are, in this room, no strangers to the sense of anticipation that comes with the beginning of a semester. Those seated on stage collectively have experienced something like a total of 5000 such beginnings. Some of us have never known a fall without one – or at least not one that we can remember. As members of the Vassar College student body, you account for about 70,000, although I think I’m safe in saying that for our newest members, the very impressive Class of 2012, the anticipation is particularly intense, and for the equally exceptional Class of 2009 these are just the first moments of realizing what those caps and gowns signal – this is not the start of just another year in school. And today’s sense of anticipation is fully justified. The work we will do here is interesting, challenging and exciting – well worth the time and effort we know it will take.
It is also important. All of the things we need to live – food, shelter, medical care - wouldn’t exist – as least not as they are provided in modern society –without the educational foundation that underlies them. The positive correlation of education with economic and social well being is exceptionally strong. And although I’m well conditioned as an economist to recognize that correlation is not necessarily causation, I firmly believe that finding ways to provide access to superior education is one of the best ways to improve the lives of individuals and the well being of a society.
America has a long history of significant educational achievement. From 1870 to 1970, the average level of education of Americans increased significantly, as we expanded primary and then secondary education, and then increased access to higher education. The GI Bill was an important moment in our history, with about 2.2 million veterans going to college on the G.I. Bill. The enrollment rates of 18 to 21 year olds almost quadrupled from 1940 to 1970 (from about 15% to 60%).
Since then, we’ve continued to make progress in many areas, including access by race and gender. But, we face significant educational challenges as a nation, which we ignore at our peril. These include, among others, the quality of public K through12 education and unequal access to higher education (based on factors other than achievement, such as family income and race.) And, other countries are making significant investments in education, not only catching up to us, but passing us by.
This summer I had a chance to check on the progress of another country with which I am familiar – the Republic of Zambia. My husband Kent and I led a trip there organized by the AAVC, or the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (for new students.) (And, for you seniors, you will soon be a part of this group!). We were a microcosm of the extended Vassar community: old and young alums along with their spouses, partners, friends and grandchildren. And we had a great time.
As many of you know, I spent three years living in Zambia with my family in the mid 1990’s doing research and serving as an advisor to the Zambian government. Those years were an amazing experience, and new and different in a multitude of ways that both challenged and rewarded me and my family. Zambia is a beautiful country – the site of Victoria Falls (or Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”, also the name of the local beer, or Mosi for short.) It is home to a richly diverse landscape and wildlife. It has natural resources and plenty of arable land, and has worked hard to establish the institutions necessary to complete its transformation since independence in 1964. My work as an economic advisor concentrated on macroeconomic and trade policies and, while I was not unrealistic about the challenges the country faced, I had every hope that real progress was possible.
Returning 10 years later, I saw that progress is being made, but very slowly. Per capita real GDP growth has been minimal (better in the last few years, but mainly because copper prices are high and the rains have been good, not conditions that can be assumed will continue) and many social and economic indicators remain weak. Easily the most serious challenge Zambia faces is the AIDS epidemic, and its drain on human and economic resources is devastating. About 17% of the population between ages 15 and 49 is HIV positive, and life expectancy at birth is less than 42 years.
Still, there are reasons for hope, and one of those reasons is at least some attention to education, although even there, the overall educational rate is far too low. In the capital of Lusaka, we visited a shelter, school and library for street children, many of whose parents have died of AIDS. At the lodges where we stayed, there were schools maintained for the children of employees, giving those families the dual foundation of economic stability and educational opportunity.
Another reason for hope is an increasingly functioning democracy. There have been four democratic elections since 1991 with multiple parties and genuinely contested ballots. Elections have been seen as mostly fair and free, and voter turnout of registered voters in the last three presidential elections has risen from 58% to 68% to 72%.
All this contrasts sharply with countries close by. President Mwanawasa, elected to his second term in 2006, died recently in August, after suffering a stroke in June. He was one of only a few African leaders to damn Mr. Mugabe’s misrule in Zimbabwe and the misery it has caused for its 12 million citizens. In accord with the constitution, new elections will be held in the next 90 days.
Which brings me back to the United States. If this were a class, I’d ask if anyone knows what the voter turnout was in our most recent presidential election. The answer is 55% – just over half of those eligible to vote, and even calculated at 70% of registered voters, lower than Zambia’s 72%.
I don’t really need to give the rest of my remarks. You know what’s coming. All I can say is that if this presidential election does not motivate you to get involved, then I doubt much I can say today is going to make a difference, but let me try.
Regardless of one’s political point of view, one cannot but recognize that this election marks an historical watershed in American history. As someone who came of age during the anti-war and civil rights struggles of the 60s and 70s, I confess that although I firmly believed that there would one day be an African-American presidential candidate nominated by a major party, my sense of how deeply racism is entrenched in our society did not allow me to be optimistic about seeing it in my lifetime. And even though that same breakthrough is yet to be achieved for a woman, can there be any doubt that Hillary Clinton pushed that dream one step closer to reality? And since I first wrote these remarks, John McCain has chosen a woman for his Vice Presidential running mate.
But make no mistake, both the presidential candidacies of Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton are only signs of progress in the struggle for equal rights and opportunity, not the signal that those struggles have been won, as some commentators might have us believe. Still the progress is inspiring and is further evidence that the activism that exploded in the 60s permanently changed the culture.
Not surprisingly, that activism also seems to have generated new strategies used by opponents of change. The image of resistance to equal opportunity is no longer a belligerent politician blocking the door of a segregated high school, but lawyers presenting sophisticated legal arguments to block affirmative action programs. The elimination of the draft has allowed a war to seem to be fought with only the physical sacrifice of the willing, and it has also been funded in ways that give the illusion of asking economic sacrifice of no one.
Activism has changed, but certainly has not disappeared – certainly not among Vassar students. I admire the dedication I have seen in something like the Uganda Project, or engagement in sustainability issues, or support for the extended community of which Vassar College is just one part. Many of the student organizations are directed toward an activist cause or seek to find ways to allow Vassar to live up to the high ideals we set for ourselves. Let me urge our newest students, especially, to explore the many opportunities for getting involved with those organizations, or to form your own groups if you have a passion and see a need.
But let me conclude by returning to the election, since here is an opportunity for the simple but profound activist act of voting. If you are eligible to vote, but are not registered, you have no excuse. Every state has a website with registration instructions and absentee ballot procedures. Or, as a Vassar student you are eligible to register and vote as a Poughkeepsie resident – a right that is well established by courts.
Learn about the issues and the candidates’ positions. The issues that we face as a nation and that are being debated in this election – education, America’s role in the world, the economy, access to medical care, the environment, to mention just a few - are going to be incredibly important to all of our futures. When you leave today, there will be a table outside where you can get information about registering to vote, thanks to the VSA and the Vassar Democrats. (I’ve been assured it is non-partisan voter registration information!)
So welcome to the new year. May it be rich and rewarding and interesting in every way.
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