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Educating for Democracy: Robert De Niro's Commencement Address and Mine

05/30/2015 08:47 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2016

Several days ago Robert De Niro, a great actor and sometime political activist startled the graduating class of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts by declaring "You're F****d!" De Niro was not talking about the sexual exuberance of the students who had become proficient in dance, music, film, writing and the other skills which have been bundled into this vague term known as "the arts." He was merely calling attention to the fact that while such professions as nursing, accounting, medicine, and finance are in demand, the arts definitely are not.

DiNiro clarified his startling obervation by saying that since there are no good-paying jobs in the arts those who are cursed with the blessings of talent and dedication can console themselves that although they will probably spend most of the rest of their lives in poverty, they at least can be cheered by the thought that they are doing something in which they can feel fulfilled emotionally if not materially. Given this consoling thought I would like to present an all-purpose college graduation address that might be even more to the point than DiNiro's: What future is there in the future.

I want to address the parents, honored guests, and all other sundry dignitaries, bureaucrats and corporate enterprisers that have transformed college education into a supermarket of unlikely possibilities. I also, but not incidentally want to address the graduates of this esteemed institution, especially those who are already parents or intend to be parents and who just might be thinking of their future descendants who will, hopefully, be around at the start of the next century.

We live in an age of magical thinking. It is a time in which whatever confidence we have that there will be a future for humanity is promised through the wonders of technology wedded to the wonders of "the market." This totally unrealistic faith is reinforced by what I would call a 'business-as-usual education' that is fundamentally based on nineteenth century models of privilege which viewed the acquisition of a college diploma as the key to success. But I am not too optimistic about your future if you expect to define success in tangible terms; especially since in that future I would hope that the last way in which 'success' is measured is through acquired wealth or personal recognition. There's not going to be lot of that in a future that is presently being dealt with by assuming it will be much like the past. We need to think outside of the proverbial box in order to reinvent the kind of higher education that will be desperately needed in that uncertain future.

I agree with Mr. De Niro that those who have chosen the arts for their vocation are "F..ked" but so are most of you with a college degree, regardless of the profession. That is because by the time most of you get to be my and Mr. De Niro's age, the planet might well be without easily accessible water, breathable air, and plagued by unbearable extremes of heat and cold. This dismal prospect is more than likely so long as the 'business-as-usual-' culture of academia continues to pretend that the status quo, especially for their students, will remain as it is like the U.S. Post office's'Forever' stamp, one of our most obvious examples of magical thinking.

This attitude toward a future that will just take care of itself is reflected in the way the academy and Americans in general address the threat of environmental annihilation: Offering a few elective courses on climate change, renewable resources and conservation or even establishing a major area of study to address this existential problem will not be much more effective in dealing with it than the annual ritual of 'Earth Day' which is more lip service compared to any substantial program of national commitment. What I mean by 'educating for the future' is in recognizing what will soon be a fundamental change in the way we conduct our daily lives.

If you want to have some reason to hope that the next two or three generations will be looking back at yours in admiration for your dedication to giving them a real future, one both difficult and rewarding but very different from our own, the 'business-as-usual' recipe for higher education must be replaced with one that confronts a number of profound problems that we are reluctantly beginning to acknowledge. They won't simply go away if we ignore them or, as the governor of Florida has decreed, by forbidding his employees to even mention the subject. So here are some of the catastrophes, referred to benignly as "challenges," for the class of 2015 to confront before you get to my age:

1. With an increasingly aging and ill population, how do you deal humanely with those who can no longer be given the kind of expensive health care that is becoming more unaffordable, not just to the patients, but to the municipal and state treasuries that presently fund it? There are several suggested solutions that need to be considered even if only partially successful. One is to ration care, which is already being done, whether we realize it or not; how it's rationed should be recognized, discussed and debated in the public forum.

A second suggestion is to institute a single-payer system-despite all its admitted flaws- that will put the health insurance companies out of business, very much a mixed blessing. A third and far more dracononian solution is to put an "age limit" on how long elderly people can rely on any form of health insurance to pay their bills which could otherwise saddle their own off-spring with never-ending debt. The sick elderly should be given the option to chose what both Roman and Japanese tradition regard as "the honorable way" to end one's existence. This ethical dilemma of assisted suicide, which has been already been legalized in Oregon and a few other places, is only partially addressed by a 'DNR' stipulation. The alternative increasingly confronting the Baby Boomers generation's parents is being kept alive in a comatose state to cater to the need for their offspring to believe in miracles. The value of human life and the expense of prolonging it for a relatively short time once it is determined that the condition is irreversible, is a moral as well as an economic problem that should be addressed as part of a required course for every college freshman.

2. In a global culture that expects ever expanding consumption and resources to meet its demands, how long will it be before we "run out of stuff?" You needn't be a Malthusian to realize that the natural resources the human race continues to consume at an ever-increasing rate are going to give out sooner than later unless a system that is founded on renewable resources can quickly replace the pillage system of economic development: "The Magical Marketplace."

The water crisis in California as well as the Santa Barbara oil spill illustrate the choice between immediate gratification -- and the resulting oblivion -- and the deferred gratification that can lead to survivability. I have asked their view of the future for humanity in the face of inevitably declining resources to a number of wealthy acquaintances and their answer echoes that of former President George W Bush: 'In the future I'll be dead.' Eventually everyone in this gathering will be dead as well but does that excuse us from considering the world we will be giving our descendants as our 'legacy?' Is it possible for affluent diners to live without California 'nuts?'

3. If we are to survive as a species, we need a solid education that not only instructs us about what we need to do in the future, but how we need to change in the present. An example would be learning and cultivating those gifts that Mr.DiNiro regarded, mischieviously, as a sign of being "F...ked' when they should really be cherished as a blessing. And just perhaps in that future instead of obsessing on 'making a living' we could be engaged in 'making a life.' Those who are not naturally talented can still find satisfaction in enjoying their lives without depending on others to provide entertainment or adding to what is rapidly becoming a 'debtor economy.'

Since a college education is the most overpriced and exploitative 'service' you will be dealing with once the bills for your education come due, you might consider exploring alternatives to ways of learning that have not been transformed into corporate enterprises. If all of the bureaucratic layers of administrative detritus were wiped out and higher education were conducted through student-faculty governance, costs would be considerably reduced. Of course, that means that college students would regard 'active learning' which can be developed in project-based learning communities as their primary reason for going to college and the culture of varsity and fraternal self-absorption be given less attention. But this means that the culture of youth, which we worship and emulate all our lives, be muted in the interest of finally 'growing up.'

Other modest suggestions would be the elimination of grades, tests, homework so that we finally recognize that the best teachers are the students themselves. The task of the teacher should be to find ways of motivating them not only to have to learn but want and need to learn. One requirement for all students would be to learn a foreign language, preferably Chinese , Arabic and Hindi not for commercial purposes but to be able to communicate with people who will be more important than ever in the future if the human race intends to remain human. From what I understand the opposite is happening as college-level language requirements are being dropped at an increasing number of schools.

In 2009-2010, only 50.7 percent of higher education institutions required foreign language study for a baccalaureate, down from 67.5 percent in 1994-1995.  And many colleges and universities, including Cornell, have reduced or eliminated instructional offerings in "less popular" languages.

The 'business -as-usual' mentality is exemplified by the assumption that in a 'global economy' everyone must talk in English gives many other nations where learning English is a requirement the advantage of knowing what we are saying while our understanding of what they are saying will be 'lost in translation.' Although American schools have increased their Chinese language classes from 1-4 percent or about 60,000in the last decade there are an estimated 300 million Chinese students, with all of their limitations, being given classes in English.

Of course these problems and proposed solutions are not necessarily a panacea but before we resign ourselves to being F....ed!'. . . at least let's think about the alternatives!"