05/21/2012 08:28 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

We Need to Put the Class of 2012 to Work

As an academic, commencement is a very special time of the year, when we celebrate the accomplishments of the people who have come to study with us. I direct and teach in two masters programs at Columbia and so at commencement recently I found myself working hard to correctly pronounce the names of over 60 graduates of the Masters of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy and another 50 graduates of our Masters of Sustainability Management Program.

Perhaps I wanted to celebrate more than usual because I saw two other graduations this year. One was at Barnard College, where the President of the United States gave a motivating message to some terrific graduates. The other was at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where I had the pleasure of watching my older daughter graduate. As she stepped across the stage to greet Jonathan Lash, Hampshire's new president, I kept thinking about President Obama's message to Barnard's graduates. The president remarked that nothing important was very easy to accomplish and made numerous references to the importance of persistence and hard work. All week long I kept watching hardworking graduates parade before their proud parents.

That message of persistence and hard work has been in my head all week. As my own students and my own daughter received their degrees a second message started to play in my internal earphone. It was: "Education is the true foundation of civil liberty," a quotation inscribed above the entrance of my alma mater, James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue and Quentin Road in Brooklyn. President Madison could not have been more correct. Without learning, knowledge, and education there is no chance of liberty and democracy. And without persistence and hard work, learning is simply not possible. Hard work, persistence, learning and democracy are core American values, and last week I saw evidence that they are alive and well.

Lately many Americans have spent a lot of time lamenting our "decline." While I think that the modern media makes sure we are aware of our failings, I see no American decline. I see persistence and hard work. I see success and a glass that is far more than half full. Moreover, we are starting to see the impact of the first generation raised with the internet. Sure, some of it leads to silliness like Facebook and Twitter. But some of it leads to research, analysis and the creation of new knowledge. I think it's time to start projecting and understanding the potential impact of the first generation to have had access to all of the world's information at the touch of a screen.

Not only does this generation have access to information but they have come to expect that knowledge belongs to everyone and that everyone should have the fundamental freedom to navigate the internet. Our students are becoming experts at drawing information out of the vast well of data, images and ideas that are now stored online. Some of them are learning how to apply that information to learning and problem solving. Given the number of problems we have, this trend could not have come at a better time.

In both of the sustainability masters programs I direct at Columbia, groups of graduate students, under faculty direction, conduct pro bono research projects for public sector clients. In the Sustainability Management program capstone this past semester, projects ranged from integrating sustainability metrics into an award given out by the King of Jordan, to public education for the new park being built at the site of New York's Freshkills landfill. Similar projects were also undertaken in our Environmental Science and Policy program including one that assessed methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in New York City's neighborhoods and another that analyzed the problem of urban food waste.

Meanwhile, up at Hampshire College, its graduates completed the requirements of their "Division III" individual projects on topics as varied as "the molecular biology of memory" and "exploring art and social justice." Hampshire's curriculum requires each undergraduate student to stretch their imaginations and capacities in an individual exploration guided by a committee of faculty. Hampshire's absence of structure is both successful and risky. In contrast, Columbia's professional graduate curriculum requires large teams (10-14 people) to adhere to highly structured requirements imposed by faculty and clients. The methods used by Hampshire and Columbia's faculty may differ, but the results are equally amazing. One cannot help but be impressed by the scope, ambition and quality of the work of today's students. If this is what decline looks like I wonder what success must be.

The problem of course is that all of this information, analysis and knowledge must be put to work. It is not enough to know the right answer; we must be able to do something with it. To paraphrase Hampshire President's Lash's commencement speech this past weekend, if you're going to occupy Wall Street or anyplace else, it's not enough to just sit around beating on drums once you get there. You must do something. Moreover, the forces of greed and intolerance are relatively immune to information and analysis. The bad guys have a harder time resisting the force of an engaged mass public, but as President Obama knows, it takes persistence and hard work to create and sustain those majorities.

As a parent and an educator, I cannot help but be concerned about the lack of economic opportunity for today's graduates. It is important that all this energy, information and analysis be put to work and not to waste. It's a little weird to hear Mitt Romney blame the state of the economy on Barack Obama. In Romney's view, simply lowering taxes and unleashing the forces of market capitalism is all we need to do to create an economic boom. Perhaps he was out of the country between 2001 and 2008. President George W. Bush cut taxes and regulation. When "W" followed Bill Clinton into the White House we were at peace and there was no federal deficit. When he left we were broke and at war. During the Bush era we started two wars without raising the revenue needed to fight them, ran up a huge budget deficit and came within an inch of falling over a cliff into the second Great Depression. Somebody better tell Mitt that Obama wasn't president in 2008 when the collapse began. He was the guy in 2009 that helped bring us back from the brink.

This is not to argue that Barack Obama has been the perfect president; far from it. He has had to undergo a little too much on the job training. But I have a hard time believing that Americans are going to reject Obama's persistence for Romney's privilege. The idea that his experience at Bain Capital prepared him for dealing with the complexity of the modern global economy is silly. Finding America's place in the global economy is going to take decades of struggle, analysis and hard work. There are no easy answers. Not for Romney. Not for Obama or anyone else.

This presidential campaign has a half-year to go and is already dreary beyond belief. As the mud starts to fly, I'm going to think back to this past week and remember the smiling graduates and families I saw at all those commencements. I will remember that Madison was right: "Education is the true foundation of civil liberty," and President Obama is right too, nothing important is ever easy. I will think of the hard working and persistent people I saw marching across the stage this past month, and know that decline, like failure is not an option. So come on folks, let's figure out a way to put the Class of 2012 to work.