Spring on the York College campus

Society Needs You

By Erec Smith, Ph.D.
Erec Smith, Commencement Speaker
Erec Smith, Ph.D.
I enjoy commencement for many reasons, but most importantly because it allows me to dress like a wizard without inducing odd stares. I suppose I could do it for Halloween, but there are so many wizards out there that night. No one wants an oversaturation of wizards. But although I may be belaboring my love of wizards, a wizardry of sorts plays into this speech. But more on that later.

For now, let me just get to the point: we need you. The world needs you. It needs you because it needs intelligent, ambitious and involved people. As young men and women with York College educations, you are just that. 

This is winter commencement and you all are ready to enter the real world. I trust that York College has prepared you for your future endeavors, but some wizardry may be needed, regardless. Sure, you have acquired great knowledge in your chosen majors. You have acquired sufficient understandings in the majors of others. You have taken advantage of extracurriculars, internships, and study abroad programs. 

But are you prepared for the world your prior generation has left for you? Millennials may take a brunt of criticism from society, but you had little to do with the way things are, these days. Infighting and us v. them attitudes pervade more than just politics. This is a world of contention. A world in which one person's good is another person's evil, where one person's moral act is another person's sinful transgression. How does one navigate such a world? How does one find happiness and success in a world that very few people even saw coming? Are you prepared to create a life of happiness and success amidst all that?

If I had to take a guess, I'd say you are ready for dealing with and contributing to modern-day humanity. After all you shared your college careers with humans. You may have been involved in intricate group projects. You may live in one of the on-campus dormitories. You may be a part of the panhellenistic presence on campus . . . and off. 
But things are different now. For example, the very concept of truth is in question. People have gone as far as to say we live in a post-truth society. To that I say that you, as graduates of York College, know better. You understand the benefits of having an open mind. You also are versed in the power and necessity of critical thinking. You may realize the importance of their confluence: open-mindedness and critical thinking must work together, for open-mindedness without critical thinking is gullibility. 

We also live in a world where competition overtakes collaboration. Of course, competition can be a very healthy thing, but I want to remind you of the original meaning of competition: to run with – to make each other better through challenging one another. Thus, the goal is not to win, but to create a world in which we all have to opportunities to win. As York College graduates, you manifest greatness. Strengthen the world by finding like-minded souls; surround yourself with greatness. I read somewhere that you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. I'm not saying it's no fun to have friends in low places. Those guys can be a lot of fun. But make sure to enjoy the company of those you respect and admire as often as possible. There is no motivation like competition in the original sense of the word. Run with greatness and you and society will benefit.

I should say, though, that even those greats may challenge you, and they should; these challenges will make you stronger. So, I advise you not to fear conflict, but to welcome it with open arms. Conflict — disagreement based on differing beliefs and interests that can have a profound mental and emotional impact – is often inevitable. However, being open to the inevitability of conflict can open us up to the benefits of conflict. Then and only then will we be able to co-construct new stories in which shared values are focal, beneficial beliefs for all are enacted, and social gaps are bridged.

As you can see, society needs you. But I dare say society needs you to jog its memory, to remember what it is and what it is supposed to be. Perhaps we all need to recognize the values we may share with our fellow Americans. Yes, family, civility, societal contribution—all these are solid values. However, I believe your generation must be the ones to recognize, or re-recognize, the core values of this society. 

As Americans, most of us should value the salient words of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution's decree of "a more perfect Union." These words, alone, express the major values of America. Who among us does not want these things for ourselves and our families?

Although diversity is a virtue, I implore you to bring on an era of commonality. Diversity of ethnicity, culture, and gender need not be relinquished, but we must not forget that we have strong and fundamental commonalities. In addition, these very commonalities can serve as bridges that connect otherwise disparate factions. 

But now I feel the need to return to the spirit that began this speech: Wizardry. Really, I am speaking of the efficacy of science fiction, in general. As many would tell you, make-believe in the form of science fiction like, say, wizardry, can be a solid source of good life advice. Often, such stories or sagas are parables for our own realities. So what bit of make-believe best reflects my advice for you, my urging for who you should be and who the world needs you to be? Is there a model you would do well to emulate? I know of one, and some of you know what I am going to say.

Are there any Doctor Who fans in attendance, today?

For those of you deprived of the joy of the long-standing television series, Doctor Who, let me give you a brief introduction. The Doctor could be construed as a wizard in his own right, but he is much, much more. A refugee from the planet Gallifrey, the Doctor traverses the universe seeking to help those in need with his thousands of years of experience, thoughts, and skills. He can live so long because, as a Time Lord—oh, did I mention he has a time machine and can go anywhere in any time? Yeah – as a Time Lord he does not die but regenerates. He maintains his memories, but acquires a new body and personality. Sure, the television producers threw the last bit in to insure that the show wouldn't fold when the lead actor left, but it makes for an excellent model for getting through life. So, when in doubt, ask "What Would the Doctor Do?" 

Let me explain: 
  • As a highly intelligent being from a world much more civilized than our own, he is known for competence, knowledge, and intelligence. Be that person. Be known as the man or woman who has his or her stuff together so well that your reputation precedes you.
  •  As a time traveler and space adventurer, he's seen it all. Be the kind of person for whom nothing is a surprise. You need not be a complete stoic, but work to rarely, if ever, be rattled. This takes practice and experience and it takes an embrace of conflict.
  • As a person who regenerates into someone new, the Doctor is crafty, flexible, improvisational. These are all skills necessary to survive in this world. Yes, maintain your integrity and stay true to your values, but don't be afraid to say or try new things. Roll with the punches, and, when necessary, regenerate.
I will end with words from the Doctor himself. As the 11th Doctor nears the moment when he will quickly regenerate into the 12th Doctor
(yes, there are 12) he gives the following farewell speech:

We all change, when you think about it. We're all different people through our lives. And that's okay, that's good, you've got to keep on moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.
Always remember these days. Never forget your past. But never, ever, be afraid to move on. The world needs you. Be its heroes.