Translating the Future
and the Promise of Democracy
Address to convocation by Dr. Henry A. Giroux
I am honoured to accept this honorary degree on this important occasion today, and to be with all of you in sharing this wonderful achievement of graduating from Memorial University. As a father of three teenage boys, I also want to congratulate those family members, friends, and others whose support throughout the years helped to make it possible for you to achieve this tremendous milestone in your life. It is a humbling task to stand before you and say something worthy of this memorable event. Needless to say, I am mindful of a comment made by the late United States Supreme Court Justice, Harry Blackman, who stated that “a commencement speaker was like the corpse at an old-fashioned Irish wake: he was necessary to justify the occasion but no one expected him to say anything.” Seeing as I am alive, I am more inclined to take the advice of the great philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who insisted that award winners should talks less about their own merits and much more about the “world,” and specifically about the public spaces in which we speak and are heard and to which we have certain responsibilities. And it is precisely in this spirit of affirming public discourse, civic morality, and what it might mean to conduct your lives as engaged citizens attentive to the suffering of others and the fragility of democracy itself that I want to frame my brief remarks.
I have been writing about education, social justice, and democracy in the United States for over 30 years. I have done so not because I am motivated by some lofty notion of the perfect society, but because I believe that any talk about the future has to begin with the issue of youth, who more than any other group, embody the projected desires, dreams, and commitment of society’s obligations to the future. This recognition echoes a classical principle of modernity in which youth both symbolized society’s responsibility to the future and offered a measure of its progress. Youth in this instance provides a moral and political referent for how we translate the future and assume a large measure of responsibility for providing the resources, social provisions, and modes of education that enable young people to work toward the promise of an inclusive, sustainable, and peaceful global democracy. Within such a project, democracy is measured by the well-being of youth, while the status of how a society imagines the promise of democracy is contingent on how it views its planetary responsibility towards future generations. As you move from the university to the larger world, how your actions and choices reflect your own sense of responsibility will be inextricably linked to what kind of world you make for your own children.
As you well know, the futures we inherit are not of our own making, but the futures we create for generations of young people who follow us arise out of our ability to imagine a better world, recognize our responsibility to others, and define the success of a society to the degree that it can address the needs of coming generations to live in a world in which the obligations of a global democracy and individual responsibility mutually inform each other. Translating the future in such terms poses a serious and important challenge for your generation because the language of democracy and social justice has come under serious attack within the last few decades. Not only has a widespread pessimism about public life and politics developed in countries such as the United States as politics is devalued and public space is commercialized or privatized, but the very idea of justice is under attack as the language of the social contract and democracy are either devalued or ignored. Dreams of the future are now manufactured in the Pentagon, corporate board rooms, or in Hollywood. In a post 9/11 world, the space of shared responsibility has given way to the space of shared fears; the obligations of citizenship are reduced to the imperatives of consumerism; and the public sphere is emptied of all substantive content and becomes a playground for endlessly enacting and reinforcing the banal privatized fantasies of shopping malls and celebrity culture, which means putting up with the likes of Paris Hilton.
Hopefully, this will not be the model through which you will imagine the future after you leave here today. But dreaming and acting upon a more just and democratic future means you will have to build upon and continue your education, which should begin with the recognition that justice is the merging of hope, reason, imagination, and moral responsibility tempered by the recognition that the pursuit of happiness and the good life is a collective affair. Where does education fit into all of this? Education suggests developing a language and set of strategies for translating private troubles into public considerations and public issues into individual and collective rights. Rather than widen the gap between the public and private, you will need a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of politics. I stress this point because you are living in a world that is increasingly collapsing the public into the private, creating conditions in which public discourse and politics disappear only to be replaced by a litany of individual flaws to be born in isolation. You see the signs of this everywhere. Poverty is now imagined to be a problem of individual character. Racism is said to be merely individual discrimination or prejudice. Homelessness is reduced to choice made by lazy people. Misfortune is viewed as a private disgrace or deserving of only a sneer. At the level of social policy, public officials make lyrical pronouncements suggesting that a crisis such as water pollution can be solved by buying bottled water. Politics takes many forms but central to it is the need for citizens to be able to translate individual problems into public concerns. And that is going to be your job. You leave here today with degrees in education, science, marine science, technology and so many others ... forgive me for not mentioning them all. Today, I ask you to think of yourselves as competent professionals who also have a special obligation as civic leaders. Leadership, as the great sociologist Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, is the ability to question the basic assumptions central to a democracy, to learn how to govern and not simply be governed, to be capable of promoting a vision of the better society, and to raise important questions about what education should accomplish in a democracy.
I believe that one of the many great challenges facing your generation is how to resist the manufactured cynicism, moral despair, and social Darwinism (with its cult of competitiveness and war against all ethic) served up in all the spheres of public life and mirrored daily in reality TV shows such as Survivor, Temptation Island, The Biggest Loser, and The Bachelor. Democratic politics needs leaders, while manufactured cynicism needs celebrity idols. The other great challenge facing your generation is the need to develop a language of not only critique—one that refuses to equate democracy with market relations and consumerism—but also a language of hope.
Vibrant democratic cultures and societies refuse to live in an era that forecloses on hope. Such societies embrace hope not as some utopian dream or privatized fantasy, but as a way of anticipating a better world in the future, by combining reason with a gritty sense of reality and its limits, and realizing your potential as full human beings. Any viable notion of hope has to foreground issues of both understanding and social responsibility and address the implications the latter has for a democratic society. As the artist and politician Vaclav Havel has noted, “Democracy requires a certain type of citizen who feels responsible for something other than his [or her] own well feathered little corner; citizens who want to participate in society’s affairs, who insist on it; citizens with backbones; citizens who hold their ideas about democracy at the deepest level, at the level that religion is held, where beliefs and identity are the same.”
Responsibility breathes hope into politics and suggests both a different future and the possibility of politics itself. At the same time, hope not only offers long term visions and possibilities; it also makes moral responsibility the condition for politics and agency because it recognizes the importance of young people becoming accountable for others through their ideas, language, and actions. At the centre of politics is not a battle between the left and right, liberals and conservatives, but between hope and despair. In opposition to a world in which the public sphere has been annexed by the private and happiness has been deregulated and commodified, hope provides neither a blueprint for the perfect future nor a form of social engineering, but a belief that different futures are possible, holding open matters of dialogue, contingency, context, and indeterminacy. The challenge of hope for your generation poses the important question of how to reclaim social agency within a broader struggle to deepen the possibilities for social justice and global democracy. This position is echoed by the feminist scholar, Judith Butler, who argues, “For me, there is more hope in the world when we can question what is taken for granted, especially about what it is to be human.”
Zygmunt Bauman elaborates further, arguing that any viable notion of democracy is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose, as he puts it, is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unravelling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.” To reclaim human potential in the service of planetary democracy is an act of daring that I hope your generation readily confronts and succeeds in establishing. You live in a world in which democracy, if it is to survive, needs to be sustained by new global public spaces and spheres. The lesson here is that democracy is very fragile, takes many forms, and it is never guaranteed. It is up to your generation to confront the dark forces afoot globally trying to eclipse the promise of democracy. Hints of such forces can be seen in alarming tendency towards barbarism reflected in the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib the prison in which those degrading photographs were taken, the widening economic inequalities between the rich and poor, the increasing religious fundamentalism around the globe, the ongoing militarization of public space and surveillance in public schools, the ravaging of the planet for profit, and the attack on critical dissent in the universities and elsewhere. The future is now in your hands and it is a future that needs your skills, critical judgment, sense of responsibility, compassion, imagination, and humility. Rather than trade in your dreams of a better world for a home security system or gated community, I urge you to “connect your utopian passions with a practical politics” in order to define what is still possible in a democracy. Everything is possible for you but it can only happen if you can imagine the unimaginable, think differently in order to act differently, and “give imaginative shape to humanity’s hope for a better and more inclusive future.”
To quote Bono, a rock star with a political sensibility, “this is a time for bold measures. This is the country, and you are the generation.” Thank you.