I was asked to give the keynote address at the winter Commencement at the University of South Dakota Dec. 13. I was very honored to be asked, especially because USD is my alma mater. I received my BFA degree back in January 1957.
I readily agreed, but almost regretted doing so as I got into writing my remarks. I could have reasoned that, as I did 51 years ago at my own graduation, these young scholars would be too preoccupied to care about what an old man would have to tell them. I could give them the rah-rah speech extolling their alma mater and their preparation to conquer the world. But it was not to be.
What can you tell hopeful young people who are on the starting line of a trek into the messed up world we have left them? The economy has gone to hell in a hand basket. Credit is so tight that they can’t even hope for a car or a home for the young friend they hope to marry. With the job market increasingly dismal and most of them already in debt for their college education. … what can you say to them?
In my own bitterness I wrote, I got to thinking that this should be part of the punishment of the chairmen, presidents and CEOs of those titanic corporations and financial giants that dragged the national and world economies down in their wake. They should be made to tour the country giving commencement addresses to hopeful young people starting out into the slimy world they created. No such thing will happen, though; they will be slapped on the wrist and then left alone to float away on their golden lifeboats. So it is left to people like me to talk to them.
But they do face a massive, heroic challenge. This is, in part, what I told them:
“Honored graduates, some of you – perhaps most of you – must see the immediate future not as promising as it was even last year. Over the past year, it has become a world in economic disarray, with all the signs of deep and lasting recession. You may feel yourselves victims – victims to arrogance, greed and profligacy that has characterized our national economy and, to a great extent, our politics.
I could give them the rah-rah speech extolling their alma mater and their preparation to conquer the world. But it was not to be.
“But I would advise you – if you do feel resentment – to turn that into a righteous, healthy resentment that will inspire you to do something about it, because much needs to be done.
“It is a greater challenge facing you than that of any generation since World War II. One of the University of South Dakota’s most honored graduates, Tom Brokaw, in his best-selling book, gave the name ‘The Greatest Generation,’ to those men and women of that era who gave their all, many of them their lives, in defense of the world against the grossest forces of evil the world had ever seen. They came home after the war, men and women, from battlefields in all continents, and from factories here in America, to put their families and communities back together and rebuild the country.
“Like that great generation, you will be challenged to face the great danger of America’s decline from its lofty perch as the most powerful and the best country on earth.
You future leaders need not feel alone, but you should feel part of a great movement forward.
“You will be asked to help rebuild America. Not only the physical plant, but the spirit of true capitalism and not the greedy crap shoot it has become, you will be asked to help build the moral structure of the nation, both of which are in a state of decay. We are challenged to rebuild the very foundation of the nation, and to rebuild it based on ethics and morals that should hold up and nourish our democracy.
“We have, in essence, a new beginning, with a new President, and a nation that is chastened and, hopefully, ready to repent, reform and rebuild.
“What will President Obama ask of us?
“A hint of that challenge might be found in a campaign talk to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last summer in which President-elect Obama told them: ‘Change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.’ Change does not come from Washington, change comes to Washington.
“He has repeated that challenge several times in his campaign and his election victory statement.
“That is, to me, the way it should be. And it is a challenge to all of us, so you future leaders need not feel alone, but you should feel part of a great movement forward.
I hope you will promote studies of both economics and ethics in your schools, in your communities and in your governments.
“That’s how it will be from now on for all of us in all of our communities. And that creates great demand for the leadership and the expertise that you take from this University today.
“In the wake of the destruction of our nation, this implosion of our economy and our systems, we must restore the importance of honesty, integrity, trust and accountability, and insist on it in government and industry and society in general. The term itself and concept of that most precious thing called ethics, which embraces all these values and virtues, must be instilled in to process of formal education – our schools and universities, and in the workings of our society.
“And, as we are coming to realize, it is the economic threat to our country as much as terrorism – or more so – that imperils us, and we must become more and more educated on the concepts and systems of the economy and of financing.
“In Indian country, there are programs being initiated by the National Congress of American Indians and the First Nations Financial organization to help tribal governments in their economic and financial literacy. These services are to help them make better decisions on their valuable assets, and to protect them from the ever present rip-off artists who are always trying to take advantage of the tribes’ desperation for jobs for their people.
“Ex-Treasury Secretary Pete Peterson recently endowed a new foundation with a billion dollars to promote economic education and awareness in America. Recently he and fellow Nebraskan billionaire Warren Buffett sponsored production and distribution of a film called “IOUSA,” which is designed to make clear the grave economic condition of America, and the grave threat to the future of the U.S., if we do not correct our course.
“As you, honored graduates, take your place in society, I hope you will promote studies of both economics and ethics in your schools, in your communities and in your governments.
“You have a big challenge ahead of you. But you are strong and you are prepared. You are in our prayers. God Bless all of you.”
Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. At the above he received an honorary doctoral degree. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.