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Editor’s Note: Siddhartha Deb was the keynote faculty speaker for the 2014 commencement ceremony at Eugene Lang College at the New School on May 22. We’re glad to post his address here, with his kind permission.
So, look at all of you in your gowns and your mortarboard hats! What greater proof do you need that you’ve come to an important moment in your lives, one that marks an end to formal schooling, that acknowledges how you have valiantly survived the rigors and demands of higher education in the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world, and have successfully come to this moment that is, as the playwright Tony Kushner put it, “a warm-weather ceremony of liberation, of lovely young people frantic to feel for the first time since toddlerhood what it’s like to be a person rather than a student.”

And if you have gown but not hat, or hat but no gown, or no hat and no gown, either because you were late in filling out the requisite forms, or because you weren’t sure that you were graduating this semester, or because you overslept and didn’t have time to pick up the gown, or because you weren’t really sure how you felt about the ceremony, or because there was a problem with money, don’t worry. You’re still here, you’ve made it this far. For all of you here, what else is there to say but, “Congratulations!”

And yet, the responsibility of being a commencement speaker seems to be that there should be, must be, other things to say. Since I do not know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a commencement speech, I’d like to begin by at least thinking about what this responsibility means, especially as students on campuses around the country, including Rutgers, Smith, and Haverford, make impressive efforts to assert that commencement speakers do not just show up to sugar-coat privilege. As a columnist on the website of the Philadelphia Daily News puts it very eloquently, “When did sitting on your rear end atop a folding chair and listening passively to the bromides of some elite person . . . handpicked by his fellow one percenters on the college trustees suddenly become the be-all and end-all of higher learning and public discourse?”

Well, as you can see, this institution does things differently, and I believe I was chosen to address you primarily because I have taught here for some years, first as an adjunct and then as a full-timer. It is an incredible honor, but certainly an undeserved one. I have colleagues, among faculty, staff, and students, who are far more qualified than me to speak on such an occasion, people much more eloquent and wise, people who know the culture of the college far more intimately than I do, and on whose knowledge I depend upon in my understanding of the college as deeply committed to progressivism.

What more could I possibly add to that? And in any case, haven’t those of you unfortunate enough to take a class with me heard enough from me already? You have. Do you really want me to go on?

You do not.

So all I can really add, as a member of the faculty, are these lines from a poem by Brecht, which often run through my head as I go about my work at the New School:

Whatever you say, don’t say it twice
If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them.
The man who hasn’t signed anything, who has left no picture.
Who was not there, who said nothing:
How can they catch him?
Cover your tracks . . . .

(That is what they taught me)

As a member of the faculty, that is all I have to say to you. And of course, Congratulations!

But, as it happens, I do have a life and an existence other than teaching, just as you have throughout these years had lives other than that of being a student. In my other life I am a writer, a person who works with fact and with imagination, with narrative and with ideas, and who is concerned with being a very particular kind of writer. It involves what the jazz musician Vijay Iyer, drawing on the examples of Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix, described as a kind of “defiant presence.” This is very different from being a teacher. It involves asserting one’s allegiances, to the Global South, to the Third World, to noting that everything one writes is conditioned by a palpable awareness of injustice on a global scale. It involves choosing not to be quiet, to being contrarian and difficult not just when faced with the overtly imperialist bully but also when meeting his twin, the well-meaning liberal. It involves putting out difficult questions and struggling with complicated answers.

And so, I must now speak in the voice of that other self, as someone not obligated by the teacher-student relationship, by the employee-employer relationship, or the service provider-service recipient relationship, but as a fellow human being asserting his difficult, defiant presence.

In this second voice, I want to say to you that you are graduating at a difficult time, when everything you might have taken for granted in a capitalist democracy, including certification by institutions of higher education and consequent stable employment, is more problematic than ever. As Thomas Frank puts it in Salon, addressing the Class of 2014, “[T]he average student-loan borrower among you is now $33,000 in debt, the largest of any graduating class ever.” But don’t worry! The Wall Street Journal tells you that that’s okay, not only because college graduates make more money than those who don’t graduate from college, but also because the Class of 2015 will borrow more than you have.

In that you will not face the fate of fast-food workers desperately demanding a minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour, the Wall Street Journal is right. Those are jobs that don’t require high school diplomas, let alone college ones, and they target the most disempowered, marginalized groups in a post-industrial society. That is not your fate. But still, Frank writes, “Here’s a question I bet you won’t hear broached on the commencement stage. Why must college be so expensive?”

Well, I have broached the question, and I would like to hazard the answer that college is expensive because of the marketization and consumerization of higher education. The bulk of teaching at higher education institutions is done by poorly paid adjuncts, but the generous tuition money goes into other things—to CEO-style salaries for upper management, to an expanding middle management obsessed with the jargon of targets, surveys, outcomes, and whatever is most faddish, to pharaonic buildings that commemorate not the men and women who perform the actual labor, whether this be teaching or cleaning or standing at a security desk, but the CEO, the president, the donor. To quote Brecht again:

Who built the seven towers of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?…
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go?…

Where, I ask you, on your new university building, is the name of Eric Hobsbawm? Where is the name of Hannah Arendt? Where is the name of Thorstein Veblen? Where is the name of Will Gary?

But then, as I am sure you know this already, a university is only part of the larger world, and that larger world is quite unequal. You are graduating into a world where half of its wealth, amounting to $110 trillion, is owned by one per cent of its population. You are graduating in a country where the wealthiest one percent has captured 95 percent of the growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent has become poorer. You, as Class of 2014, are in a United States where the share of national income going to the top ten per cent stands now at 50.4 percent—the highest since World War I. “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

It’s possible some of you belong to that global one percent, some to the U.S. 10 percent, most to a shrinking middle class, and some to an underclass. But whether you are a hath or a hathnot, whether you expect abundance or expect to have taken away from you even what you possess, whether you want to quote Capital or whether you wish to cite Matthew back to me and say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” I would like to say to you that you are not without your privileges by very virtue of the degree you have just acquired.

While the United States many of you live in is more unequal than ever, the same is true, at a far more visceral level, in the world at large. If those of you who are from the global north, or are members of the elites of the global south, have begun to feel the bite of inequality in recent years, remember that seven out of ten people in the world live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last thirty years. And if you feel distress at the marketization and consumerization of everything from higher education to being young, remember that most of the world has felt these fangs for a while. As A. Sivanandan, editor of Race and Class, puts it in a speech that was set to music by the Asian Dub Foundation:

Racism and imperialism work in tandem
And poverty is their handmaiden…
Discrimination and exploitation feed into each other today
Under global capitalism
We are back to primitive accumulation –
plunder on a world scale
Only this time, the pillage is accompanied by aid,
sustained by expert advice.

I usually write about India, where I grew up, and which I remain a citizen of. It is a country that this year became the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. weapons, and that perhaps for that reason is enthusiastically applauded as a vibrant democracy by the media here, even if forty per cent of its children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition, even if the great majority of its people live on a dollar a day.

But this is not just the world I live in; it is the world you live in as well, whether you have never set foot outside the United States or whether you have traveled from elsewhere, crossing international borders to get here. You do not have a choice of whether you live in this world or not, although you do have a choice of whether you are going to acknowledge that fact or not.

Speaking at a commencement ceremony at the University of Puerto Rico in 1969, the radical educationist Ivan Illich said:

The graduation rite that we solemnly celebrate today confirms the prerogatives which . . . society, by means of a costly system . . . confers upon the sons and daughters of its most privileged citizens. You are a part of the most privileged ten percent of your generation, part of that minuscule group which has completed university studies.

All this talk of privilege is not to make you feel a burden, or feel guilt, or feel helplessness, although you may feel any or all of these things momentarily. If in my writer self I have given you some sense of the difficult context in which you find yourselves, it is because I take you seriously, take you with the utmost respect, and because I do not, cannot, drench you in honeyed platitudes. “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it,” Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, and so you will, as others have before you and others will after you.

Illich, speaking to the Puerto Rican graduates, asked them to work towards dissolving the commodified certification that tries to pass for education. He asked them, instead, to think of “true education” as “a place within . . . society in which each one of us is awakened by surprise; a place of encounter in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own.” This sense of surprise is something I hope you will always be able to cultivate, whether in a classroom or out of it, when you are thirty and when you are eighty.

And in the years in between, if you are engaged in long, arduous struggles, you will need to make your choices. Sometimes, you will have to assert your defiant presence. And sometimes, just sometimes, you will have to “Cover Your Tracks.” And that, really, is all I have to say.

And of course, “Look at all of you in your gowns and your mortarboard hats!”

And of course, “Congratulations!”

Author’s note: I am grateful to colleagues who provided many insightful comments, but especially to Nidhi Srinivas for reminding me of the second Brecht poem and for introducing me to Ivan Illich’s 1969 address to the students at the University of Puerto Rico.