Today is Sunday, Mother’s Day–and graduation day for IUPUI and SPEA, where I teach. When the speaker originally scheduled to speak to our SPEA graduates had a conflict, I was asked to pinch-hit: here’s what I will tell the class of 2015.
I know some of you are disappointed that Chief Hite is unable to be here, and instead, here you are getting yet another lecture from a SPEA professor. But—as I’m sure the Chief would tell you—the nature of public service is that you serve the public: when duty calls, convenient or not, you answer.
That reality—the nature of public service, of stewardship—is what has triggered the few observations that I’d like to share with you today.
You know, I often say that I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat. People in my age cohort too often criticize younger generations, because you occupy a world we have trouble understanding, a world that makes a lot of us uncomfortable. But those criticisms are misplaced—they are a product of discomfort with the inevitable, which is change.
My experience with your generation, and especially with SPEA students, gives me a lot of hope for the future, because I see in you a concern for the common good that has been absent from far too many people in my own generation.
Many of you are criminal justice majors who will work in various capacities to protect the citizens of your communities and keep the streets of our cities safe. Others of you plan to enter organizations in the nonprofit sector, working with others to “mend the gaps,” to address the unmet needs of society. Still others of you have ignored the constant drumbeat of rhetoric denigrating government and public service and will go to work in our much maligned but irreplaceable public sector as managers and policymakers.
Your preparation for these roles has revolved around a central question: how do we work together to construct a just society? That question has lots of “subparts”: How do we mediate the tensions between the rights and prerogatives of individuals, on the one hand, and the common good, on the other? Who gets to decide what the common good is? Can government institutions ensure justice and maintain social order without doing unnecessary damage to individual rights? How? And how do the roles you plan to fill advance the common good?
In your classes, you have come to understand essential elements of what John Locke called a “Social Contract,” a reciprocal relationship between the institutions of society—predominately government—and its citizens. Social contract theory holds that the many benefits we share as members of a polity carry with them obligations for informed civic participation. I have no doubt that each of you will fulfill those expectations and discharge those obligations—I just hope you will encourage others to become involved in America’s ongoing experiment with self-governance as well.
Finally, I hope you have gained an appreciation for the importance of the physical and social infrastructure upon which everything else ultimately rests.
These days, too many Americans seem oblivious to the immense importance of that infrastructure, the multitude of systems and institutions—both physical and social— that our cities, states and nation need in order to function, let alone flourish. We take for granted that we can walk safely on most of our streets and sidewalks, that our garbage gets picked up, the streetlights come on at dusk, that firefighters rush to the scene when there is a fire—We take for granted that someone is watching our air quality and preventing industry from dumping waste and polluting our waterways—that someone “downtown” somewhere is ensuring that the buildings we enter meet safety standards and the zoning regulations that protect our property values are upheld. As I have often told my classes, I’m grateful that I can go to the local Kroger or Marsh and buy a chicken without having to personally test it for e coli. So I’m grateful for the FDA, and especially grateful that I rarely have to think about its existence.
I think we’re all grateful that our toilets flush.
I know that all of that sounds boring and mundane and unromantic—but when those largely invisible, taken-for-granted networks of support don’t work—or when they have been corrupted or co-opted so that they only work for some groups and individuals—the whole society fails to function as it should. We Americans like to applaud entrepreneurs and others who provide the goods and services we purchase in the marketplace, and they deserve that applause, but we need to remind ourselves that those marketplaces can’t function without the physical and social infrastructure that you have been trained to provide and facilitate and supplement.
The American motto is e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. Those of you in this room today are preparing to engage in perhaps the most critical task implied by that motto: creating the means by which the many unite into the one.
Many of you in this room who have been my students have been nothing short of inspirational. I know that you leave SPEA with the smarts and the skills and the heart to make a real difference in our communities. What each of you will do is more important than you may recognize right now, and I know you will do it with intelligence and integrity.
So—congratulations, best wishes….and I hope you will keep in touch with those of us on this stage. Your old professors will be rooting for you!