What Not to say to New Graduates Who do Care About the Planet

Convocation speakers almost all say the same things: Follow your dreams, live your passions, do what you love, seize your destiny. Yet from what I know of millennials, one characteristic stands out: They don’t want to “follow along”. And they do care about people they can’t name.

We hear endlessly about those who died on London Bridge and nothing about innocent lives destroyed in Yemen to protect “us”. It’s cliché. But the “follow your dreams” ideology obscures the real problem.

Following dreams, just because we have them, is following along. Dreams are socially formed – by media, parents, teachers, peers. Sure, some speakers urge social change. But can it include nameless people slaughtered for the sake of our lifestyle, the one explaining those dreams we follow?

No one “dreams” of cultivating sensitivity allowing spontaneous response to another human being, as a human being. Yet precisely such capacity is how we know our unique human potential, escaping the deadening drive toward endless desire satisfaction.

A first-year student came to my office in despair. She was worried about how to distinguish herself from 7 billion people on the planet. She thought being a “success” meant being better than everyone else. How wonderful it would be if she could discover how she is the same as all those people.

We don’t teach that.  The story of the Good Samaritan is well known and part of modern jurisprudence. But it is misunderstood. Ivan Illich argues that it is about a radical sort of knowledge. [i]

The story is understood to be about how to act: We ought to help the destitute. In fact, the question was: Who is my neighbour? The story is about knowing: How do I know, who do I identify as, my neighbour? The answer is: the Samaritan was moved by compassion.

He knew the Jew – as neighbour, as person – through feelings, not primarily through intellectual reasoning. Samaritans and Jews were enemies. According to his cultural and social background, not only could the Samaritan have ignored the Jew, his doing so could have been praised.

Intellectual reasoning would not lead the Samaritan to the Jew, at least not alone. For one thing, the concept “person”, for a Samaritan, did not apply to Jews. Concepts gain content from social practises, as is well-known, and the Samaritan’s background did not include Jews, as persons.

Illich describes the Samaritan’s response as an act of self-creation. It changed his situation. He responded to the Jew as a human being because the Jew was in fact a human being. But in doing so, the Samaritan relinquished what Illich calls his cultural ethos: his comforting, self-affirming expectations.

The Samaritan lost in order to gain. This also is an art we don’t teach. It is a shame we stopped teaching Marx. Precisely our natural condition, causally interdependent, explains why we must sometimes lose in order to gain what is ultimately more important: shared humanity.

Marx said human beings are herd animals, not because of how we live, but because of how we think. [ii] We don’t think alone. His naturalistic, realist vision explains the value of human response, human connection, which is how we know people we will never know if we are guided by dreams arising from “inside”, which is to say from social context.

I heard an interview recently with the winner of a prestigious prize in Information Technology. [iii] He said new technologies compete for our attention. It is their primary goal. But if you ask anyone, including technology developers, whether they want their attention so dominated, the answer is no. Defenders of freedom, Aldous Huxley said, ignored our almost infinite appetite for distraction.

It may show the need for a better understanding of human freedom, one not so rooted in appetite.

In Cuba this week, a series of encounters, entitled “Wandering Dialogues: For the Connection with Feelings”, culminates In Havana. Popular musician, Raúl Paz, and academic, Ernesto Limia, engaged students at universities across the island about culture and its role.

Cuba has long associated culture with freedom. Because it cultivates sensitivity, or can, it is an engine of social change. José Martí famously said that the only way to be free is to be cultured. His view of culture was broad, including education. Martí didn’t think you can be educated without being sensitive. A head full of knowledge, without capacity for response, leaves you stuck in the prison of appetite.

According to reports, [iv] students involved in the “wandering dialogues” want better access to and more control of culture. They want literature and art to be central to the entire educational system, including science and technology.

Pundits say Cuba will succumb to US capitalism because of its youth, who want freedom. Others say it won’t succumb to the US for exactly the same reason. The second view is more plausible.

Like millennials here, Cuban youth don’t want to follow along. And they do want to know the world and its peoples, even those unnamed. They care about being open to new options, ones they won’t recognize if they are “free” to have their attention dominated by distractions they can’t control.

They have a better chance of resisting such domination. They’re talking about connecting with feelings and building sensitivity. And they’re talking about it at the university level, with academics and artists together, as if culture matters educationally. It’s a more promising approach than streams of elite speakers urging them all to follow dreams, because they have them: a recipe for ignorance.


[i] The Rivers North of the Future: Ivan Illich in Conversation with David Cayley (Anansi Press)

[ii] The (arguably) best book on Marx’s philosophy is Allen Wood, Karl Marx: 2nd Edition  (Routledge, 2004)

[iii] James Williams,  Oxford University, “Spark” CBC FM1 June 7 2017

[iv] E.g. Onaisys Fonticoba Gener, “Conectados, dialogando”   http://lajiribilla.cu/articulo/conectados-dialogando

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Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).

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