A Letter to Future Generations : Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Drew Commencement Speech
Redefine the American dream, he says, and champion the values of the Constitution.
May 2016 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and author of 11 books, spoke at Drew University’s 148th Commencement on May 14. The following is the complete text to his speech.
Thank you, President Baenninger, administrators, faculty, parents, and, of course, graduates.
Spring is the glorious time of year when overcoats are packed away and people start to feel hopeful about the future. Lilacs are in bloom, love is in the air, and colleges and universities invite success stories like me to stand behind fancy podiums to convince parents and graduates that your education was worth the outrageous price. After all, this is your Willy Wonka golden ticket to the American Dream.
Spring is also the time when everyone keeps talking about how you are the Hope of the Future. All those upbeat commencement speeches from valedictorians and famous alums are how we older generations slip the toxic contents of our social responsibility backpacks into yours. We never got around to fixing systemic racism, so here ya go, grads. Oh, and broad spectrum sexism: still a lot of work to be done there. Hop to it. We’ll just shove it right next to crumbling infrastructure of bridges and highways. And we haven’t yet figured out how to Viagraize the limp economy, so we’ll just squeeze it between LGBT rights and global warming. Wall Street influence, Middle East tensions? No problem. We’ll just duct tape them to the top of your backpack.
Good luck, kids! Your future’s so bright, you’ll have to wear shades.
The first step toward happiness, dear graduates, is to ignore the hype about you being The Hope of the Future. Yes, you’re technically “The Future,” but that’s a default setting, not a spiritual calling. Taking on the responsibility of trying to fix everything that’s wrong with the world leads either to hipster cynicism about how everything is too corrupt to fix, or depression at achieving only incremental gains. There are things you can do—and should do—but we’ll get to them later.
For now, the good news is that, though the setting is different, this Hope of the Future narrative is the same one that every generation has faced. It’s like all those movies based on classic literature. The Taming of the Shrew becomes 10 Things I Hate about You, Romeo and Juliet becomes West Side Story, and Pride and Prejudice becomes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Same basic plot, just updated for a new audience. We’ve all gotten the “go out and change the world” recruitment speech; the only thing that changes is the music we pipe through our earbuds to drown out the speech.
As long as I can remember, generational voices have emerged to complain about the sins of the last generation. Their job is how Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the author of Love in the Time of Cholera, describes the role of the philosopher: When they see us being seduced by political delusions or cultural lies, they need to sound the alarm to wake us up. Every generation has their pop culture voices warning us of our delusions and excesses. Whether it’s the 19th Century gospel “Ain’t gonna study war no more,” or Phil Ochs in the 1960s singing, “Since I left my parents I’ve forgotten how to bow,” or today’s Imagine Dragons’ plaintive, “I’m waking up…I’m radioactive…This is the apocalypse…Welcome to the new age.”
In literature, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye kicked off the post-war analysis of America’s calorie-less values in a generational relay race that included Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in the ‘50s, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus in the ‘60s, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying in the ‘70s, Tama Janowitz’ Slaves of New York in the ‘80s, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X in the ‘90s, David Wong’s John Dies at the End in the 2000s, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in this decade. Today’s cultural sirens may also include YouTubers and web-writers like Adam Conover, whose crossover TV show, Adam Ruins Everything, reveals some uncomfortable truths about the facades of daily life.
The problem each generational voice faces is figuring out the difference between the generic angst everyone suffers through just by growing up, and the specific issues that are unique to that generation and no other before it. In West Side Story, Doc, the amiable old guy who runs the snack store where the Jets street gang hangs out, makes the mistake of trying to offer advice by starting with these deadly words: “Why, when I was your age—” He’s immediately cut off by an angry teen named Action: “When you was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you’ll dig us!”
He’s right. We “creeps” never were the age of the next generation. We were never your age. Oh, we were your chronological age, but we never lived in your Age. We shared the same struggles that most endure through the early stages of maturation—body image, family, popularity, sex, school, the Future—but we weren’t in the same setting, with the same influences or the same culture. We’ve all grown up with war, but each of our wars has been different in origin and nature, so its influence on the youth growing up with it has been different.
Previous generations didn’t grow up hooked into a vast international social media or the ability to retrieve all human knowledge instantaneously. We couldn’t post our every move to a thousand “friends” and await their judgment of whether or not the hive deemed it “like”-worthy.
It’s still unclear how much of this is good and how much is bad. On the good side, sports bar bets are easily settled by Google. On the bad side, the compulsion to constantly be plugged in to an endless stream of texts, tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram and Snapchat photos, and the dozens of other distracting nudges, pokes, and attention-sucks, is a dull thrum of distraction. All this incessant stimuli can keep people from actually assessing information, thinking about it, putting it in context, and coming up with original thoughts that aren’t vacuum-packed and microwave ready. Of course, there will always be those creative individuals who can break from the herd instinct to do all those things, but how many otherwise innovative minds are put to sleep by the numbing lull of lol?
Maybe they stay plugged in so much to avoid the equally endless stream of numbing advice from previous generations (like me), usually delivered with furled brows and somber voices. Like Uncle Ben Parker laying that serious guilt trip on Spider-Man when he says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Sure, that makes sense for people with great power! What a relief then that the rest of us without great power, since we can’t crawl up buildings or punch through brick walls, don’t have to take on that great responsibility. Right?
Not so fast, graduates.
On August 8, 1945—the day after news was released of the bombing of Hiroshima—French philosopher Albert Camus published an essay warning future generations about the choices they needed to make: “Faced with the terrifying prospects that are opening up before humanity, we see even more clearly than before that peace is the only fight worth engaging in. This isn’t a plea any more, but an order that has to rise up from peoples to governments, the order to choose once and for all between hell and reason.” Actually, he sounds a lot like Uncle Ben in telling us that we have a great responsibility in the face of the unprecedented power to destroy the world. And that responsibility is to use reason, logic, and critical thinking in making decisions and not be slaves to the prejudices, traditions, and fuzzy logic wrapped in false sentimentality and selective patriotism that seems to dominate the personal, social and political policies of many people. He’s telling us to choose between a hellish world dominated by the egocentric mistakes of the past generations, and the sane world dominated by reasonable thinking.
“Great power” isn’t just about the magnitude of power one wields, but about the power each decision we make has in defining who we are. We are crafting our character one choice at a time. In that way, everything we do is a great responsibility because it’s a template for who we want to be and how we want others to act. Power isn’t measured by how much weight you can lift, but in how much weight you are willing to bear to be the person you want to be.
Chalk one up for Uncle Ben.
Yeah, you graduates have been screwed over the same way every new generation is screwed over when handed the reins of the future of the American Dream. Perhaps this is where we get the myth of Phaethon (which means “Shining One”), son of the sun god Apollo, who insisted on driving his father’s chariot of the sun across the sky, only to lose control and perish. Too much power, too little training.
And so, we send you “Shining Ones” off into the world with a diploma and a heart filled with hope. But also with crippling student loans, still living at home, tougher competition for fewer well-paying jobs, and a whole lot of government debt. It’s not surprising that anti-anxiety medicine consumption has nearly doubled in the past 20 years.
The problem isn’t in the driver, it’s in the sun. We have practically deified the American Dream, making it something it was never meant to be and therefore a disappointing ideal when most can’t reach it. The American Dream should not be a one-size-fits-all concept. It should be a fluid notion that embodies the principles of the U.S. Constitution into a practical philosophy. But those practicalities seem to change with each generation. For the vast majority of Baby Boomers, the Dream priorities were financial independence and home ownership.
Somewhere along the line, financial independence somehow got interpreted as fabulous wealth. People had the Gold Rush mentality of instant fortune followed by a lifetime of leisure. Dire Straits’ 1985 satiric song “Money for Nothing” captured this entitled zeitgeist perfectly: “That ain’t workin’, that’s the way to do it…Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.” Today, that warped concept of the American Dream is embodied by the Kim Kardashian phenomenon: fame and fortune heaped upon someone who offers no particular talent except self-promotion. She has more than 40 million followers on Twitter, but her insights are the Styrofoam peanuts of popular culture. Money for nothing indeed.
The financial independence so important to the Baby Boomers has been tarnished by the reality of the Great Recession 8 years ago, from which the world is still in the process of recovering. Upward mobility is on a downward slide. Studies in 2013 concluded that the U.S., despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, offers the least chance for upward economic mobility. Based on this definition, one can see why today’s youth are so disillusioned with the American Dream, with 48 percent of those aged 18 to 29 declaring that the American Dream is dead.
Nearly half of our Hope for the Future has no hope for the future.
But maybe their disillusionment isn’t a rejection of the American Dream as much as a rejection of the way the previous generations defined it. A CNBC commentator countered the Millennial rejection by stating, “[The American Dream is] so strong that I believe more self-made millionaires will emerge in the next 10 years than ever before.” Clearly, he missed the point of exactly what is being snubbed. A recent Harvard University survey found that 51% of those same 18- to 29-year-olds do not support capitalism. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to make a good living, but that they want the economy to focus less on the accumulation of personal wealth and more on the fair distribution of the opportunity to seek wealth.
The phrase “American Dream” was first made popular by historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, Epic of America in which he stated:
“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Note that this definition deliberately rebuffs the notion of wealth as a measure of success in achieving the American Dream, but rather honors a life that is “better and richer and fuller” (richer not referring to wealth but an innately rewarding life).
So, here’s the advice I promised earlier: Each generation must customize the American Dream to fit their own circumstances and the realities of the world around them. Instead of promoting a generic dream, we need to encourage each new generation to prioritize their own values. Polls indicate that, as opposed to previous generations, Millennials see travel as a major part of the American Dream, as well as self-employment, and defining close friends as part of their family. This re-imagining is exactly what you should be doing.
The one part of the American Dream that cannot be changed or compromised is our commitment to make the opportunity for a life that is “better and richer and fuller” available to everyone. But that doesn’t just happen. As you go out into the world, you will encounter those who preach the gospel of the American Dream while secretly doing everything they can to pervert it. Their goal is to extend the best of our country to the few they select while denying it to those they deem unworthy. They wish to maintain strict social classes and restrict the mobility of those who wish to rise out of their economic class assigned by accident of birth.
This is where preachy Uncle Ben’s “great responsibility” shtick comes in. Because, while I applaud your courage and intelligence in redefining the American Dream to fit your personal vision of the future, it’s important that along with travel, self-employment, and friends, commitment to championing the values of the U.S. Constitution be included, particularly the parts that condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, and the exploitation of the poor.
That is an American dream worth dreaming.