Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at Drew Commencement: Make the American Dream Your Own
Thoughtful speaker leaves a big impression on campus.
May 2016 – Reinvent the American dream.
That’s the challenge that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put to the Drew University Class of 2016 in a thought-provoking Commencement address that quoted everyone from Albert Camus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the Uncle Ben Parker character in Spider-Man.
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and author of 11 books, rejected the notion that the American dream is defined by financial independence and more plainly, wealth. Instead, he reasoned, the dream should reflect your values, not society’s or those of an older generation.
“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,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “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 prevent it and 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 the accident of birth.
“This is where preachy Uncle Ben’s ‘great responsibility’ shtick comes in,” he added, referencing the maxim, “With great power, comes great responsibility,” from Uncle Ben Parker. “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,” he concluded, “is an American dream worth dreaming.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s speech was the centerpiece of a whirlwind graduation day for 442 students in Drew’s College of Liberal Arts, Theological School and Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. The ceremony, which took place outside of historic Mead Hall, also featured remarks from two students, deans of the three schools, Board of Trustees Chair Dean Criares C’85 and President MaryAnn Baenninger.
Baenninger, who is approaching her second anniversary as president, urged the graduates to anticipate and accept uncertainties in life, as they are inevitable. She added, though, that if you typically plan your way through them, you might want to let go sometimes. Conversely, if you’re attitude is que será, será, maybe you should try planning once in a while instead, she said.
“Class of 2016, Godspeed as you enter the world with all its glorious uncertainty,” Baenninger added. “My sincerest wish is that Drew University prepared you to face any obstacle, any weather with strength, self-understanding and optimism. Congratulations!”
Earlier, the president remembered a gifted member of the Class of 2016 who died tragically last summer. Neil Van De Putte was a physics major whose research into an artificial neural network was recognized with the Marshall C. Harrington Prize in Physics and Astronomy. His sister, Alyse, accepted his diploma in his memory.
During the ceremony, Drew recognized three teachers of the year and awarded three honorary degrees. Each of the top professors—Dr. Kate Ott of the Theological School, Dr. Jonathan Golden of the Caspersen School and Dr. Raul Rosales of the College of Liberal Arts—received a certificate and a handshake from the president.
The honorary degree recipients were Abdul-Jabbar, who also received a personalized Drew Rangers basketball jersey; Dr. William C. Campbell, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine; and Robert Ready, dean of Caspersen since 2011.
Ready, who has taught at Drew since 1970, is winding down as dean and about to begin a one-year sabbatical before he returns to teach. Campbell has been a science fellow at Drew since 1990, when he retired from Merck. His Nobel Prize was for the development of a drug that treats river blindness and elephantiasis. His global recognition—which culminated in a regal ceremony in Stockholm in December—is a huge source of pride among undergraduates and alumni alike.
For a few hours, though, on May 14, Abdul-Jabbar was the rock star on campus, smiling and nodding to the surrounding crowd of relatives and friends of graduates that gathered for The Big Day and even shaking hands with some students on the ceremony platform as they walked the final few feet toward their degrees.
Earlier, he playfully cautioned this generation’s men and women to reject the clichéd notion that they’re the “Hope of the Future” and any claim that elders make about understanding your life simply because they were once your age. After all, that was before the Internet and social media.
Abdul-Jabbar sees good and bad in people posting, liking and making friends online, but ultimately accepts it as a Tweeter with 1.8 million followers. It’s no substitute for critical thinking, however.
“All this incessant stimuli can keep people from actually assessing information, thinking about it, putting it in context and coming with original thoughts that aren’t vacuum-packed and microwave ready,” he said. “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?”