The following text is from a talk I gave at the Providence Business News Excellence Awards last night, where I was the keynote speaker. The talk appeared to be well received and some suggested that posting it here would be worthwhile, so here it is.
Cinderella and Lincoln
Allow me to begin by stating that I am very honored to speak here tonight, to you, a group who strive for, and achieve, a level of excellence that I can only hope for, and which is truly inspirational. I would like to thank the good people of the Providence Business News for the invitation, and for providing me the opportunity to be, however briefly, a part of this distinguished group. Congratulations to all the excellence award winners this evening – your achievements and dedication motivate all of us to aim higher and do more.
Please allow me to continue with a confession: my favorite movie of 2015 is Disney’s live-action Cinderella. I would guess that at least some of you are surprised at this. I’ve seen it several times, although fewer, so far, than I did the original Star Wars, where I stopped counting at approximately 20 trips to the theater. Family members, including my son, who, ironically, works for Disney, have given me quite a bit of (somewhat) gentle hectoring about my affection for this movie. I suppose their attitude may arise from the fact that demographic analysis of global Cinderella ticket sales appears to indicate that the audience consists primarily of millions of teen-age girls spread across the world, and me. I don’t know what this says about me, but I do think that it reflects the refined and sophisticated taste in movies of the world’s teen-age girls. I am proud to be among them, because this is a movie that celebrates the triumph of courage, kindness, and love over cruelty, selfishness, and political scheming.
But I bring it up tonight for a different reason. At the conclusion of the movie the narrator, who, yes, happens to be Cinderella’s fairy godmother, says: “and Ella continued to see the world not as it is, but as it could be”. That struck me as a rather profound statement, and I have thought a lot about it. I have come to believe that all of our efforts to do good in the world, and all of our work to make our world better, must originate with the conviction that we do not have to accept the world as we find it, and also with a vision for what the world could, in fact, become.
This does not mean that we deny the reality of world as we find it today. We live in a world of great beauty, surpassing joy, boundless mercy, and pervasive goodness. But we also live in world of continuous war, global terrorism, manifold hatreds, racism, growing inequality, and potentially catastrophic climate change. Indeed, it may be that the global crises around war, refugees, infectious disease, and climate change pose the greatest threat to our future than at any time since the Second World War, and could destroy much that is best and brightest in our world as it is.
We must face and accept these realities. We are not free to create our own alternative reality that denies or minimizes these threats. However, to “see the world as it could be” empowers us to use the capabilities within us to transform the world, and to create a future that is superior to the present reality in which we live.
History teaches that we can do this. I shall give but one example – that of Abraham Lincoln. More than any other individual of his time, he saw our nation not as it was, but as it could be, both prior to his presidency, and throughout the Civil War, as that terrible conflict threatened to consume the nation, and exacted a staggering and excruciating cost.
Many of his actions, by which Lincoln implemented his vision for what America could be, are well known to all of us: issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and winning passage of the 13th Amendment, for example. And we remember what he said at Gettysburg and his second inauguration, words so powerful and so inspiring that they pierced the pain and suffering of America’s most terrible war: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth; and “With Malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
It is not these particular actions, or these words, as important and powerful as they are, with which I am chiefly concerned. Indeed, one of the most profoundly important actions of President Lincoln appears to be something about which we have no specific record of him speaking or writing. It was, however, accomplished with just a few strokes of his pen as he signed the Morrill Act into law on July 2, 1862. It was an Act of incredible vision that changed the world. Representative Justin Morrill, the 37th Congress, and President Lincoln peered into the future and saw an America that could be. The Land Grant Act of 1862 provided, for the first time in the world, a national system of state colleges and universities dedicated to:
“the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
In other words, this Act established, for the first time, a national system of higher education to benefit all citizens – not merely landowners, merchants, and the wealthy. The fact that, over a hundred years later, I could get a college education at a land-grant institution (in my case, the University of California) was a direct consequence of this extraordinary Act. I would guess that many others in this room could say the same. Millions upon millions of Americans have been provided the opportunity for a better life as a consequence of the work of Representative Morrill, the 37th Congress and President Lincoln.
It was not an easy, or even obvious, thing to do. Previous efforts had failed, in part because of fears that such a radical educational system would disrupt the social and economic fabric of the country.
And consider, if you will, the timing: July of 1862. The brutal and debilitating Seven Days Battle had just concluded, and Lincoln’s hopes of a quick conclusion to the war via the early capture of Richmond had been crushed. Less than 3 months previously the battle of Shiloh had been fought, which was the most vicious and bloody conflict America had experienced in its entire history. Casualties at Shiloh were greater than the American casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War – combined! The conclusion of the Civil War was more remote than ever, because neither side could envision, after such losses, an outcome achieved by any means other than the total defeat of the other. General Grant, and likely President Lincoln, concluded, as Grant stated it: “I gave up all idea of saving the Union, except by complete conquest.”
And yet, at such a time in American history, members of the Congress and President Lincoln could see America as it could be – united, free, educated, and therefore prepared, to assume a leading position in the world, and to become a beacon of democracy and liberty for all people. It is at least noteworthy, and perhaps astonishing, that the benefits provided to the states to enable the creation of land-grant universities were based on the census of 1860, and therefore included all the states of the Confederacy, so long as they ceased to be in a condition of active rebellion or insurrection. Today, institutions such as the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, the University of California, Michigan State, and Ohio State, and Penn State, but also Mississippi State, Louisiana State, Auburn University, Texas A&M, North Carolina State, and Clemson University, exist in their current status as a consequence of Lincoln’s signature in 1862. America’s land-grant universities are now among the very best in the world, admired and emulated across the globe, preeminent in fields such as agriculture, engineering, science, business, medicine, nursing, economics, literature, languages, and many others.
This is the heritage, the DNA, of the University of Rhode Island. We exist to educate the common people, to provide access to higher education for all economic classes, not only the 1% or even the 10%. We exist to advance knowledge and, very importantly, to disseminate and translate that knowledge to every American, and ultimately to share it with everyone across the world. We exist to provide understanding, opportunity, and hope to anyone and everyone that we encounter, and for the generations after them.
This mission is neither easy, nor risk-free. It may stimulate vitriolic criticism, financial penalties, and government retribution. But we can do no less, for this cause, in part, likely cost Lincoln his life: after his final public speech, in which he endorsed the education of, and the vote for, freed slaves, John Wilkes Booth reportedly declared that “that will be the last speech that he (Lincoln) will ever make.” And it was.
To help our students do the work and take the risks that enable them to see the world, “not as it is, but as it could be”, is the heart and soul of education at URI, and at other colleges and universities like us. Forty-five years ago I left home at the age of 18 to go to college, and I never left. I have spent my life mostly in the company of 18 – 26 year olds. That is probably why I am not merely a scientific realist, but also an optimist. I have heard all the criticisms of students, generation upon generation, and I think they are largely inaccurate, or misguided, or reflect the perspectives of those who are privileged, or comfortable with the world as it is, or afraid of what it could be. The students of the University of Rhode Island, and of every other college or university where I have worked, are empowered to see the world as it could be, and not merely as it is presented to them. They comprehend the magnitude of the challenges the world offers as it is, but they are not intimidated. And neither should we be.
America does not need to be “made great again”. The greatness of America was never derived from the strength of its military, the height of its walls, the magnitude of its economy, or the power of its institutions. The greatness of our nation has always rested in its people, and I see no convincing evidence that our current generations are not up to the tasks before them, as every past generation of Americans has been.
Cinderella had it right. It is essential that we not accept the world as we find it. Rather, it is essential that we see the world not as it is, but as it could be, and that we strive together to create that better world.
To conclude tonight, allow me to respectfully ask that you join Cinderella, President Abraham Lincoln, and the students of the University of Rhode Island. See the world, not as it is, but as it could be. If that’s too big a request, then endeavor to see Rhode Island as it could be: a place of hope, not cynicism; confident, not fearful; successful, not defeated; a place people move to, not away from; a national leader, not an afterthought; and a place where everyone is included, and no one is left behind.
Let’s do that, and from that foundation we can transform this world and create a future that is brighter for all of us. Thank you very much for listening this evening, and have a wonderful night.