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Illuminating the Darkness in the Age of Despair

Demonstrators at the Women's March in London last January. (David Holt / CC 2.0)

By Henry Giroux

Demonstrators at the Women’s March in London last January. (David Holt / CC 2.0)

Editor’s note: This is the text of a commencement speech given by Henry Giroux on Tuesday at the University of the West of Scotland. On that occasion the university presented him with an honorary doctorate. (See press release here.)

Chancellor, Graduates, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am deeply honored to be with you today and to share in your success and the celebration of your talents and achievements. It is a humbling task to stand before you and say something worthy of this memorable event. Rather than dwell on my own biography, I want to take the advice of the great philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who insisted that award winners should talk less about their own merits and much more about the challenges the next generation will face and what it will mean to conduct your lives with a sense of dignity, civic courage, and social responsibility.

All generations face trials unique to their times and your generation is no different. Though yours may be unprecedented. High on the list would be the precarity of the current historical moment–a time in which the security and foundations enjoyed by an earlier generation have been largely abandoned. Traditional social structures, long term jobs, stable communities, and permanent bonds have withered before the speed of consumption, disposability, and the scourge of unbridled production. This is a time when massive inequality plagues the planet and resources and power are largely controlled by a small financial elite; a time when the social contract is shrinking, war has become normalized, environmental protections are being dismantled, fear has become the new national anthem, and more and more people, especially young people, are being written out of the script of democracy. Yet, around the globe the spirit of resistance on the part of young people is coming alive once again.

My first hope is that you will not be discouraged by the way the world looks at the present moment. Against the looming threats I have mentioned, the lesson I want to reinforce today is that hope is a precious gift and should never be surrendered to the forces of cynicism and resignation. On the contrary, I want to repeat what my friend the late Howard Zinn once wrote: “The lesson of history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change…To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness.”

For change to happen, you must be visionary, risk taking, willing to make trouble and think dangerously. Ideas have consequences, and when they are employed to nurture and sustain a flourishing democracy, in which people struggle for justice together, you will learn how to make history rather than be swept away by it. Reject measuring your life simply in traditional terms of success–wealth, prestige, status, and the false comforts of gated communities and gated imaginations. These goals are politically, ethically, and morally deficient and capitulate to the bankrupt notion that we are consumers first and citizens second. Instead, be brave, generous, honest, civic minded, and think about your life as a project rooted in the desire to create a better world for yourself, your children and all children. Expand your dreams and think about what it means to build a future marked by a robust and inclusive democracy. In doing so, embrace acts of solidarity, work to expand the common good, and collectivize compassion. Such practices will bestow on your generation the ability to govern wisely rather than simply be governed maliciously. Remember, democracy is not given to us, it has to be fought for and its benefits have always emerged out of collective struggles of mass resistance. Democracy at its best raises questions about what your generations’ responsibility might be in the face of an unspeakable and unlivable future. Rather than be numb and silent, refuse to look away and act with courage in the face of injustice. Make the unimaginable ordinary and the space of the possible larger than what currently exists.

I have great hope that your generation will confront the poisonous authoritarianism that is emerging in many countries today. One strategy for doing this suggests reaffirming what binds us together, how we might develop new forms of solidarity, and what might it mean to elevate the dignity and decency of everyday people everywhere.

Today, you leave one experience of education and enter into another in which you will need to develop an active relationship with history because “memory produces hope,” enables critical questioning, and prevents justice from going dead in ourselves. Against the current moral vacuum overtaking market-driven societies, you will need to learn how to translate private troubles into public considerations and public issues into individual and collective rights. Learn how to bear witness to the injustices around you and accept the call to become visionaries willing to create a society in which people, as the great journalist Bill Moyers argues, can “become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.” Near the end of her career, Helen Keller was asked by a student if there was anything worse than losing her sight. She replied “yes, I could have lost my vision.” To add to this eloquent comment, I would say, that history is open and it is time to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, especially if you want to imagine and bring into being alternative futures and horizons of possibility. The future is now in your hands and it is a future that needs your skills, critical judgment, sense of responsibility, compassion, imagination, and humility. Let me end by quoting my first teacher, the great novelist and critic James Baldwin. “The precise role of [your generation]…, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

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