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The ancient Romans were into gods. They had a god for all seasons, purposes and pursuits. Some were single purpose gods while others were multi-taskers covering several areas of human endeavor. One of the most interesting of the latter type was Janus.. According to the Encyclopedia Mythica, Janus was god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings, and thus was represented with a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions. He was worshipped at the beginning of the harvest time, planting, marriage, birth, and other types of beginnings, especially the beginnings of important events in a person's life. Janus was truly all-purpose, and if we were still into the worship of many gods, Janus might well be the god of commencements.
Of course, as he was all-seeing, he would know that a commencement speaker represents the last barrier between the members of the audience and what they really came for—conferral of degrees that they worked hard for (or in the case of parents and families, that they paid for). He would undoubtedly say, speaking out of both sides of his faces, “Oratio brevis”….keep it short. And I will…
Think about who you were when you began your course of study and who you are now. If you really do this, and conclude you are the same person, your education has failed you, or you have failed your education. Education is all about change, not only in knowledge of topics but more important in knowledge of self. You have changed, not only because of the classes or the books or the web resources that have contributed to your education but because you have been a part of a community of learners, one in which your interactions, whether with other students or with faculty have been an integral part of your education.
It is this theme, community, which I will focus on in the brief time we have this morning.
Having completed this phase of your education, you will create a unique community in which you will live and work and play in the future. Your community will not be exactly like anybody else’s. True, elements of your community will be shared with others—your workplace or Schnucks or your religious institution or the Mall or the neighborhood bar—but your community will also be different--a unique mix of elements that have meaning to you as an individual or give comfort or provide opportunity. You will draw on your community and also give to it.
As your comfort with the community you create increases, there will be a temptation to stay within its bounds—moving from work to home to play within the structure of your unique community. The education you have received here will serve you well in operating within your unique community, but there is more to it than that.
You have invested time and money in your education, but so has the larger community within which your unique community will exist. Now it’s payback time.
How do you pay back the community?—by being an active and contributing member outside your comfort zone. While you’ve been focused within the academic community you are now leaving, you may have been a bit isolated from what is happening in the various communities of which you will increasingly be a part:
- St. Louis City schools are in turmoil because politics and personal agendas have replaced the needs of the community and the children as their driving force.
- St. Louis County is a hodge-podge of municipalities and special districts poorly functioning at best and dysfunctional at worst as they vie for tax resources to support duplication at the expense of an effective community.
- Missouri’s health care safety net is in shambles as legislation that places individual responsibility above community need strips thousands of the health care they need to be productive members of the community.
- Massive disparities persist in the area, state and nation among racial and ethnic groups in housing, health status, education and economic opportunity.
- The national community is deeply divided over an unpopular war and the mounting debt required to sustain it.
What is the common denominator here? Some would say a lack of leadership. Others cite a lack of commitment to the welfare of the entire community rather than one or another segment or special interest. I would suggest it is a lack of community itself—of people who are willing to commit their time, talent, energy and resources community building.
You can—you must—be those people. Start now, today using the talents and knowledge honed here to change the larger community. Pick a cause NOW Find a community of concern for that cause NOW Engage fully in that community NOW.
This is not the easy path—the easy path is to say “I’ll get involved sometime,” and somehow sometime never comes. Fundamental to building an effective community is participation. Start participating now—work on a political campaign, volunteer in a clinic, join a charitable organization, write to the editor, contribute to a charity and above all vote!—in short, establish a pattern of participation that focuses your talents, shaped in the UMSL community, on these larger communities of concern and opportunity.
If you do this—commit your talents to building a real community in this region, state and nation, then those among you who may, at some point in the future be tasked to give a commencement address will be able to do what I cannot. You will be able to say your generation “got it” and are turning over a nation that values community and understands that a community is not all of one color or of one political persuasion or of one economic class. It is a functioning entity of which these are all valued parts.
And that brings us back to our friend Janus, god of beginnings…and commencements. Looking back, he would admire your accomplishments while in the UMSL community. Looking forward, he might be heard to say: “It’s your turn—don’t screw it up!”