The First Class in the New Era
Four years ago, we, the Class of 2002, gathered in Killian Court for our class photo, taken during orientation. We were told, as I presume was the same refrain for previous classes, that the next time our class would gather together would be for today’s Commencement ceremonies. This was not the case for our class. We gathered, along with the rest of the undergraduate and graduate student community, the faculty, and the staff on Sept. 12, 2001.
At the time of this community gathering, we had no idea how many thousands had been killed the day before. But we did know that Sept. 11 would be a day not soon forgotten. We knew that Sept. 11 would be the Dec. 7 or the Nov. 22 for our generation. Things would be different -- we prepared to enter the realm of “after Sept. 11.” As we receive our diplomas today, we become the first class of graduates in this new era.
This will be evidenced by the metal detectors and increased security detail at today’s proceedings. We’ve seen new inconveniences since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. More importantly, things feel different.
Like in previous years, we speak of entering the real world, but the real world that we enter is not what we had expected when we showed up in August 1998. The fact is that no one really knows what state the world will be in one year from now. Even the FBI is confused. Or is it the CIA? Just a year ago, no one knew what the current world would look like, but there was no sense of concern. This year, we have to face the reality that the “real world” isn’t pretty.
I could try to explain that this year’s graduates have a particular responsibility to use our talents to create world peace and harmony. But I am not sure that this is the case. I do agree that MIT graduates are some of the smartest folks around. I also think that we do have an obligation to make society a better place. But does the Class of 2002 have any increased responsibility to the world?
There is something different about the world that our class is entering. But I don’t know anything we should be doing that is particularly different.
Until Sept. 11, it was easy for MIT students to remain insulated from world events and exist only within a campus-sized bubble. With the technological boom at the end of the 1990s, the Institute was one of the most interesting places in the world. The Media Lab was creating nifty devices and nobody seemed to care that they were of relatively little use.
Circumstances have changed and we have adapted. I’ve found that more people on campus are paying attention to politics and current events. This is a good thing, but is it a response or a responsibility? Has the focus of the campus extended beyond the bubble because the rest of the world is interesting, or because of some sense of obligation?
I’m looking at the world, thinking that I feel different, but unsure of what I should do differently. Sept. 11 gave me quite a bit to think about. I was questioned on a handful of occasions about the American flag pin that I began wearing after the attacks. The fact was that after Sept. 11, my appreciation for the United States increased drastically. Skeptical about America’s disproportionate power in the world, I had to examine my support of the country.
I came to understand that I took quite a bit about America for granted. This country offered my family a better future than they would have had in Eastern Europe. If not for the opportunities offered in the United States, I would not be receiving a degree from one of the world’s greatest schools. Everyone that receives a degree today has been fortunate to have this opportunity.
This does not mean that I condone all actions by the United States government. I cannot. But I have to acknowledge the fact that I have quite a bit to be thankful for. (And this is before I begin to thank my family, which deserves as much praise as I can give them.)
The freedom and opportunities made available in the United States are not something new. My realization and understanding of them are. Therefore, my feelings about being an American are different, but my responsibilities to America are just the same.
If I don’t agree with a policy of the government, I don’t have to support it. That is part of the freedom that I have in this country. I can voice my opinion freely (and with an MIT degree, people might actually listen to me).
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Axis powers became the identifiable foes. We had an enemy and we could fight them, however gruesome the conflict. The class of 1942 was asked to aid in the war effort -- students could forgo final-term requirements to enlist. At the time, the country needed soldiers. If you want something a little meatier, if cheesier as well: the free world needed soldiers.
But what is needed now? It’s convenient to have a person (Osama bin Laden) and an organization (al Qaeda) that we can call “evil-doers”. However, the Class of 2002 cannot join the fight against these entities. But they are not the true enemies anyhow. The enemy is the hatred that people feel towards the United States. We cannot enlist in any effort to make people feel differently.
I still haven’t answered the question about what is currently needed. I don’t know if I can. There a plenty of theories going around about why people hate the United States. Clearly, a lot of people have problems with America. And I’m sure that these people have a variety of reasons, some of which may be valid. But haven’t we always had a responsibility to treat people fairly? The freedoms that give us reason to be grateful should be more available, as has always been the case.
Those of us in the Class of 2002 see the world differently. It is more confusing, but also more clear. We did not see the nuances before Sept. 11. Now that we have a perspective that includes these subtle elements, we have a truer view of the world. But do have any different responsibility to it?