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EDUCATION

The Class of Sept. 12th

I am sure they know they are entering an uncertain world. I am less sure we have prepared them for their role in it.

June 16, 2002|GIOCONDA BELLI | Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet and novelist who lives in Santa Monica.

The lawn in front of Columbia University's domed library is filled with families anxiously awaiting the start of the 2002 commencement ceremonies. When the band begins to play and the river of young men and women pours down the stairs on both sides of the central plaza for the traditional procession around the campus, everybody stands. We are all trying to find the familiar face of a son, a daughter or a friend beneath the graduation caps.

It is a beautiful day in New York, sunny and breezy, and around me people are beaming with joy and anticipation. I stand on my chair as I see many other mothers do. I want to be certain to see my son as he walks by amid the flowing robes of his graduating peers. I tell myself I won't fail to recognize him, although the identical caps and gowns somehow erase differences. I am looking for my son's grin of happiness in every passing face.

I am Nicaraguan. Camilo's father is Brazilian. But my son looks like an Irishman: red-haired, freckled, fair-skinned. When we first came to the U.S., people assumed he could understand them, although he couldn't speak a word of English.

We finally see him and shout his name; his face lights up and he waves to us. The procession ends with the graduates taking a seat in the center of the campus plaza.

But as beautiful as the day is, as much as I want to dwell on the satisfaction I derive from looking at my son, I can't stop thinking of the changed world in which he will begin his adult life. From where I sit, I can see a policeman's silhouette on the roof of the library. I see the shadows of uniformed guards keeping watch from behind windows in the campus buildings around us. Helicopters fly overhead several times during the ceremony. I think most of us are aware that these promising young men and women could be targeted, that their loss would hurt, not only the United States but many countries around the world. I cringe at the thought as much as I cringe at the fact that I am harboring this fear in a place where, until Sept. 11, it would have seemed paranoid to think that someone would want to cause harm.

They seem--for this moment, at least--unaware of the uncertainty. As the graduates go up on the stage to receive their Columbia pins, those who wait their turn throw a colorful ball in the air. They are restless, getting up from their seats, walking to the back to greet family or friends, talking among themselves. Beneath their gowns, many wear jeans, their feet in sandals, sneakers, even flip-flops.

Still, they are not simply the class of 2002: They are also the first post-Sept. 11 graduates, the class of Sept. 12. Like my son, many of these kids probably volunteered in the days after the World Trade Center tragedy, packing and distributing food to the rescue workers. All, no doubt, were deeply affected by the horror and proximity.

I am sure they realize they are going into an uncertain world. I am less sure we have prepared them for their role in it. Being part of the intellectual elite of this sole remaining--and now besieged--superpower carries responsibilities made perfectly apparent by the events of last fall. But in this era of educational specialization, how many of them have acquired broad knowledge of world history and geography?

When I came to the U.S. to attend school, most of my classmates--in college-level courses--couldn't have found Nicaragua on a map. Bananas and witch doctory were the two things my country seemed to bring to mind. This is a country where many people consider acquiring knowledge about the world at large to be a choice, not a necessity.

Three of my children have now gone to school in the U.S., and I've noticed that most of the emphasis has been on familiarizing them with the different U.S. cultures--Native American, African, Latin American--so they will be more accepting of the ethnic and racial diversity within their own society. If my son had not chosen history as his major at Columbia, I don't know how much real knowledge of the world beyond our borders he would have received.

Considering the decisive role that the U.S. plays in the lives of millions of people around the globe, it disturbs me to see how little instruction young people get about the historical and geographical background against which the U.S. government carries on its foreign policy. The traditional focus on European and American history must be broadened to include the Third World. Given its importance in the shape of things to come, understanding the Third World will be crucial to understanding the world's challenges, dangers and hopes. I hope powerful nations will come to grips with the fact that they have accumulated most of the wealth of this planet. I hope they will come to realize that the social, ecological and demographic consequences of this gross inequality are eventually going to threaten everybody's survival.

Our younger generations will have to learn a different meaning for the concept of self-interest and realize it is very much in our interest not to simply think of our own kind in the world. It might mean they won't be as carefree as they are now, that their sense of entitlement will be measured in terms of their compassion and sense of social responsibility, that they will have to bring forth a new ethical standard of coexistence.

As for now, here they are, exuberant and joyful. Many of them have not yet had time to think of a future beyond this day. But tomorrow they will take their place at the helm of this chariot that is our planet, and I dare to hope, as a mother, that against all odds they'll do a better job than we have.

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