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The Melting Pot and its Discontents

  • Date: 12/15/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Peggy Noonan, author, columnist and former presidential speechwriter, wrote an article some four years ago which appeared in the magazine Forbes ASAP, entitled, "There Is No Time, There Will be Time."

    She ended her essay with what has turned out to be a prescient commentary, given that she wrote it four years ago.

    "Something's up," she wrote. "And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful."

    ". . . When you consider who is gifted and crazed with rage...when you think of the terrorist places and the terrorist countries...who do they hate the most?"

    ". . . If someone does the big, terrible thing to New York or Washington, there will be a lot of chaos and a lot of lines going down, a lot of damage, and a lot of things won't be working so well anymore."

    ". . . The psychic blow - and that is what it will be as people absorb it, a blow, an insult that reorders and changes - will shift our perspective and priorities dramatically and for longer than a while."
    (Excerpts from Peggy Noonan, "There Is No Time, There Will Be Time," Forbes ASAP, November 30, 1998)

    And so, indeed, our perspectives and priorities have changed.

    Reflecting on what happened on September 11 leads me to suggest that if anything good came out of these events, it was our ability to unite in acts of selflessness and compassion for our fellow Americans. And, if anything constructive came out of those assaults on our nation, it was our continuing need to understand other cultures and to create better communication.

    The need has never been greater.

    Because of our movement to a global economy, the pervasiveness of new information tools, and an increasingly mobile population, all are creating a radically new set of capabilities and social adjustments.

    Shifts in international migration show a significant relocation of people from poor countries to industrialized countries with stronger economies, and the influx is dramatically changing the makeup of our western culture.

    According to last year's census, "..10 percent of America's 281-million residents were born in other countries, the highest percentage since 1930 and the largest absolute number in U.S. history."
    (As reported in National Geographic, September 2001, p. 46)

    Our country is a nation of immigrants, founded by and populated by people seeking the opportunity of freedom.

    As an immigrant myself, I know from experience that the opportunity of freedom brings with it the freedom of opportunity and with it the responsibility to be true to the intent of our founding fathers.

    And that intent, indeed the very basis of America's success, is based on the principle that in creating a government, we make a covenant with ourselves - a covenant wherein we promise to continuously build a better future for ourselves and for our children by advancing the common good, by ensuring that each successive generation is better educated than that of its parents.

    Yet our intent to become part of "the great melting pot of America," as Woodrow Wilson called the United States, does not mean that we are destined to become one culture.

    Because it is not only in America that we are seeing boundaries redefined along cultural lines.

    Indeed, as Samuel Huntington points out in his remarkably insightful book, the Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, today, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.

    We are witnessing, according to Huntington, "...dramatic changes in peoples' identities and (in) the symbols of those identities. Global politics (is being) reconfigured along cultural lines."
    (Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster 1996, p.19)

    We are increasingly living in a world where "local politics are the politics of ethnicity; (and where) global politics (are) the politics of civilizations."
    (Ibid, p.28)

    In defining our identity, "We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against."
    (Ibid, p.21)

    "For peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential, and the potentially most dangerous enmities occur across the fault lines between the world's major civilizations."
    (Ibid, p.20)

    Indeed, Huntington suggests that "avoidance of a global war of civilizations depends on world leaders accepting and cooperating to maintain the multicivilizational character of global politics."
    (Ibid, p.21)

    As W. Steven Brown, author of a well-known management book, once said, "Communication does not begin with being understood, but with understanding others."

    In other words, communication is the bridge for such acceptance and cooperation.

    Thus, we all must work to create a better understanding of other cultures and do what we can to combat ignorance and intolerance. Otherwise, metaphorically speaking, we could all find ourselves jumping out of that great melting pot and into the fire of global conflict.

    As many of you have heard me say, universities are magical places where you can dream, and dare, and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    That magic lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge and most of all in the recognition of the connectedness of life and in the awareness that we can, and we must advance our common good.

    And so, as you now close this chapter of your life, know that the future is what you make of it.

    As part of your University of Akron experience, you have met people from diverse backgrounds and cultures - some quite different from your own.

    It is my fervent hope that you will find solutions to cultural differences through this shared knowledge and understanding of other cultures. I hope that you will sustain the relationships you have made and that you will broaden your horizons still some more.

    Our common future and the common good depend on it.

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