Commencement speeches should be given on the first day of college, when their inspiration would exert more influence than as the last words before receiving one's diploma. Focusing young minds on what needs to be done is an aspect of college too often forgotten.
Nothing concentrated minds more than Sept. 11, a moment of revelation about the world and who our true friends are. The upcoming anniversary should also be a moment of reflection on our country and what needs be done.
1) Energy: Oil addiction perverts foreign policy, fuels fundamentalism and wreaks environmental destruction. Alternatives--gas-electric hybrids, fuel cells, renewable sources and conservation--exist but remain untapped due to lack of political commitment.
2) Education: Public schools are a vital but crumbling pillar of our social, intellectual and economic fabric. Neither throwing money nor piecemeal privatization can nourish the foundation of the future. Watered-down standards are no substitute for leveling the playing field with better opportunity and higher expectations for all. A national curriculum, rigorous standards for students and teachers, incentives for teaching, increased resources and cultural emphasis on academics need to be brought to bear.
3) Fiscal Policy: Two of every three federal dollars are spent on social programs, defense and interest on the debt. We need to reverse tax cuts and corporate welfare, slowly raise retirement age over the next 50 years and pay off the debt.
4) Health: Over 40 million uninsured, costs of $1.4 trillion now forecasted to rise to 16 percent of GDP by the end of the decade and tremendous patient dissatisfaction reveal a system adrift. Medicine is no longer about patients and doctors but about insurance companies. Health care rationing, national health insurance, arbitration screening frivolous malpractice suits and limits on drug marketing all need to be considered.
5) Environment: Global warming, habitat destruction and pollution are insidious dangers indifference to which will only reap future suffering. Cleaner energy, shifting income taxes to pollution and conservation taxes, debt reduction in return for rainforest preservation and smarter corporate regulation are essential.
6) Integrity: While the business of America may be business, not everything should be reduced to profit motive. Commodification of practically everything coarsens life and taints society not only in business scandal but in political influence-peddling, grade inflation and perverse incentives in health care. A dollar value cannot be placed on character. Special interest influence should be curtailed by public campaign financing and free TV time.
7) Vision: Not since the call to put a man on the moon has the nation been rallied to a mission that captured the imagination. Why not challenge the American can-do spirit with a call to cure cancer or AIDS, involve youth in national service or put a man on Mars?
8) Science and Society: Advances in cloning, genetic manipulation, information technology and robotics have outpaced public discussion, threatening a future where definitions of personhood and freedom may be made in a vacuum of ethics. Science must not relegate the meaning of humanity to statistics.
9) Liberty and Security: The old rules on individual rights and governmental responsibilities were part of the rubble of ground zero. We have to write a new book, keeping in mind both basic principles and current needs. Security protects the liberty that is the purpose of America; guardians and advocates of both need each other and must remember this critical symbiosis.
Sept. 11 dispelled the illusion that individuals can ignore the world, and discredited the hubris of the conformity cops of the right and the apologists of terrorism of the thought police of the left, who share shrill hysteria, historical amnesia and intellectual flaccidity. Society is often the best guard of the individual. As a poet once said, the meaning of life is not a fact waiting to be discovered but a choice about the way we live, a truth best heard at the beginning of one's journey through higher education.
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Dr. Bala Ambati is a former fellow in the School of Medicine and is currently on the faculty at the Medical College of Georgia. His column appears every third Thursday.