Calling on her training as an anthropologist, Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole gave the Class of 1996 five important lessons to remember while working to "rebuild the kind of understanding and unity among diverse peoples" that will determine the United States' success in the next century and beyond.
In her commencement address on May 13, Cole touched on the following five points gleaned from the study of the human condition:
*No genetic cause has ever been found to account for the pitting of different groups of humans against each other. "No matter how widespread and tenacious we find racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry to be," Cole said, "I am here to tell you that the stuff ain't genetic. We human beings learn to discriminate. We are taught ugly names to call each other. If we learn how to do it, we can unlearn it."
*No group of people is immune from engaging in intolerance. "Look around our world and you will see that from blatant prejudice to the barbaric victimization of one group by another, such expressions of bigotry are not the sole possession of any particular people," Cole said. "Just look at the Middle East, Bosnia, Ireland, India, Mexico, Haiti, Rwanda, Liberia and, yes, our own nation."
*The power of human empathy is tremendous. "Trust me when I tell you that if men folk really work at it, they can come to understand many of the realities of women's lives," she said. "We gringos really can come to understand the history and the realities of various Latino communities. And surely one does not have to be Jewish to know the pain and suffering of the victims of the Holocaust."
*No matter how much one reads and studies about the condition of another people, one's understanding will be incomplete without some form of field work, of participation in their way of life. "Each of us has the possibility to get at least a taste of the insights, the excitement, the joy of another way of life," Cole said. "It is yours for the taking whenever you venture beyond your habitual ways to try another language, another peoples' foods, films, literature, music and art. Regardless of how you have had a cross-cultural experience, the most powerful thing about that experience is that you came to better understand your own culture and you came to better understand yourself."
*No matter how stubbornly people hold on to ideas and ways that have lost their apparent usefulness or are destructive to society, they can change. Cole quoted one of her favorite "sheroes," anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once said: "Never doubt the ability of a small and thoughtful group of committed citizens to change the world."
Echoing the problems inherent with a house divided against itself, Cole cautioned the graduates about the many spokespersons for a divided society. "Rather than celebrating the magnificence and the strength of so many different kinds of folks all living under one American roof, they call for keeping some people in their places. But the uniqueness and the long-term viability of our nation rests on the powerful idea that there is a place of respect in the American house for each and every one of us. And just look at us. What a people we Americans are. What a people we are in our full array of human diversity; for we Americans are folks of different races and ethnicities; we are womenfolk and men folk; we are of different ages, religions and sexual orientations; and we are differently able.
"The problem is that in this house of ours," Cole continued, "we have not yet found the way to teach people how to decently, not to mention lovingly, interact with those who are different. We have not yet found the way to demonstrate that groups can and should preserve their distinctiveness and still work together for the common good. And we have not sufficiently illustrated the benefits of multiple ways of seeing and doing and being. There is a wonderful Chinese saying that captures this: One flower never makes a spring."
Cole called on those in the academic community to rededicate themselves to analyzing and understanding violent reactions to difference and recommit themselves to the fundamental principles of a pluralistic democracy.
Following Cole's address (and a figurative sigh of relief that morning sprinkles never materialized into serious rain), various faculty and student awards were presented, including the Marion Luther Brittain Award, the Thomas Jefferson Award and the first McMullan Award. (See stories on pages 5 and 7). In addition to Cole, honorary degrees were presented to Morris Abram, Ely Callaway Jr., Billy Payne, Celestine Sibley, Wole Soyinka and Daniel Tosteson.
President Bill Chace shared some demographic information about the 3,219 graduates in the Class of 1996. Forty-two percent are men, and 58 percent are women. Forty graduates received joint degrees. The graduates represent all 50 states, and 143 graduates represent 69 foreign nations. Forty-four graduates are 50 or older. The youngest bachelor's graduate is 19, and the oldest is 57. The oldest graduate received a master of divinity at age 65.