Robert Reich: What I’m Telling My Graduating Students – OpEd


My students are graduating at a tremulous time. 

The largest campus protest movement of the 21st century. The first criminal trial of a former U.S. president. The most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. Two horrific wars.

All of this coming after a pandemic that claimed the lives of over a million Americans. And after the first attack on the U.S. Capitol in history, provoked by the first president who refused to accept electoral defeat. 

Perhaps most troubling, the nation is bitterly split. Americans are demonizing those on the other side with whom they disagree. (For two weeks in April, “Civil War,” a dystopian film about a bloody alternative reality where America is at war with itself, topped box office charts, grossing more than $50 million.)

My graduating students are exhausted and anxious.

They are repulsed by the slaughter in Gaza and angered by the responses of university administrators around the country to the student protesters. 

They’re cynical about politics. 

They tell me they don’t want to have children and bring them into a world imperiled by conflict and climate change and authoritarianism. 

They have lived through mass shootings and culture wars. 

They recall a Trump administration spewing hate and bigotry and giving tax cuts to the wealthy, and fear another President Trump who’s even less constrained. 

I tell them that the year I graduated from college, in 1968, America also felt tremulous and chaotic. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. American cities were burning. 

And the Vietnam War was claiming the lives of tens of thousands of young Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. 

I was appalled at the unnecessary carnage in Vietnam. I was incensed that the first world, white and rich, was randomly killing people in the third world, mostly non-white and poor. As an American, I felt morally complicit.

I was angry at college administrators who summoned police to clear protesters — using tear gas, stun guns, and mass arrests. The response only added fuel to the flames.

America was deeply split. My graduation speaker urged us to resist the draft and seek refuge in Canada. His words caused parents in the crowd to boo. I saw several engage in fistfights. 

The anti-Vietnam War movement became fodder for right-wing politicians like Richard Nixon, demanding “law and order.” The spectacle also appalled many non-college, working-class people who viewed the students as pampered, selfish, anti-American, unpatriotic.

I vividly recall the anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and the brutality of the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard — later described by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence as a “police riot.”

As the anti-war protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching,” network television conveyed the riotous scene to what seemed like the whole world.

I had spent months working for the anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. The convention nominated Hubert Humphrey. That November, America elected Richard Nixon as president. 

I wondered whether the nation could sink any lower. How could we survive?

I ask my students to hold on. To use their lives and careers to make America better. To try to heal the world. 

History, as it is said, doesn’t repeat itself. It only rhymes.

The mistakes made at one point in time have an eerie way of reemerging two generations later, as memories fade.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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