Crisis Is Opportunity

A commencement speech by a high school math teacher tells students that, like parachutes, minds must be open to function.

Graduates of the Class of 2006 at Corvallis High School in Corvallis, Oregon selected one of their favorite teachers to deliver their commencement speech. Mathematics teacher Rob Cornell delivered a question to students and asked them to calculate the sum of its parts.

Good Evening and a Spartan welcome; bienvenidos to all.

Corvallis High School Math Teacher Rob Cornell
I am deeply moved and honored that you have chosen me to share this milestone in your life journey. The moments we have shared, as students, teachers and friends have shaped and defined who we are — and I love who you are.

In you, I see warmth, compassion, strength, integrity, playfulness and joy. In you, I see hope. I only wish we, my generation, could have given you an easier road to travel. We owe you an apology for leaving you wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global warming, a massive national debt, an Earth that has been plundered, a toxic environment, corrupt politics, corporate greed and an increasingly polarized country.

The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, a champion of liberty and democracy in the early 1800s, once said: "America is great because she is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."

Consider if you will the following points: Would a good America have a policy of pre-emptive war? War is a brutal and barbaric way to solve a problem. Unprovoked, we attacked a sovereign country with the headline "shock and awe." That headline should have read "death and destruction."

One of the latest justifications of the war is "We are fighting terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here." That means we Americans are using Iraqis as human shields. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at about 40,000 for our war.

Would a good America have policies that ignore longstanding international laws such as the Geneva Conventions - policies that condone torture and extraordinary rendition and allow lengthy imprisonment without rights? Would a good America, the land of freedom and equality, deny that freedom based on race, gender or sexual preference? Would a good America allow wealth to accumulate in the hands of a few while many go hungry - and then pass tax cuts and laws that strengthen this disturbing trend?

I have painted for you a world in crisis, but it is not a world without hope. Crisis is opportunity. Even the smallest moment of your lives is an opportunity for you to shape the world around you. In the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Politicians and corporate spokespersons argue that the average American is doing very well. As a mathematician, I cringe when I hear the word "average" used in this way. If you were standing with one leg immersed in a bucket of liquid oxygen and the other in a roaring fire, a statistician would tell you that, on average, the temperature was just fine.

Look - Sean Hunter just pulled out his calculator. I can see him thinking, 'Let's see ... If we consider the specific gravity and density of oxygen at 1 atmospheric pressure, Mr. Cornell, that average would — ' Sean, put away your calculator — The point is, there is rising inequality in American's economic well-being. The top 10 percent of Americans own about 70 percent of the nation's wealth while the bottom 50 percent - one half of America - owns only 3 percent.

Sarah McLachlan, in her song "World on Fire," sings "The more we take, the less we become. The fortune of one man means less for some." Would a good America support maximizing profits from our planet's resources regardless of environmental degradation? Corporations export factories and jobs to Third World countries, exploiting workers and causing great harm to local environments, at times receiving tax breaks for doing so. Corporate farming practices may keep food prices low, but cheap food has a price. That price is being paid by the horrible suffering of animals and the catastrophic damage done to your planet's land and seas.

Would a good America have a government that seems to be more interested in serving the needs of big business than the needs of the individual? The number of registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., increased from 16,342 in 2000 to 34,785 last year. That is 65 lobbyists for each member of Congress. No wonder oil companies are given huge new tax breaks at a time of record profits and credit card companies are helping to write new bankruptcy laws. Enron could not have perpetrated its energy scams without the help of new legislation enacted by our elected officials.

Many agencies, created to protect public interests, are now headed by former industry lobbyists. Has America ceased to be great? It's a question worth asking and a discussion that needs to take place. Alexis de Tocqueville also observed that it is easier for people to accept a simple lie than a complex truth. In this day of the 30-second sound bite, you are fed many simple statements. You must decide their degrees of truth.

Quite often, these statements take the form of "talking points" repeated over and over and over and over — most minds like these short, often repeated phrases. They require little effort and often reinforce our belief that America is good.

What are the complex truths? I am not telling.

Finding them is your last homework assignment, and it is not an easy one.

The media, by all accounts, is controlled by four or five major corporations. The next battle - one that is currently being fought - is over the freedom and flow of information on the Internet. I hope you will seek an in-depth source of news that pursues truth and presents all sides of any issue. Only then can you decide for yourself - and this will take much longer than 30 seconds - what parts of America are good and what parts need to be fixed.

I've always told my students that the most important thing they can take from my class is confidence in their ability to solve problems. The solution to any problem, regardless of how insurmountable it may seem, begins with the smallest step, the smallest of beginnings. Take that step and see where it leads.

I have painted for you a world in crisis, but it is not a world without hope. Crisis is opportunity. Even the smallest moment of your lives is an opportunity for you to shape the world around you. In the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The way in which you live your lives impacts the world every day. You must make conscious, informed and healthy choices with an awareness of how those choices affect the people and environment that surrounds you. Be an educated consumer.

Eating local organic foods and walking or riding your bike more will not only contribute to the solution of several crises we are facing, but will lead to better health. Take an active part in your government. Be an engaged voter and citizen. Know the issues. Give voice to your concerns. Participate in civil disobedience when necessary. It's your country. Don't accept the argument "That's just the way things are done." There may be great sorrow in the world today, but there is also great joy. Each of us has the ability to find peace within ourselves. Meditate, pray or find another way to have quiet reflective moments. Express yourself creatively. Find work that feeds your heart and soul as well as your pocketbook.

Math is not the most important part of your life. Breathing is. Learn to breathe.

In closing, I'd like to share a brief story about Mahatma Gandhi: In one of his many travels, he was asked by a reporter at a train station if he had any message he would like to share with his people. He did not hesitate as he replied "My life is my message."

May your life be a message of love, joy and peace.

Thank you.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.