In academic life, there are two times of year that life starts over: the first day of the fall semester, and the day graduating seniors collect their diplomas, dancing off the stage as their families and friends cheer.
As The New School’s brand-new president, Dwight A. McBride, writes to lead off our issue: “I love commencement.” It is, as he puts it, “a sacred and ecstatic ritual.” We agree. One of the few graduations I have missed in my years as a college professor was in June 2008. I was about to be 50 years old, and the deal was we were going to Paris to celebrate. The speaker that year was supposed to be Senator Edward Kennedy: why put off a grand birthday celebration to see a stuffy old, if historically significant, Senator deliver a rubber chicken speech?
That was the logic, anyway: it wasn’t until we had settled into our hotel in the 9th arrondissement that I received an email informing me that, tragically, Kennedy had been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Another Senator would give the speech instead.
Let that be a lesson to you: Never, ever miss graduation. This year, of course, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone will miss graduation, at least as we know it, with the bands, the faculty, and students in colorful robes, and the hours in the pouring rain or broiling sun as hard-won diplomas and hoods are handed out one by one. We will try to replicate the experience, and many will be on Zoom. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has declared that in-person graduations can happen—if attendees stay in cars parked six feet apart. The Air Force Academy held “a scaled-down ceremony without an audience and with hundreds of graduating cadets sitting in chairs 8-feet apart on the school’s parade field.” By contrast, the Commander in Chief has decided to muster 1000 cadets at West Point so that he can give the graduation speech.
Covid-19 is the theme this year. But as historian Eli Zaretsky writes in “An Open Letter to My Students, Children, and Grandchildren,” this is not the first time that young people “have come of age during wars, depressions, and natural disasters. Much will depend on how you handle it, both individually and collectively.”
We believe in you: as Zaretsky says, Be strong. The future is here, and, as philosopher Lucas Fain reminds us in this issue, it “is a collective future insofar as it belongs to `us,’ whoever `we’ may be.” And it is a future in which, as historian Hannah Leffingwell argues, American higher education can — and should be — reborn in a post-pandemic university.
Our political worlds are also teetering between decline and the possibility for renewal. Journalist Simon Jones headlines our politics section with a “Letter from Glasgow,” in which he reflects on ten years of Conservative leadership and speculates that this year “we may be witnessing a spring for the Labour Party, fresh with vitality but inevitably rooted in Britain’s past.” Next, Rogers M. Smith and Desmond King comment on a United States that has been gradually cut off from the global collective by Donald Trump — for our protection, of course. Daniel Peres describes a Brazil tilting towards chaos and collapse because the Bolsonaro government has, on principle, refused to intervene or lead as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates there. We end on the note of optimism we feel when we think about all of those graduates who will cross the virtual stage in the coming days: What Americans, and American women, in particular, achieve when they demand reform. Join me — and our guests historians Susan Ware and Linda Gordon, journalist Liza Featherstone, and filmmaker Rachel Lears — on episode eight of Public Seminar’s podcast, Exiles on 12th Street.
We end this issue with Reflections: Part Two of the critical conversations assembled by Jonathon Catlin and Benjamin P. Davis. A sequel to last week’s “Sentencing the Present,” this week’s contributors continue the project of “reflecting on the history of the present and the possibilities of the future.” And they invite you to join them by writing a short response.
This newsletter marks our last issue of the school year, but it is also a beginning: of our summer publication schedule, of that thing that will happen as we gather ourselves to imagine life beyond the pandemic, of the things we cannot imagine now but that will surely surprise us. No matter where you go, come back to visit us here at Public Seminar every Friday.
Congratulations, graduates! Today, and in the coming weeks, you begin again and commence the next phase of your beautiful life. We cannot wait to see how it turns out.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.