Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Past Speaks to the Present

I was the grateful recipient of this year's University of Minnesota Morris Alumni Association Teaching Award, our main campus teaching award. Traditionally, the recipient serves as mace-bearer during commencement (I briefly set my robe on fire when the mace's glass head was hit by direct sunlight), and gives the (blissfully short) main speech at the Honors and Awards Ceremony the night before. The speech was well received, and I did not spontaneously combust even once. Win!

I took the opportunity to say a little about what lessons the deep past may have for students about to embark on the next stage of their lives. I've reproduced my remarks below, but cut off the introduction so the beginning sounds more awkward that it did during the actual event.

I’m an anthropologist, and my specialty is archaeology. I study and teach about the deep past. Like many topics that are part of the Liberal Arts, some may wonder what is the point of studying the deep past? What importance does it have to the present?

Our bodies – yours and mine -- are shaped by the past, through the DNA passed down from the parents here with us tonight, and the countless generations before them. Our communities are shaped by the past, through the history of our families, whether immigrant, indigenous, or carried here against their will. Our nation is shaped by the past, forged through the coming together of people whose struggles, for and against each other, created the institutions we rely upon today. The past, in other words, made us.

As Shakespeare once wrote: “What’s past is prologue.”

We read the prologue to a play to better understand, to better contextualize, the first act. Your first act. I teach about the past because I care about the future, and the future is sitting before me today, and you are about to embark on the great story of your lives. I could not be prouder or more confident of your ability to create a truly epic narrative.

So with that in mind, I want to bring to your attention two important lessons that the deep past can give to you (other than the obvious, like “never poke a sleeping mammoth”, or “a cave painting is worth a thousand words”)

First, the uniqueness of humanity is our ability to cooperate and create community. (No matter what your social media feed might look like). Like humans, gorillas will fight over territory, but even the most cranky preschooler could teach them a thing or two about sharing. Chimpanzees have been documented to commit murder, but never to work together in raising a child. Human cooperation – far more importantly than our technology – cultivated the landscape, raised the pyramids, and took us to the moon. All of human history is the history of community and cooperation, and sometimes, unfortunately, its dissolution. So I ask you to find your community; nurture, organize, and embrace it. United, you will do great things.

Second, we have always been more alike than we are different. Communities around the world have been connected since long before “globalization” became a modern buzz-word. Medieval kings in Zimbabwe traded with China; Arabic inscriptions have been found in Viking sites in Sweden; Midwestern farmers in the 3rd century AD traded for materials from the Rocky Mountains. We have always been interconnected.

Our modern barriers of race, class, nationalism, and religion – even warfare itself – are quite recent in human history, from the perspective of an archaeologist (which, granted, means anytime in the last 10,000 years). When the first cities rose in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, Europeans still had dark skin like their cousins in Africa. Two thousand years ago, Rome created a vast empire where people of many ethnicities and religions lived in reasonable peace side by side. The same could be said of ancient empires in India, China, Chile, and Mexico. When Mohammed first preached tolerance for his spiritual cousins, the Jews and the Christians, he laid the foundation for thirteen-hundred years of coexistence in Islamic kingdoms.

So, don’t let anyone convince you that hostility towards those who are different from you is inevitable. Instead, create communities that cross national, class, racial, gendered, and religious boundaries. Make the world safe for human differences by focusing on our commonalities. In doing so, you are calling on the deep history of human connectedness.

I leave you with this final, and most important message about the past: Don’t forget from whence you came. Your family and community shaped you. We count on you to return the favor.

Congratulations, honored students. I can’t wait to see what your first act looks like. I know it will do us proud.

Thank you.

Obviously, I'm focusing on the positive, but it's a graduation speech; it's probably not the best time to dwell on conquest and colonialism. And, yes, one can quibble about details, -- I had five minutes, I didn't have time to give the whole song and dance about alloparenting in chimpanzees! -- but I stand by the general message.