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In a ceremony steeped in religion and tradition, President Derek C. Bok and Racliffe President Linda S. Wilson spoke to the senior class about America's changing social and political climate at yesterday's Baccalaureate service.
While Bok decried the apathy and cynicism of the American public, Wilson said Americans must rethink traditional institutional and family structures to accomodate the changing needs of society.
Bok warned the class of "the pervasive distrust and cynicism that infect public life today," citing the gradual erosion of the public's faith in American government beginning with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
"The quality of our public life is in a precarious state," Bok said. "The issue in America is not how people could regain power but how they exercise power that they have."
Power of the People
"Instead of trying to solve major problems, we seem inclined to put them off and let later generations pay the cost," Bok said. "It is customary to blame [the declining morale in the public sector] on our political leaders. But the events in Eastern Europe remind us that the ultimate power still resides in the people."
Americans can solve this problem only by changing their own outlooks, Bok said. "No lasting positive change can occur without lasting change in the attitudes of the people, and that is where you come in," he told the class.
Bok concluded by remembering the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, who said at Harvard's 300th anniversary that the University should train its students to be citizens in the high Athenian sense and "live lives increasingly aware that civic obligation is the most abiding."
Wilson told the senior class that they "cannot expect business as usual" in today's complex world. She advised the class to understand people's differences, to work to restructure society's institutions and to "engage in an active civic purpose."
"We must search tirelessly for mutual respect and accomodation in our growing interdependence," Wilson said. "We need to understand why it is we differ...and what makes diverse people thrive."
The graduating class will have an important part to play in restructuring the home and the workplace to accomodate the changing world, Wilson said.
"Individual roles will change and become less predetermined," Wilson said. "In both home and the workplace, the setting is less affected by gender, by race, by socio-economic class. We must ask men to play more diverse roles in the voluntary sector and in the home."
"The present institutions do not fit the changing situation, with women as caregivers and men as bread-winners," she said. "We need institutions designed to respect that caregiving responsibilities are societal responsibilities, not only women's responsibilities."
Wilson also urged seniors to consider civic service a responsibility. "We cannot assume that the basic function of civic society will be provided by others," Wilson said.
"We must take care of our community or it will disintegrate," she said.
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