“It’s time to get in the game,” Geoffrey Canada told the graduating Class of 2012. “What game? The game of life.”
Some 6,000 graduates had filed into Franklin Field, spirits high despite damp weather, many wearing rain ponchos over their gowns. Canada addressed them like potential recruits.
“Come join our team,” said the longtime leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit provider of educational, social, and medical services. “We’re losing.”
Canada described his team as one composed of altruists who fight for the impoverished and disadvantaged.
“You have proven that you have what it takes to make it,” he said. “My question to you is, do you care about those who won’t make it without real help?”
“The other team offers you money and power and luxury cars, vacation homes and stock options,” Canada continued. But “our team offers you challenge and struggle, a rich intellectual life, honesty as a guidance, and a good night’s sleep.”
Calling the Class of 2012 “some of the best and brightest our country has to offer,” Canada tempered his congratulations with a Manichean message.
“There is evil out there,” he said. Not some theoretical evil, but real evil that his team of humanitarians must defeat.
“Some, from the very moment of birth, have the odds stacked so high against them that for all intents and purposes they are out of the game before they even get in,” Canada said. Poverty, violence, and lack of educational opportunities “hang over our heads today like a giant leaden weight.”
There was a time when his team was winning, Canada said, reflecting on his undergraduate days at Bowdoin College. “We fought for civil rights. The women’s liberation movement was the right thing to be involved in. The gay and lesbian rights movement was just beginning.”
But a sinister self-centeredness has infected our republic, he intimated. “Fear for the self is everywhere. We find it hard to care for the homeless when our mortgages are underwater. The poor feel under attack. The middle class feels under attack. Even the wealthy feel under attack. Our team—the team that rallies us under the common good, that emphasizes self-sacrifice and altruism—is losing …
“I know an enlightened group of men and women would not tolerate their country drifting toward this calamity,” Canada said. “Our team needs you.”
When cheers rose up from the assembly, Canada voiced a note of caution. “Now wait a minute,” he said. “Don’t rush up all at once … You can join the losing team, but not quite yet. You might need more seasoning. You see, it’s not easy being on the losing team. You have to be careful. If you are not properly prepared, you will become a loser. We don’t want losers. We want winners who aren’t afraid to play for the losing team.”
President Amy Gutmann, who spoke before Canada, also urged grads to follow an unconventional path to success. She called upon the Class of 2012 not to go forth and conquer, but to go forth and collaborate.
“For more than 200 years, the West has been in thrall to a Napoleonic model of leadership. We think of ideal leaders as being bold and visionary, single-minded in their determination, and ruthless in their execution,” she explained.
“Collaborative leadership is sorely lacking,” she said. “The ability to seize the crown and become master of all knowledge no longer works. This is your challenge: you must create a new paradigm of leadership.”
Gutmann told the Class of 2012 that she believes they have what it takes to lead together. “I’m most impressed by the collaborative spirit that distinguishes so many of our student leaders,” she said. “You are truly the collaboration generation.”
Canada picked up on Gutmann’s theme.
“You are a wiser and better generation,” he said. “Here is my fantasy: One day not too long from now, my team and I will be doing battle against the forces of darkness. They will be trying to reverse our progress, hurt our children, destroy their souls. And it will suddenly seem to me that I can do no more.”
But then, Canada proclaimed, “Suddenly, from behind me, I will hear a mighty roar. I’ll turn around and see a most glorious sight: an army of better-prepared, smarter, more powerful young warriors. They swarm past me headlong into the battle. The enemies of truth, of fairness, of liberty and equality are overwhelmed.
“And I grab several of these young warriors and ask, ‘Who are you? Where did you come from?’ And they will say, ‘Don’t you remember us? We are from the Penn Class of 2012.’” —Maanvi Singh C’13