Peter Pringle's America: Heroes don't need lofty sentiments

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The Independent Online
THIS is the season of a strange American ritual called 'commencement', the confusing title given to the annual rite of passage when thousands of young people officially end their years of education and move, anxiously and sometimes reluctantly, into the real world. Famous and important people are invited by universities to receive honorary degrees and to give advice about how these newcomers to adulthood might contribute to the national good or, in the cliche of the day, make the world a better place.

Although this event is supposed to be for the young, what it really does is to serve as a barometer of the feelings of the nation's leaders about what's wrong with society.

A history professor named John Hope Franklin told students at Duke University in North Carolina to beware of the lure of riches that may turn out to be as useless as gold in an earthquake. 'What good will it do to amass a fortune if you live in a world threatened by wars and ecological disasters and the only thing you've done about it is to hold your fortune ever closer to your chest?'

Jimmy Carter, the former president, told students in Houston that the world was plagued by economic differences and they should work to close the gap. 'The greatest discrimination on the earth today, including in our own country, is discrimination by the rich against the poor,' said Mr Carter.

President Clinton's wife, Hillary, who was much in demand this year as a speaker, looked back to her college years at the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam. 'I graduated from college 24 years ago, before MTV or rap, or CDs, or cellular phones,' Mrs Clinton told students at the University of Michigan. 'Back then if you had said 10,000 Maniacs, you probably would have been talking about (the drug-ridden neighbourhood) Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.'

She said she felt as idealistic today as she had in the Sixties, as determined to promote the rights and freedom of the individual. But the old ideals needed adjustment; it was no longer enough to call for free speech and civil rights. Racism was alive on America's campuses and the entire social contract was in need of repair. 'We have to find a way to celebrate our diversity and our differences without fracturing our communities,' she said in Philadelphia. She referred to the case at the University of Pennsylvania in which a white male student called a group of black women who were making loud noises outside his dormitory window 'water buffaloes'. The university authorities are in a dilemma whether to punish the white student for violating the college's code on racial harassment. The code says he should be dismissed, but civil libertarians say the university should not attempt to regulate speech.

Senator Ted Kennedy talked about gun control at a college in Massachusetts where a student and a professor were killed last December by an 18-year-old student who went on a shooting rampage. 'What kind of country, what kind of society, is this?' asked Mr Kennedy, 'where an emotionally disturbed teenager can walk into a nearby sporting goods store, display an out-of-state driver's licence, plonk down dollars 150 in cash, walk out with his very own assault rifle and open fire on his faculty and fellow students? I, too, have known bright passages and dark days. My family has suffered from the insanity and terror that shatter the finest hopes and dreams.'

In Syracuse, New York, an American Indian named Oren Lyons became the first native American ever to speak at the university's commencement. He told the graduates that the 'frontier attitude' was still alive and still hurtful to the indigenous people of North America. 'We are here to remind you that there is a consequence of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and of the chosen peoples,' he said.

All the speakers paraphrased John F Kennedy in one way or another, telling the students to ask what they could do for their country, not what their country could do for them. Help control guns. Help the American Indians. Care for the poor. Find a way to allow free speech without promoting bigotry. Beware of riches that erode the soul. The messages were not about building wealth or military strength, but about being heroes in a world made more complex without the old villains.

Confronted by this difficult and unfamiliar world, some speakers simply gave up. The columnist Art Buchwald told the graduates of the University of California: 'I don't know if this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I can assure you of this: it's the only time you've got. So you can either stare at your navel or go out and pick a daisy.' Mr Buchwald was at the university in the Forties.

Almost unnoticed in all this lofty discourse was the example of a true young hero; not fighting the big demons, but at the front line of the war. Christian Fetterolf, a 24- year-old student at Hunter College in New York, saw a man in the subway attacking a young woman and her two-year-old child. He burst through a crowd of onlookers, none of whom raised even a voice in protest, to fight off the knife- wielding subway mugger.

Mr Fetterolf was stabbed four times by the mugger's seven-inch dagger and ended up in hospital barely alive. When he recovered, he tried to downplay his role as hero, thereby making him even more of one. 'What I did makes me a human being,' he said. 'I helped someone who needed help. It wasn't heroic. Until now I didn't know that everybody wouldn't act the same way.'

In addition to the older and more famous advisers, today's universities could have done with a speech from someone such as Mr Fetterolf on how to help someone who needs help - simply by being a human being.