Employers are rethinking where and how they hire employees to meet this moment. And everyone is trying to figure out what does the workplace of the future look like? Will we still have offices, will we work remotely, will it be some hybrid combination?
And what about globalization? Are we still moving towards a more fully integrated world, with global supply chains, and open trade. Or, as seems more likely now than before, are we moving to a more divided and even balkanized world order. Inside our own country, the cultural wars that surround us will only intensify. And given that, what are the implications for our country and for the world–and for your future?
This is the reality of today, and we are looking to you, our next generation of leaders, to navigate through an increasing time of uncertainty and rapid change. What you learned at Middlebury and what you learned about yourself, as you found new strengths and inner resources during the pandemic, will make a huge difference.
I now look back and understand, that a liberal arts education needs to be well more than mastering a rigorous academic curriculum. It’s obviously about learning, and about asking the right questions. But you will have to take what you learned, and evolve and adapt to a world that is increasingly stressed and divisive. Your education was rooted in a set of values, but maybe more importantly, you must challenge yourselves to listen intently, and respect those who have a different set of values.
More than ever, we need to understand what it means to form and sustain community. All of us have a responsibility to each other. I can assure you that your values and principles will matter in every work situation and environment you encounter. They matter in the day-to-day decisions you will make in your personal and professional lives.
My close friend, the Reverend William Barber, is one of the essential leaders of our time. In many ways, he is the closest we have to a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr. at this critical moment in our history. Reverend Barber believes we have to go beyond just asking the right questions. He believes we have to understand the arguments on all sides of the debate, and to take it upon ourselves to “seriously consider the questions that are not being asked, and the implications for everyone involved.”
I think what he is saying is we have to take the responsibility and have the courage to ask the tough questions that aren’t being raised–and to understand why they are difficult to discuss. We have to understand why they divide us, and what we can do to find common ground where possible.
To do that means we have to listen to each other. Really listen. Listen to understand, instead of listening to respond. My Dad had a favorite quote he used to say to me: “Son, we are born with two ears and one mouth, and they should be used proportionately.” If we limit the voices around us, or tune out those we disagree with, we will never have the understanding needed to ask the hard questions and resolve them, and we will not hear or perceive the questions not being asked. Listening and learning requires humility. Being humble, looking deeply inside, is a necessary precondition if we are going to navigate the rapid rate of change in our world.
You are going to need courage and a thick skin in today’s polarized society. You are going to need to adapt, because in every part of our lives, change is accelerating. And we need to both understand it and address the consequences. How will that change affect you, and how might it leave people and communities behind, and why?
We live in a country, and increasingly a world, that is deeply divided. The pandemic brought into stark relief the inequalities in our economy. Inequality, inequity, and the lack of true inclusion undermine our democracy. When people feel left behind, left out, or concerned about how they are going to take care of themselves or their families, they lose trust in our institutions and in each other.