‘There is something profoundly ethical about this generation’

“There’s something profoundly ethical about this generation.”

I attended the University’s Honors Convocation on Sunday, and was struck by the speech given by the student speaker, LSA Senior Eric Shieh. I emailed Mr. Shieh, and he sent me the text of his speech and gave me permission to post it here.

Eric Shieh
Mar. 13, 2004

Honors Convocation Speech (2004)

When I decided to come to the University of Michigan my dad was so proud of me that he went to work to tell all his colleagues that I was thinking of going to—some East Coast college. True story. You have to put up with a lot of shame, not to mention some degree of guilt always, being second generation.

Five years and mom still urges me to quit my plans to go into music education. It’s a hard life she says, recalling perhaps those first few years in America. I told her once that I plan to teach in an urban environment. She said she hopes that doesn’t mean working in a city or something dangerous like that and frankly I don’t know what to say. At some point in your life you’re bound to shatter some of your parents’ hard-earned dreams.

We hear about this kind of thing all the time. Every day on the radio a different person calls in to say something about “Kids these days . . .”, I guess talking about you and me. This new generation, I hear, with this postmodern emphasis on perspectivism and relativism has gotten us all directionless, that we don’t know what’s right from wrong anymore. But really there’s something profoundly ethical about this generation.

In this generation, we’re slowly beginning to recognize that things like wrong and right, truth and history, are bound up in institutions of power. That most everything we’ve taken for granted as natural in the past—say that all Asians are good at math, that women are unfit to vote, or that the person at the front of the room has some sort of authority over you—these are really just socially constructed and confining. And in this generation where we are beginning to realize that no education is politically neutral, and that wars don’t just happen—they’re made, we begin to get a glimpse that where there is no Truth with a capital T, we are free and have the profound responsibility to create our own truths. And we can’t do that haphazardly.

There is something profoundly ethical about our generation.

Our parents send us to college, or we work our way to college, by and large to have a chance at what is affectionately called “the good life.” The idea varies from place to place, time to time, but it usually involves getting a lot of money and finding some sort of homo-racial, heterosexual—pairing. We’ve had this American Dream for a long time now, it makes great propaganda, only I’d ask your leave to push it a bit further. After all, if truth is bound up in power, maybe it’s not to our advantage to take this dream at face value—a dream that was borne in the time of and on the blood of such institutions as slavery or Wounded Knee.

When we use the phrase “the good life,” we often forget that the word good is a word that carries with it some idea of ethical inquiry. What does it mean to pursue a good life, if we have not determined what Good with a capital G is? It’s a question I think all of us here at the University of Michigan need to answer, otherwise chances are life will become complicated real fast. What activities to take part in, which classes to take, hell—what petitions to sign your name or add your voice to. In short, what to do with your time when so many choices lay before you. If we don’t ask the question of what is “good,” we’re in danger of acting out of apathy, and perhaps worse—taking our education at face value, allowing whatever comes our way to define us when we need to define ourselves through our time here.

As to what is good, I can only tell you what I’ve found: good to me is the act of moving myself and others toward becoming more fully human. Perhaps too existential for many people, and too simple for others, but it’s a definition that can force us to recognize a few things. First, that we as human beings are always changing and exploring. Second, that there is a need to struggle against dehumanization in all its forms of injustice and oppression. And finally, that the process of humanization involves community and solidarity, the act of moving ourselves and others toward change.

For me, this has meant that as an English and Music major I am always working to find new ways to make words and music mean, whether by coordinating music workshops in prisons with the Prison Creative Arts Project, or performing poetry in high schools, or simply collaborating with as many different people as possible. For you, it may be completely different.

So here we are—a generation not quite free from yesterday’s dreams, but not quite tied down by them either. We have the possibility to recreate what it means to be good and live good. Sometimes I think we almost have the responsibility, those of us who weren’t placed in a situation where the need for survival restricted that freedom.

At some level I’m always asking the question “Is this better than what my parents had in mind for me?” The next time I see them, I have no doubt my parents are going to talk to me about switching fields, finding a Chinese girlfriend, and about their wanting me to have a better life than theirs. I think I know what I’m going to say finally: that perhaps I do have a better life, because I have the opportunity to make sure that those that follow them, or those that still live in constant struggle, can find that same freedom to recreate. And I intend to take it.

Author: Rob