From Dishwasher to Public Speaker: the Transformative Power of Education

From Dishwasher to Public Speaker: the Transformative Power of Education


Dean’s Distinguished Lecture, delivered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, September 19, 2017


 — 150 —


Universities are the fountains of moral and civil doctrine

It is with a firm belief in these words by Thomas Hobbes that I come here today. Written in 1651, way before this country existed even as an idea, they give us reason to ponder, now that the founding ideals of this nation are under threat. It might seem strange to apply the observation of an advocate of English monarchical right to internal matters of American democracy, especially since, in Hobbes times, a university education was limited to a select few. What cannot be denied is that Hobbes is directly addressing the higher order of our humanity, that is, our innate capacity to deliberate about moral and civil matters.

This is why I am grateful to professor Welton for her invitation. I am humbled and honored to be here today, in this great university, 150 years after its foundation. When I received the invitation by the College of Education, I could not stop thinking of just how odd it was, the possibility of addressing a crowd like this. After all, this is not what I came here to do. When I first came to the United States, I did so with no academic illusions whatsoever. I came here to work with my body, to invest the vigor of my youth on my knees scrubbing your toilets. I knew that I was destined to perform menial jobs and lead a clandestine life, and I was okay with that.

My story begins one sunny afternoon, when I was nineteen years old. I kissed my mother good-bye at the bus terminal and embarked on a sea of asphalt—a 36-hour drive from Guadalajara to Tijuana. I was on my way to meet my fate, to celebrate my rite of passage, and to assume the risks and obligations of adulthood, right at the border. The song of the siren had seduced me—it was luring me away from a place of poverty and into a land of untold riches. I arrived in the United States expecting to find the America I grew up watching on TV—the big suburban houses, the wide lawns. I particularly wanted to see the Chicago skyline. Back home, the picture of a relative posing with the Sears Tower in the background had continuously filled my imagination with wild ideas of urban prosperity. But what I found was so unlike the fantasy I had imagined that it seemed to me I had come to live in a parallel, subterranean reality. Instead of roaming around the skyscrapers, I found myself living in moldy-smelling basements in the south suburbs of Chicago, performing ungodly jobs, unable to do something as elemental as communicating with the general population and participating in the larger society. I found myself confined to the company of other immigrants whose lives, for many years, had been limited to the same underground experience, a netherworld that, paradoxically, seemed to offer them much relief. All of this suggested to me that it was only there, in the dungeons of society, that the likes of me could forge our meager dreams.

But after many years of toil and sweat in that shadowy world, after years of trying to learn a language I still struggle with, and after finding out that a GED diploma does not guarantee financial stability or social mobility, something unprecedented happened—I discovered you, academia, because you did not exist. You did not exist in my imagination. I had left school at thirteen years of age, and my premature uprooting from formal education had not left any trace or need for you. So I discovered you late in life, long after obtaining my GED. It was on my first day of class at a community college in a southwest suburb of Chicago. There, surrounded by people some ten years my junior, I was immediately dazed, confused, and blinded by the light of Plato’s allegory. It was my first encounter with philosophy. I am like one of those people in the cave, I remember telling myself, while sitting at my desk, mesmerized. I felt a metal ring pressing around my ankles and the weight of invisible chains binding me to the darkness.

Plato’s proposition had such an impact on me that, when I went back to work washing dishes, I felt that my obligation as a thinking being was to question the motives of the cooks when they demanded that I hurry up with the plates. Ha! As though my quicker scrubbing would make any difference in the great scheme of things! Didn’t they know that the essence of things was permanent and unchangeable? That motion is an impossibility because between one point and another, there is always a middle point, and from that middle point to another middle point, there are an infinite number of middle points? “Tranquilos,” I felt like saying, “we are not gonna get anywhere; you’re all being deceived by your senses.” Or should I simply comply with their urgent request and remain aloof and unaffected? A different theory, that of Heraclitus, assured me that the person they were screaming at earlier and the one doing the thinking were two completely different people. I felt compelled to engage the cooks in Socratic dialogue to try to prove whether the plates they demanded were actually what they thought them to be or if they’d been living in a lie all along. Chained in the cave, they were being fooled by shadows. An idea like that would certainly confound them! But then, anticipating their reply, “¡Déjate de chingaderas y apúrate con esos pinches platos cabrón!” I dropped the pursuit of my philosophical inquiries and scrubbed the plates harder.

My adult education might have started as something surreal, but over time it became clear to me that education could shape my everyday reality. Before starting college, whenever I was asked to cover someone else’s shift on top of my own, I would not hesitate. However, once in college, my priorities began to change. What was more important, working overtime to buy a shiny new car or spending those hours trying to improve my English? I came to a juncture where my values began to change, and rather than anticipating the comfort and excitement of that new car, I occupied myself with the pages of my dictionary, flipping through to find the meaning of words like “compost” and “swamp” and “mulberry” none of which I knew at the time and all of which I found in a book called Walden whose fascination and mystery I was trying to unravel.

Eventually, it also became clear to me that, more so than material possessions, time was valuable and with time, the lessons and ideas I could learn from the books I was presented with. After all, some of those ideas spoke directly to my experience. My readings challenged my assumptions about the world and the way I related to it. Some of the values I grew up with, it turned out, might be wrong, like the way we Mexican men treat our women or raise our children. My readings also offered me explanations of my social situation—they spoke to me about economic inequality, social struggle and the crushing power of capitalism and globalization responsible for the exploitation of humanity and its mass movement across continents and centuries.

Some of the books I read in college showed me the United States as the epicenter of social and human change. I learned that this was a country capable of questioning itself, of reinventing itself, even if this meant continuous confrontation, or maybe because of it. I looked closely into some of your darkest chapters, America, and felt deeply shaken and disturbed. But then I discovered the works of Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison, and the stoicism of the African American spirit and the supreme act of generosity and compassion expressed in its musical tradition, a tradition forged under extreme and adverse circumstances. And all this gave reason to believe that the best of humanity was still to come and that adversity can impel our better selves to grow and mature and reach for unprecedented heights.

There is something deeply ironic about my presence here today. I came to this country pursuing riches. And instead, I found books, I found libraries and universities. But the fact that I’m here says more about this country, more about the nature and the task of institutions like this, than about me as a person. My presence here today serves as testimony to the impact higher education can have on the life of any one individual, regardless of who he is or where he comes from. 

Perhaps that is why I take attacks on education, and especially onthe humanities, so personally. After seeing my life completely transformed by the public university system of this country, specifically, of the great State of Illinois, it baffles me to learn that there are people in places like Springfield and Washington DC who seem bent on destroying it, maybe because education has done so little for them. To me, the whole point of higher education is the possibility to reinvent ourselves, to uncover vast hidden territories within us that remain unseen, to unlearn certain prejudices we have grown up with, to expand the horizon of our inner life and see how it connects with that of others. In other words, to become aware of our capacity for moral and civil deliberation.

This is why, in contemporary society, a world ruled by image and popularity and the ephemeral love of Twitter, an education in the humanities remains as essential as it has ever been. Because, as is obvious by now, a college degree is not enough to make you a humane educated individual, not even a decent human being—in fact, you can own a university, have your name carved in big, golden shiny letters right at the entrance, and still be a complete idiot.


On that note, I’d like to turn now to the particular ways in which higher education has helped me to understand the complicated relationship that I, as a Mexican man, have with American society. What I have learned is that ours is a connection that goes beyond the pillage of Mexican territory by the nascent American empire, beyond the politics and the economics that have shaped our bilateral trade, and beyond the toxic rhetoric infecting public discourse right now—beyond all that, there is a deeply human component underlying our relationship. And what is truly valuable in our relationship is not historic events or our respective national narratives, but the nuances that color and enrich our daily encounters. Higher education has provided me with the opportunity to encounter many individuals, educators in particular, who have led me to these realizations. For those of you who are educators, I would like to thank you for having contributed to the making of the person that I am today. Even if none of you here has been involved in my personal education, I know that at some point you have impacted the life of someone like me. My presence here today is proof that, for many, people like me are not mere abstractions and that our lives are not determined by a nine-digit number, or the lack thereof. It is because of educators like you that I have come to realize how my story is part of this society, even when many would want to deny me a place in it.

I am not, by the way, the first Mexican man to appreciate this quality in American educators. While exiled in the US during the Mexican Revolution, José Vasconcelos, one of the greatest minds Mexico has ever produced, came across a letter written by a grammar school teacher who wished to contribute to the education of children in Mexico with a one-dollar donation. He cited this as evidence of the altruism and selflessness of some American educators even early in the twentieth century.

But there is another reason I bring up the name Vasconcelos at this juncture—and this has to do with an important shift that has occurred in recent years in which higher education institutions like Illinois have welcomed young people with stories similar to mine. Just like me, Vasconcelos was a Mexican national with an ambivalent relationship with the United States. However, unlike me, he came from a class of privilege. In fact, his position in society was such that, from an early age, he knew that his destiny was to play a leading role in the nation. Today, the life and work of Vasconcelos is a subject of study in many universities. I chose Vasconcelos, but I could have chosen any other name from a very long list of people. For over a century now, American academia has become the destination for the Mexican illustrated class. I am speaking of authors like Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, Juan Villoro, Cristina Rivera Garza, Joge Volpi, and a very long list of others.

However, the history of the Mexican intelligentsia in American academia is the complete opposite of mine. In fact, my experience might be closer to that of many of the students here today—immigrants themselves or children of economic migrants—a class of people who have traditionally been denied access to higher education, be it because of economic hardship, lack of proper preparation, or legal status. This is a story of social struggle and integration, the story of a group of people trying to abandon the margins of society and move toward its center. These topics, I believe, are of great relevance to American academia at this particular political moment. As we see this country transform and enrich itself, institutions like Illinois are becoming more and more instrumental in this change by opening their doors to a population for whom a college education has historically been out of reach, a population who, without any doubt, will participate vigorously in the shaping of America’s future and prosperity.

But this is not to say that our college experience has been problem-free. If their journey through college resembles mine at all, then, most likely, it has been marked by deep anxiety. What will I do when my DACA expires, some of you are probably wondering right at this moment. Is there genuine political will in Congress to move forward with legalization? How can I trust the word of a pathological liar? In the worst-case scenario, how would I survive if I am suddenly sent back to a country whose language I no longer master, whose culture I only half share, a country still rooted in the classism, inequality, and injustice that expelled my parents from their own home in the first place, a country that is falling apart? These are not easy questions, but they are questions and concerns that many of us are facing as a reality.

This brings me back to why the role of higher education is so essential in our lives: it provides guidance in times of uncertainty, intelligence in a world often ruled by stupidity; it teaches us to see our situation as a complex social problem, rather than as a black-and-white issue; it gives us a chance to express our concerns and try to find creative solutions, either through political action or by building alliances with others.

While my experience might resonate with some of you, I understand that other people in the audience might be rolling their eyes right now, thinking of just how much I have bought into the narrative of the white savior. All I can tell you, speaking from personal experience alone, is this—in academia I have learned that the world is way richer and far more complicated than I thought. And that a mentality caught in the trap of oppression and victimism will only learn to see the world through the prism of oppression and victimism. While I might have been singled out by bigotry and ignorance more than once, my presence here today suggests that my relationship with this society cannot be reduced to those episodes alone. I cannot, in good conscience, throw away my volume of Emerson’s essays —one of the main pillars of my education— based on his opinion that Mexicans would poison American society. What a strange and exquisite poison, señor Emerson, our guacamole and chips. 

Of course, I am not naïve. I understand that much of the toxic public discourse playing out right now in American society has come straight out of the Ivy League. In the writings of the late Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington, for example, one can find the prophecy of intolerance and xenophobia infecting our society today. 

So, when I say that I am here to honor higher education, I am aware that even in academia there are people with broad erudition and small minds. There are those who have doctored in the humanities but who have failed to cultivate a humanity of their own. Instead of seeking to understand the complexity and richness of the world, they promote a view that is primitive and tribal. In an age of unparalleled advance in science and technology, they hold views that are pre-scientific and rudimentary. Rather than enriching their lives by observing their surroundings, they bury their heads in the sand, like ostriches, to prevent the natural light and fresh air from reaching them, lest a gush of clarity unclog their murky thoughts.

But what gives me the right, the authority to come here and say that there are some in academia whose thinking is in need of much clarification? It is the lessons in critical thinking I learned in college, the belief that universities are the natural place to debate difficult issues—and in particular, those that involve our sense of morality and civility. Higher education helps us to recover the capacity to listen and argue in a respectful manner, to appreciate the advantages of living in a society that’s plural, a society where we all protect free speech as a precious value and call it out when it is kidnapped by outright bigotry. 

For me personally, higher education has meant counting on the tools and the moral urgency to explore questions related to the essential but unappreciated role of the undocumented in our society. Because this is not an issue that just disappears once conversations within our ivory towers end, let’s take a moment to contemplate it. Let’s think, for instance, about the injustice that goes into denying basic human rights to the men and women who pick the berries we eat for breakfast, who prepare our meals at some of the restaurants on Green Street, who mow our lawns, who clean our offices, and who, on top of providing services for our essential comfort, also contribute billions of dollars every year to the Social Security Administration, money destined to cut the checks of current and future retirees, but not of the 11 million undocumented. This country within your country, this nation of shadows, has a population nearly equal to that of the entire state of Illinois, a population about a thirdthe size of Canada. Let’s think about the possibilities and the tenacity of a people eager to achieve nothing other than a modest living. Think of the young men and women so desperate to come wash our dishes for seven dollars an hour, allowing each one of us to live comfortably and cheaply. Think about their journey and how they are willing to put their lives on the line, to risk dying in the back of a truck to reach their destination. Think about our domestic workers who care for our children, and how tonight many of them might not make it back home to their own American-born child. Think about this child’s future, the relationship he will have with his country of birth—a double orphan caught in a legal and emotional limbo. Let’s think about the current plight of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. And now think about the degree of inhumanity required to maintain the status quo. And also about what that says regarding the core values of those willing to deepen the crisis of an already precarious condition.   

It is only because I stopped to observe these contradictions and articulate them in a narrative of gratefulness and deception that I have the chance and the honor to be here today. But none of that would have been possible if I hadn’t sat in that classroom on my first day of college. As I’ve already shared with you, that day, I was exposed to the ideas of Plato and how he thought that the world we see is nothing more than the shadow of reality because we are all prisoners in a cave. 

The world that we see and the reality that lies underneath—these are contradictions that not only individuals, but entire nations must grapple with. I represent one of those contradictions—I am the equal product of both the generosity and the hypocrisy of this country. I have been blessed by the greatness of its spirit and doomed by the pettiness of its politics. Caught between red and blue, I have spent most of my life inhabiting a murky legal limbo. I am the result of a political system that knows exactly what it is doing when it prolongs the agony of 11 million individuals, 11 million families on the verge of collapse. 

Higher education has provided me with the tools needed to articulate arguments like the ones I’ve been trying to convey here today. It welcomed me in its classrooms, true sanctuaries of knowledge and redemption, and it infused a second wind in a life that didn’t have much of a future. Today, I am a very different person from the young man who arrived in this country not speaking a word of English and with nothing more than an eighth-grade education. But the fact that I can stand in this very chamber to speak to you in your own language about matters of morality and civility affecting your society today, is a reflection of the success of this noble institution, not mine. It is proof that the insight of Thomas Hobbes went well beyond his political loyalty and that it might be one of those eternal truths that guide us, like an inner compass. After all, an English monarch might fall, an American fascist might rise and fall, but our human capacity for civil and moral deliberation, will not. 

José Ángel N. autor de Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant