Most teachers would agree with the following: Some days, your students leave you despairing for the future of the society into which they’ll eventually be unleashed, while on other days, they inspire you to believe that there is indeed hope for our collective tomorrow. Not long ago, I had an experience of the latter sort, and I’m still buzzing with excitement about it.
As executive director of the Graduation Pledge Alliance (GPA) in Asia, I regularly meet students, teachers, school staff and administrators to help them explore questions of social responsibility as they relate to students’ choices of careers and jobs and their on-the-job decisionmaking. As a taking-off point, we often use the Graduation Pledge of Social & Environmental Responsibility, which states: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.”
First started in 1987 at Humboldt State University in northern California, the Graduation Pledge is a voluntary oath usually taken at commencement time by tens of thousands of students at well over 100 colleges, universities, professional schools and high schools in a growing number of countries. Much more than a piece of paper signed without thinking, the pledge represents a serious, lifelong personal dedication to make making the world a better place a priority in one’s work, whatever that work may be. By examining themselves and the world around them during their schooling, before graduation, students can develop a sense of empowerment.
Frequently, we hear in conversation or see in the media criticisms of the current crop of Taiwan youth. Members of the “Strawberry Generation” are accused of being soft, pampered and self-absorbed, without a sense of purpose or direction, and of possessing an overmaterialistic drive that leads them to seek get-rich-quick opportunities rather than pursue healthier, more stable career development. Yet the classes of English students I spoke to recently at Chinese Culture University certainly didn’t fit this dire description.
Most students already had clear ideas about the careers they wanted and they knew that there was more to employment than just making money. After group discussions, students said that the purposes of jobs included contributing to one’s organization, making achievements and satisfaction, gaining experience and broadening one’s vision, interacting with people and making friends, living happily with a sense of meaning and giving back to society.
I also asked the students to consider how they could improve the world. While they had good ideas, such as donating money to charity and teaching students about world issues, they were less able to come up with job-specific ideas.
But we shouldn’t judge them harshly for that, as they’ve grown up in a society where most employment has usually been seen as directed solely toward making a living and supporting one’s family. Until recently, Taiwanese workers were urged to just keep their noses to the grindstone, and leave decisions and thoughts about the effects of their work on society and the environment to management and the government.
Now, however, is a time of real hope, because we’re in the midst of several massive global shifts about how individuals, organizations and societies can, and must, live if we are to preserve what’s good in the world, address its numerous problems. This new thinking has gained a foothold in Taiwan and throughout Asia, and the challenge is to develop our visions of a brighter future, find the concepts and resources we’ll need and and join hands with those who share our dreams.