The Academic Honors Convocation is traditionally a time for looking
back over the year at our achievements, as an institution, and as
individuals. This university has accomplished a great deal, and is very
special to me. It has been ever since I first walked into the Los
Angeles County+USC Medical Center at the age of 16, as a candy striper
- a volunteer. The soul of the institution came into my heart at that
time, and it simply has never left. I realized, even then, that a
university which could and would position itself in the midst of a real
challenge – that of providing medical care to a segment of the society
which simply didn’t “count” – that kind of a university deserved my
respect, and thus my time. Lots of time, as it turned out: 32 years
later, here I am, and here are we all, part of that same family – USC.
With this background in mind, I hope that you can begin to understand
how much this Presidential Medallion means to me.
I was told that I would have the opportunity to speak today about any
topic of my choice. All kinds of things went through my mind, but I
ultimately came to believe that perhaps the joy, the real honor of the
occasion for me, would be to take this opportunity to speak from my
heart about what really concerns me. I want to talk about the society,
and about the need, perhaps, to rethink the social contract.
Each time I travel outside of the United States, I am reminded again of
how lucky I am, how lucky we all are, to be individuals within this
society, granted the tremendous freedom which is allowed. The
individual has come to reign almost supreme, and as one of those
individuals, I am, of course, delighted, and fortunate beyond the
dreams of any individual in any other society in our human history.
But have we, perhaps, gone too far? Have we withdrawn into our own
individual beings, to become completely alone, purely individuals, with
no apparent individual obligation to consider the rights and needs of
the social structure?
And we are alone, getting farther and farther from one another. We have
pushed the generations away from us, even if “they” are really us,
family. The extended family, bringing with it the wisdom and the
natural order of life, has now been literally extended – out of the
house, away from the family, into distant facilities. We have become
inward and alone.
We used to know our neighbors. We would welcome a new family into the
neighborhood; we’d have a “block party.” Our children would play
together, softball in the street. No more. Our children can’t play in
the street or in the front yard; it’s far too dangerous there. We don’t
know our neighbors – we don’t even know their names. We have become
inward and alone.
We used to talk to one another, in person, or even on the telephone. We
don’t really do that in the same way anymore. Our answering machines
talk to one another. Our computers talk to one another, even for the
purpose of dating and matchmaking, according to a recent article in the
Los Angeles Times. We have become inward and alone.
And while we have changed in this way, looking inward, what has
happened around us, in the society? We have become a society which has
no center, no moral or ethical view of the whole. This beautiful,
elegant experiment in democracy – in freedom – is as close as it has
ever been to destruction. And the strangest part is that this is
self-destruction. Not from without – from our enemies in the former
Soviet Union and so forth. Not from without, but from within.
Let’s look at some examples. There are so many, but my time has been
limited, and I have chosen to focus on only one outward symptom:
violence. Our society has now become infused with violence, and with
fear, in every sector, in every aspect. And very often in the name of
freedom, in the name of our individual rights. Example: television. I
can’t look at one human being physically or mentally abusing another. I
can’t look at it without literally feeling nauseated. If I can’t
tolerate it, why can a 6-year-old? Why can a 10-year-old see that, day
after day after day, and tolerate it, and act complacent? Because we
made them that way. We taught them that this is “everyday,” normal.
Look at the models which we have held up; look at what we have taught.
And look at what has happened as these children have grown up. Children
of judges, children of doctors, children of teachers. Our children.
There comes a time, I believe, when the social contract must be
revisited. There comes a time when the rights of the society must take
precedence. I relinquish some of my freedom of expression when that
freedom has created a situation in which children think it is
acceptable to commit acts of hatred against one another, because that’s
their model, that’s what they’ve become accustomed to seeing. Stop.
Enough. Perhaps it is time to give a little back, for the good of the
Let’s take another example. Guns. “It’s fun to be crazy,” said a recent
mass murderer just prior to a killing spree. “Fun.” It is currently
impossible to open a newspaper in any city in this country, on any day,
without reading a story – many stories – of the wanton destruction of
human life, for no reason, for the purpose of killing. I could say that
we have become animals – but in fact, animals don’t do that. Humans
apparently do. Americans do. We have the right to bear arms. And heaven
forbid that someone should even think about taking away that individual
right. We, as individuals, have the right, while we, as a society, are
held hostage. I abrogate my right to own an Uzi, or any gun, for any
purpose, when those guns have taken away the freedom of our society to
walk down the street, to attend school, to go to a movie, to buy a
hamburger without the fear that wanton death might ensue. All in the
name of freedom. Enough. Stop it. I’m not interested in gun control.
I’m interested in getting rid of them, door to door; and maybe, just
maybe, in a generation from now, we will have begun to heal.
One more example: the destruction of hope. Over the past several years,
I’ve spent time in the high schools, teaching about AIDS. We have
reached approximately a thousand students so far, and have shown that
we can teach the facts in such a way that they are remembered six
months later. But when we look at behaviors – how many sexual partners
this past month and so forth – there have been no changes at all. When
asked why, one of the frequent answers has been, “Because it doesn’t
really matter to me: I’ll be dead in 10 years anyway; I don’t have to
worry about AIDS.” The overriding violence in society has taken away
any real hope of something so basic as mere survival into adulthood.
What have we done? If the real human contact is that provided by the
fellow gang member or drug dealer, if the family has disbanded, if the
school is a war zone, if the teacher is a policeman, if the policeman
is an enemy, then what have we done?
Is it not time to rethink that social contract? Is it not time,
perhaps, to give back – to consider the myriad of underlying social
ills which have led to this outward symptom of violence. To consider
those circumstances which have led to our being alone, and
unstructured, and undisciplined in a societal sense. To give back,
first as individuals, committed to making it happen. The answer can
never be one solution – our ills are too grave.
The solution, to me, must be everything. Everything that each of us, as
individuals, each in our own way, can think to do. And if you think
that this single, individual commitment is simply too weak, too small
to make a difference, you’re wrong. In fact, all great social change
has come directly from the people, and from our willingness to look at
our troubles and to demand that we change. We’ve done this over and
over again: the civil rights movement; the Vietnam War; the right for
women to vote. We did it, the people did it, by getting involved, by
making it happen. It did not come from the government; it came from the
And so, once again. We now have another opportunity to get involved. It
will again be up to us. Again.
But we have another opportunity as well, for we are not alone here; we
are members of a family, as I said at the outset, the Trojan Family,
the USC family. For we serve, in this university, not only for the
purpose of imparting education, but also as models, role models,
leading the way in this society; and in a sense, we are asked to lead,
expected to lead, by virtue of our understanding and knowledge of the
broad history of man.
USC is committed, and has been committed, to the betterment and service
of the community around us. I saw that even as a 16-year-old, walking
through those halls of the County Hospital; I saw it then, and I was
moved to join in. Thirty-two years later, I remain committed to those
goals, and so, apparently, is the university, perhaps even more
strongly. As President Sample stated during his inaugural address,
“From its very founding, this university was expected to be an integral
and contributing part of the larger Southern California community, and
it has lived up to that expectation throughout its 111-year history.”
I wonder how many of you know that USC has recently published a 62-page
handbook which details the myriad of outreach programs which are
currently ongoing, linking us to our community. Programs in business,
in law, in medicine. Programs in social services, and in family
support. Programs related to the environment. Programs which supply
food and clothes and toys to those who need them. Programs related to
secondary schools, joint educational projects, and special educational
projects. In the margins of this booklet may be found an icon which
depicts a human figure with a heart drawn inside. Each of these symbols
represents a program in which volunteers are requested. We are those
volunteers. The icons are calling to you.
Alexandra M. Levine is professor of medicine in the School of Medicine
and chief of hematology and deputy clinical director at the USC/Norris
Comprehensive Cancer Center.
[Photo:] Alexandra M. Levine