The Great Hall? What is this space? What makes it so, well, so great? Is it a theater? A lecture hall? To find that out we need to travel back in time to when this building was first erected, let’s say, 1876, the year Peter Cooper ran for president. Well, first of all, this audience wouldn’t be here…. And neither would this stage… In fact, the whole room would’ve been shifted 90 degrees, north or south, depending on the occasion… Over wood paneled floors, speakers would stand near each of these columns on a soapbox or a stool, lawn chairs would be spread out as city dwellers, senators and families would congregate shoulder to shoulder over every square foot of space. It was an even playing field, where every woman and every man was, in the most literal sense of the term, equal… Peter Cooper envisioned a place where great minds could speak out on issues that concerned their time, a place that allowed for the Red Cross to assemble, for the NAACP to be founded, for Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Roosevelt and Obama to speak, for Susan B. Anthony to hold her office in its corridors, for Joseph Campbell to create myth out of human history, and Frederick Douglas to speak on behalf of an entire race- this place has many, many ghosts. All of them were fighting for something they believed in. The question for us then is, what are we fighting for?
When we first entered this school, we did so out of two factors. One, we wanted a school that was good… Fair enough- who doesn’t?… Two, we wanted a school that was free. Admittedly also, not a bad idea…. With Cooper, we got both, and then some. At Cooper we weren’t given the best education money could buy. We were given the best education money couldn’t buy. We came to an institution that prided itself on providing us with the best facilities and faculty we could’ve hoped for, and all it asked in return was our passion, commitment and talent. But by coming here, we also said something to the world. We made a declaration to the world that we believed a good education should be given without debt. That learning should be, in the famous words of Cooper himself, “as free as air and water.” By saying this, Cooper implied -and I believe purposefully- that education is as essential as the air we breathe and the water that brings us life. You see, to Cooper, learning wasn’t just a matter of class, of success; it was a matter of survival. This school was founded on the cusp of the industrial age, where new technology meant new needs for employment. New fields were being developed, and the country needed new talents to help carry this nation into the next century. To put it bluntly, the invention of the factory rocked education to its core. Cooper saw this school as a model for a new class of workforce, one with the vision of an artist, the wisdom of an engineer, and the ambition of an architect. Education was a paramount issue in his life and in his country’s life, and he fought to make sure the working class were given a proper education, one he deemed “equal to the best.” That is what Peter Cooper was fighting for.
Now, Cooper wasn’t just meant to be a free school, it was meant to be a school that helped the community. I want to share with you a quote that Peter Cooper said to the very first board of trustees on April 29, 1859:
My earnest desire is to make this building and institution contribute in every way possible to unite all in one common effort to improve each and every human being, seeing that we are bound up in one common destiny and by the laws of our being are made dependent for our happiness on the continued acts of kindness we receive from each other.
What a beautiful thing to ask of us. Simply, to “do good.” Cooper founded this institution with a moral agenda to rid the world of ignorant evils by educating intelligent, well-spoken, productive citizens. His intent was for us as students to use what we learned here to help our community in every way we can—-to learn how to cooperate in the community of the new industrial age. I believe that now we have reached a new age, that of the information age, where the very ideas of community and goodwill will carry greater meaning as they pertain not only to this city, or to this country, but to this world.
Throughout its history, this room was used to fight for the pressing issues of the moment, and it is my belief that in this new century, the main issue is not race or gender or political allegiance, though those always seem to present problems for us. No, today I believe that the major change we need involves the very reason we are in this building: a free high-quality education. And I’m not talking about Denmark. I’m talking about America. There is no reason in my mind that The Cooper Union should be one of a handful of tuition free top-tier schools in the country. This school was an idea way ahead of its time, but now, time has caught up.
The Great Hall has also been a place of big bold promises, ones that shaped our country throughout its young history. In that vein, I want to make a promise to you; one that I hope you will join me in making real. I promise that I will try with everything in me to make education free in this country for every man, woman, child, black, Mexican, Jew, homosexual, bisexual, hermaphrodite, illegal, impoverished, quadriplegic, autistic- for every human being in this country. And that is a lot of people. But I cannot do this alone. With the collected genius, aptitude, creativity and grit in this room together we can make such an impossible dream become a physical reality, and in so doing change the course of history.
How? How are we going to do this? Through law? Through legislation? Eventually, yes. But I do not have a petition for you to sign, or a letter for you to write to your local leaders. I cannot ask you to vote for someone or help pass a bill, that’s not our specialty. What I can ask of you are three little things. One, be the best.. Okay, little wasn’t the right word… Be the best architect, the best engineer, and the best artist you can. Do good and be good at everything that you do. Push yourself and your colleges to reach further than you thought possible. And two, have a blast doing it. Because if you’re not going to enjoy where you are then there’s no point being there. Three, and this is key, share. Teach a class. Volunteer. Mentor someone. Find your own ways to bring what you know to someone else. Share your wisdom with everyone you can. Team up with a coworker or a friend and try to teach each other something new every day. Tutor the kids in your community. Get online, reach out to someone across the ocean and let them know what you are doing, you’d be surprised how many people have the same idea, and simply needed someone to say the right word. By teaching, by sharing, you will never stop learning; you will never stop being a student. Create an environment around you where learning is part of your language. With every breath, inhale knowledge and exhale wisdom into the world. Because that is a free education. And it starts with us, it starts with our lives, by making a change to the way we see learning in this new age, we can take control over the information we know and the information we want to know. Graduating today, in this information age, means that tomorrow, we will have to decide for ourselves where we will learn. There are no more rules. Whether it be at graduate school, Wikipedia, a book, or from a YouTube lecture, we will always be learning. Because that is what we do. That is what we crave. By tearing down these walls, obliterating the boundaries of institution we can truly begin to globalize Cooper’s message.
Because these walls are not the Cooper Union, we are. We are the Cooper Union. We are the union of great minds that chose to help change the future. And it is our responsibility to think of the future. Because it is ours, and no one else’s. This school is still an idea waiting to be shared with the global community. Now is that time. When we came here, we were given something extremely rare. A chance to learn freely. Let us try our best to bring that same opportunity to everyone else, because “we are bound up in one common destiny and by the laws of our being are made dependent for our happiness on the continued acts of kindness we receive from each other.” It is in goodwill and good spirit that we must help our country, and in turn, our world. That is the spirit of Cooper and that is the legacy we should embrace as we go on our individual paths.
That is what we should be fighting for.
Noemi Charlotte Thieves
(Atif Hashmi, School of Art Alum, 2011)