The Commencement Speech You Never Hear
My youngest son’s college graduation ceremony was scheduled to be held outdoors. The invitation specified that it would be moved inside to the gym only in the event of “severe” weather. As it turned out, the day was unseasonably cold (low 50s) with occasional drizzle — probably about as nasty as the weather gets in May without qualifying for severe status.
Yet my husband and I huddled together in the stands of Franklin Field and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Ceremonies are important. We need markers for the milestones of our lives. They seal the moment that is both an ending and a beginning.
So much changes so fast in our world that it is comforting to settle into honored rituals. As the strains of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” pipe through the stadium, you feel a stirring of memory and a sense of peace. It has always been like this. It always will be. Some things are timeless. Or so we hope.
Along with the usual assortment of political science, English and math majors, the University of Pennsylvania confers degrees in fields that scarcely existed when I was an undergrad. Students strode across the stage to accept diplomas for studies such as biophysics, bioengineering and something called the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER). We all smiled when the dean of the engineering school presented his candidates by quoting a scientist: “The future is hard to predict. But the best way to predict it is to invent it.” Nice. And, if you’ll indulge a little chauvinism, innovation remains a great American strength.
Most commencement addresses are dull recitations of clichés, though some stand out. Penn’s award-winning psychology professor Angela Duckworth, who has made a splash with her research into the importance of grit in school and in life, delivered a modest and uplifting address about how her career meandered before she finally settled into her specialty. Her advice: It’s OK to not have things figured out.
But one cliché that dominates many commencement addresses really should be retired, and that’s the one that exhorts the graduates to go out and change the world.
High school and college graduates don’t know very much about the world. Maybe before they set out to change things, they should get a good grasp of how things actually work. Ask them the difference between term and whole life insurance, or how to change a tire, or how much to save every month, or whether you should call a cop after a fender bender. Ask them if they’ve ever organized a dance, far less a factory.
There are always things that need changing, of course. Nor should we wish to curdle the natural idealism of the young. But along with calls for change, shouldn’t the young be reminded of the preciousness of their inheritance? So many of the things they take for granted were achieved by their forebears at great cost — and I’m not referring to what the parents spent for those fancy degrees. So many things about our society work well. Our supermarkets are stocked with food from around the globe. Our homes, offices and cars are heated and cooled for our comfort. Emergency help is available nearly everywhere by dialing 911. Just as crucial as trying to fix what’s broken is taking the time to appreciate and shore up what is sound.
The great liberal virtue is impatience with injustice. The great conservative virtue is gratitude.
Before graduates are urged to change the world, perhaps they should be encouraged to change themselves or, at least, to look inward. How many people have vainly resolved to lose 10 pounds or to donate 10 percent of their income to the less fortunate? Change is hard, even when — or perhaps especially when — you’re trying to change yourself. If you’ve been unable to reform yourself, take that humility to the world, and remember it when you notice others’ flaws. Each graduate can ask himself: How kind was I to my siblings this year, and how dutiful to my parents? Taking his place in the adult world, he should resolve first of all to do the things within his own power: to be a faithful spouse and a reliable parent.
Humility, duty, self-examination, gratitude. Perhaps those are not the most inspiring words. But heeded, they stand the best chance of truly changing the world.
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