OK, I didn’t have it right then, in 1992, when instead of advising the graduating seniors by taking my own up until then life experience as a source and guide I almost immediately described some of the terrible news events I had read about during the past year or two. Why? Thinking that just as I had been fascinated by the depths, the dark side I speak of, to which in certain situations man might fall, that they too would be fascinated. Well they weren’t.
Now I ask myself, what should one say to young people about to graduate? Is there anything that should and needs to be said and hasn’t been said already by their teachers, parents, and friends?
Probably not, yet we go on having the address an essential part of the graduation ceremony. The 4000 or so degree granting institutions (my estimate of the number, didn’t google it) in the United States select (and it may be the graduating seniors themselves who do the selecting) an individual, often from among our most prominent and experienced politicians, innovators, entertainers and entrepreneurs, who will agree to speak to the graduates on a subject of his or her own choosing. For the most part the speakers are given carte blanche and that tends to make their talks more interesting.
Now I also had carte blanche at the Waring School graduation of 1992. I could say whatever I wanted, and in my case as I’ve already said, it turned out that no one was much interested. And for a number of reasons, one being that there was very little humor in my talk, humor being as everyone knows (except me at that time) an essential requirement for talks at graduation.
But most of all it was probably my choice of subject matter that held little interest. Young people, especially at this moment in their lives, shouldn’t be asked to listen, and for some few probably a second time, to the news reports of some of the very worst things that were happening in the world. I of course was interested in drawing the lessons, for these events, when looked at closely could tell us a lot about who and what we were. For them, on the other hand, just being a graduate was more than enough at that moment.
What should I have said? Too that end I’ve been reading some of this year’s college graduation speeches. And, no surprise, they tend to be politically correct and safe, and very heavily cliché laden. And I suppose that’s to be expected and consequently it was something I tried to avoid. If there is nothing new under the sun I saw right away that there was certainly nothing new being said in the commencement addresses, although I well understand that on that day of celebration, of caps in the air and all that, the graduating seniors, parents and guests probably want the clichés just as much as a bit later they will want the sandwiches and drinks at the reception.
As I set about to listen to some of the speeches this is what I found:
George Bush quoting Winston Churchill, “Never give in, — in nothing, great or small, large or petty. Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense, … These are not dark days. These are great days. The greatest our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”
The founder of Papa John’s summarizing his three steps to a good life, “Wake up. Be nice. and Kick Ass.” Rob Manning. the Chief Engineer of the Mars Curiosity Project, giving the graduates six bits of advice, “Don’t define yourself by your weaknesses. Know your strengths and capitalize on them. Boldly go and take risks, it the only way great things happen.” And with pretty much the same cliché laden advice, actor Denzel Washington’s, “Put God first, don’t be afraid to fail, and the money you make, you can’t take it with you.”
And there was much more. I’m indebted to the Huffington Post for making all these commencement clichés readily accessible online. And there was even Arianna Huffington, herself, one of the cliché laden commencement speakers, saying “No generation has been as liberated and as connected by technology as yours. But also, no generation has been as enslaved and as distracted by technology…. There will be many profound and fulfilling relationships ahead of you, but the relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you’ll ever have…. There is an invisible but very real and inescapable connection between our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with the world… Don’t get so caught up in your busy life that life’s mystery passes you by.”
And a former mayor of San Francisco and present California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom giving us his, “Three topics worthy of addressing, Diversity: At our best we don’t just tolerate our diversity. We celebrate our diversity. Leadership: You don’t have to be something to do something. Take responsibility. Step up and step in. Because at the end of the day, folks, we are our behaviors. And last, as for anxiety, don’t fear failure, but instead, ‘start failing forward fast.'”
“Start failing forward fast,” that may not be cliché. It got me thinking.
And finally, with his very own clichés, Tom Brokaw’s “Four Mantras for the New Age,… Do not be afraid to be disruptive…. Find new ways to do the conventional….Do not run from big and bold challenges…. And last, be the generation that sees a friend or a stranger for who they are, and not just the color of their skin.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson did say in his talk that “Science Matters.” About that I’d say, that too may not be a cliché. In fact, it’s probably not heard nearly enough, and needs additional explanation. That science matters was a good part of my own talk, trying to explain just how much science, in this instance, cosmology, did matter, and if anyone had listened it might have led to a good discussion over drinks and sandwiches. But by then it was too late and a discussion didn’t follow.
I conclude that there are very few speakers at commencement who try to give the graduates, and for good reason, a true picture of the world into which they are entering after some 12 to 18 years of schooling. The talk they hear is too often about “finding your inner self.”
Instead, how about their being made aware of what’s happening outside, a few of the terrible things that take place, what I’m calling the dark side (according to our own Justice Antonin Scalia, many of these terrible events, if not all of them, are the work of the devil). And shouldn’t they no less be made aware of the light side, the truly wondrous things that are no less a part of the world? For they could in the course of their own lives, about to commence, on this commencement day, have a substantial role of their own to play navigating their own path between the great ugliness and the no less great beauty of the world.
If I spoke more of the ugliness of the world perhaps it was because that’s what we read about the most. Do you remember Josef Stalin? He tried to hide the great ugliness of which he alone was responsible, by publishing the people’s newspaper, Правда, or the truth, knowing that to continue to lead the people he had to fill their hearts and minds with happy families and rising production figures promising jobs and a better life for all. We know what happened to that. Since then rather than hiding the terrible things we encounter we now confront them and do what we may to lessen the “terror.”
In Part Three of Looking Back I’ll put side by side the terrible things I talked about, the dark side, and the terrible things that are happening today. You will see that the kind of terrible events of then will be much the same as those now.