By now the commencement speakers have delivered their varying degrees of wisdom to America’s eager classes of 2011. With those words to guide them, the new crop of college and university graduates who weren’t plugged into iTunes or engaged in sexual fantasies will go forth to shape our future. Hold that frightening thought for a moment, please, while considering that once most of us from graduating classes beginning with the number 19 were the shapers of a future from which we have managed to create the arguably bleak present.
Among the 14 commencement speeches excerpted in The New York Times on Sunday, June 12, 2011 I recommend these, arranged by order of what seems to me to make the most sense for us today.
Here’s NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. speaking to the graduates of Monmouth College: “When I flew in space, I was privileged to witness our Earth from a totally different vantage point, where you see no boundaries between nations and people except as established by Mother Nature. There’s just not much we can do about some of those mountain ranges, or the vast deserts, and sheets of glacial ice, which, by the way, we continue to observe keenly at NASA.
Boundaries today are largely political, but even those, as witnessed by the recent uprisings in the Middle East so much fueled by the social media, are at best constructs that are rapidly changing.”
Mr. Bolden’s words make perfect sense, particularly while the United States is engaged in an oftentimes ugly debate on issues of immigration, on conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that remain more nearly personal adventures launched by then-President George W. Bush than they are enterprises to protect the country’s vital interests. In the United States we are, after all, citizens governed more by the boundaries of the Earth than by the interests that lie between our Atlantic and Pacific shores and our borders with Canada and Mexico. Among the goods for the United States arising from the current, global economic downturn, is that we have lost some of our arrogance. In his gentle way, Mr. Bolden reminded of us of that.
Writer Anna Quindlen offered this to Grinnell College graduates: “Your parents, proudly here today, and their parents before them, perhaps proudly here today, understood a simple equation for success: your children would do better than you had. Ditch digger to cop to lawyer to judge.
“We’re now supposed to apologize to you because it seems that that’s no longer how it works, that you won’t inherit the S.U.V., which was way too big, or the McMansion that was way too big, or the corner office that was way too big.
“But I suggest that this is a moment to consider what ‘doing better’ really means. If you are part of the first generation of Americans who genuinely see race and ethnicity as attributes, not stereotypes, will you not have done better than we did? If you are part of the first generation of Americans with a clear understanding that gay men and lesbians are entitled to be full citizens of this country with all its rights, will you not have done better than we did? If you are part of the first generation of Americans who assume women merit full equality instead of grudging acceptance, will you not have done better than we did?”
Three cheers for Anna Quindlen. By pointing out that the downsizing of our narrow, vacuous expectations can lead to the supersizing of an emphasis on the broader issues supporting social justice she told Grinnell 2011 how their newly examined lives should be lived.
And Samantha Power, a member of the National Security Council, shared this with the Class of 2011 at Occidental College: “You’ve got to be all in. This means leaving your technology behind occasionally and listening to a friend without half of your brain being preoccupied by its inner longing for the red light on the BlackBerry.
“In many college classes, laptops depict split screens — notes from a class, and then a range of parallel stimulants: NBA playoff statistics on ESPN.com, a flight home on Expedia, a new flirtation on Facebook. I know how good you all are at multitasking. And I know of what I speak, because I, too, am a culprit. You have never seen a U.S. government official and new mother so dexterous in her ability simultaneously to BlackBerry and breastfeed.
“But I promise you that over time this doesn’t cut it. Something or someone loses out. No more than a surgeon can operate while tweeting can you reach your potential with one ear in, one ear out. You actually have to reacquaint yourself with concentration. We all do. We should all become, as Henry James prescribed, a person ‘on whom nothing is lost.’ ”
Four cheers for Samantha Power. Pity that one of those listening to her was not the boy in the back seat of the car that passed mine on Sunday, the boy plugged into his ear buds while he pored over his video game. Outside his window the Earth was unfolding a lovely summer’s day and even if he’d raised his eyes from the tablet screen for a moment he would not have heard what he was seeing. My wife, Peggy, sat next to me on Sunday. I was driving her to the airport in Madison, Wisconsin so that she could catch a flight for New York. Her Monday and Tuesday would be full of committee meetings and, as usual, she asked me to turn off the music so we could talk. But we didn’t talk very much. Instead, she simply looked out at the passing world and, perhaps, thought about the next couple days in New York and the week after that in Washington, D.C. and then about coming back to our farm in Wisconsin where she is planning and planting the garden of her dreams. Peggy’s colleagues name her among the most influential people in her field. But in her garden, she is transfigured from a senior vice president into a luminous child of the Earth. She values her career because it enables her to be one with her garden.
I think simultaneously about the little boy and his video game, Peggy and, now, the words of poet Wallace Stevens when he urged us to consider the giant outside our windows whose face we have shut out. Stevens’ giant is the Mother Nature Charles Bolden invoked for the graduates at Monmouth College; brings into focus the foolish waste of our S.U.V., McMansion and corner-office culture called out by Anna Quindlen; is what the concentration suggested by Samantha Powers would restore our vital connection to.
Although Bolden, Quindlen and Powers shared excellent ideas, none did better than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in his “Address to (the) Graduating Class at Bennington College, 1970.” The entire address has weathered time well. It remains as true today as it did in 1970, as does the following excerpt.
“You have been swindled if people have persuaded you that it is now up to you to save the world. It isn’t up to you. You don’t have the money and the power. You don’t have the appearance of grave maturity—even though you may be gravely mature. You don’t even know how to handle dynamite. It is up to older people to save the world. You can help them.
“Do not take the entire world on your shoulders. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people your age. ‘Skylarking,’ incidentally, used to be a minor offense under Naval Regulations. What a charming crime. It means intolerable lack of seriousness. I would love to have had a dishonorable discharge from the United States Navy—for skylarking not just once, but again and again and again.
“Many of you will undertake exceedingly serious work this summer—campaigning for humane Senators and Congressmen, helping the poor and the ignorant and the awfully old. Good. But skylark too.”
Of course, Vonnegut spoke to Bennington 1970 before U.S. Senators and Members of the House of Representatives were so stalled in their infantile, destructive, partisan gridlock that they might have been able to entertain humane thoughts. Still, it might be better for the new graduates, and for us, if they spent more time fooling around and less time worrying about landing the perfect job. If they skylarked they just might become persons upon whom nothing is lost, you know, whole people who have come to understand they’re only a very small part of a very large world that’s humming along in ways they have never before been foolish enough to imagine.
Copyright 2011 by Karl Garson