Transcript (Part 2)
Too often our public discourse fears real engagement. It pitches itself at the lowest possible level, always preaching to the choir so that no one will be angry, which usually means that no one will be interested. What is the point of free speech if we’re always afraid to speak freely? Not long ago I asked a professor of religion what she did to suit the comfort level of the diverse group of students in her class. “It is not my job to make people comfortable,” she replied. “It is my job to educate them.” I almost stood up and cheered. If we fear competing viewpoints, if we fail to state the unpopular, or to allow the unpopular or even the unacceptable to be heard because some sense of plain vanilla civility, it’s not civility at all. It’s the denigration of human capacity for thought, the suggestion that we are fragile flowers incapable of disagreement, argument, or civil intellectual combat. Open your mouths. Speak your piece. Fear not.
Believe me, as the mother of three college graduates, I can say unequivocally that we your parents have been paralyzed by fear as well. When you were first born, each of you, our great glory was in thinking you absolutely distinct from every baby who had ever been born. You were a miracle of singularity and we knew it in every fiber. You shouted “Dog.” You lurched across the playground. You put a scrawl of red paint next to a squiggle of green and we put it on the frig, and said, “Oh my God, Oh my God! You are a painter, a poet, a prodigy, a genius.” But we’re only human and being a parent is a very difficult job. And over the years, we sometimes learned to want for you things that you did not necessarily want for yourself. We learned to want the lead in the play, the editorship of the paper, the lucrative job offer, the straight and narrow path that sometimes leads absolutely nowhere. We sometimes learned to fear your differences, not to celebrate them. Sometimes we were convinced conformity would make life better, or at least easier, for you. Sometimes we had a very hard time figuring out where we ended and you began. Guide us back to where we started. Help us not to make mistakes out of fear disguised as love. Learn not to listen to us when we are wrong, because sometimes we are. We have gone wrong in the stewardship of this nation and this planet. We have sometimes gone wrong in the management of our own lives. So I urge you today to sometimes ignore your elders, much as you love them, and to begin to say “no” to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a good life when all it knows is some one-size-fits-all version of human experience.
Fear not. You can do this. Your generation should be the model for my generation because you totally rock. You’re more philanthropic, more tolerant, more balanced and open-minded than any in living history. You have showed (sic) us the way, don’t let us talk you out of that. Think back. Think back to first grade when you could still hear the sound of your own voice in your head, when you were too young, too unformed, too fantastic to understand that you were supposed to take on the protective coloration of the expectations of those around you, when you were absolutely, certainly, unapologetically yourself, when you were not afraid of anything. You are well-qualified to be and create the next big thing for this nation because you leave here today with the most essential educational credential any 21st (sic) human being can have. During our lifetime, there has been a trend in colleges and universities towards creeping pre-professionalism. Parents who are paying a fortune for tuition asked, “What are you going to do with it?” And too often, institutions responded by creating programs and majors that were perilously close to technical school. Here was the problem with that: necessary skills have shifted so quickly during our lifetime that technical skills were over-ridden by technology. What of those people who once learned to repair typewriters, who were key-punch operators, or even who serviced landline phones? They’re becoming obsolete. In a culture in which knowledge is moving at the speed of sound there is nothing more valuable than a degree from first rate liberal arts college and that is what you will get here today.
One estimate is that the average American will have seven to ten jobs during her lifetime. If you can bring critical thinking – which is the basis of all you’ve learned here – to the table. You will be ready for work no matter what that work may be. We need that critical thinking at this moment. We need you to do it for us. If you have bright ideas about how to restore confidence in Wall Street, teach kids with disabilities, serve customers and clients and patients, get books into the hands of readers, or run schools that work, we are waiting breathlessly to hear them. We need all that and so much more. We need you to make this a fairer place, a more unified nation, a country that wipes out the bright lines that have created an apartheid, an apartheid too long denied. I know you hate to hear your parents say it when they’re driving, but we are lost.
You owe this country your best efforts. You’re lucky people. Many in this country will never get the kind of education you earned here. You stand in the place of others, past and present, as do I. I stand here today in place of - in tribute to - generations of women denied the right to the pen and the podium. Some of you are here in lieu of parents or grandparents who couldn’t afford college, much less a college like this one. Being the lucky one confers great responsibility and even moral obligation. But it’s not simply the obligation to live an examined life, to embrace each moment as though it might be last. It’s also to live each moment as though it might be the first. To throw your arms wide to the new, the unexplored, even to that of which you may be afraid. Don’t cave to the status quo. Don’t trade happiness for deferred gratification. Don’t give up adventure for safety and security. The safe is the enemy of the satisfying. Deferred gratification has a way of being deferred forever. And the status quo, “business-as-usual,” “the-way-things-have-always-been-done” has completely failed us. The last few years have made that eminently clear. How will your audacious and authentic new world work?
I don’t know. Helpful, right? Except that “I don’t know,” is one of the most exciting sentences in the English language, because in the right hands it suggests, not ignorance, but discovery. It’s the beginning of news reporting, medical research, stage preparation, business creation, legislation. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to so many questions. Can Twitter ever be more than dopey haiku? Can the government ever really see beyond the bombastic fog that hangs over Washington? Can family life ever really be egalitarian, and prejudice ever become a distance artifact? Can we ever value the wealth of our spirit more than the size of our salaries? You can help answer those questions if you dare. Be brave, for your own sake and the sake of the rest of us. I know that sounds hard. But I can offer you some simple guidance from Henry James, the most complex and cerebral of men, who once wrote, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” We’ve let kindness slip away in our culture, too, trading it for candor which was not an even trade. Bring kindness back to our society.
With that old house in ruins and the new one still to be built, you are the people who have to have the ability, the audacity, the ideals to answer these questions and so many more. Samuel Beckett once said, “To find a form that accommodates the mess that is the task of the artist now.” The mess, the mess! That’s finally what you are leaving you today, the mess! I won’t apologize for that. Instead I want you to see it for what it is: an engraved invitation to transformation. Certainty is dead. Long live the flying leap. Take it. Use it. Bring it. Bless you all. Congratulations.