Full Text of Anna Quindlen's Commencement Address
Good morning. Actually, great morning. I feel honored to be the first from this podium to have the opportunity to offer my congratulations to the graduates of the class of 2011 at Grinnell College.
The more I thought about speaking to all of you today, the more I realized that the prevailing opinion is that my speech should be an extended apology. On behalf of the entire country, I think I was expected to say I was sorry that the economy had tanked during your college years, that the job market was looking lean, that the housing market had become uncertain. In other words, that we who came before you were handing off an unmitigated disaster. I’m not going to do that. I just can’t. I’m not going to say that I’m sorry for any of you, because I’m not. Because I think, perhaps, more than any college graduates in recent memory, you have an unparalleled opportunity to remake this country so that it is stronger, smarter and makes a whole lot more sense.
When American generations past felt dissatisfaction with our prevailing culture, with corporations estranged from both line workers and consumers, from politics held prisoner by polls and personal ambition, they had to fight a comfortable and deeply entrenched status quo. During the peace movement, the civil rights movement and the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s there was tremendous pushback from millions of average Americans who believed that world dominance, military might, segregation and old, familiar gender roles worked just fine. They didn’t want anyone blowing up the old ways.
You don’t have to worry about that. The old ways have blown up all by themselves, fallen under the weight of a system that was a Potemkin village of alleged prosperity and progress based on easy credit and crazed consumerism. A financial system in which it was possible to become rich and powerful while investing and trading in nothing at all. An information system paralyzed and sabotaged by the technology that was outstripping it. A political system for which too many held open contempt. A consumer culture making things that didn’t last and that people didn’t really need. What happens to a country that has developed the peculiar habit of shopping for recreation when it runs out of money? Well, it can either screech to a halt, or it can discover that its priorities need to be recalibrated, and that “stuff” is not salvation.
It’s as though America was a house, and at a certain point the roof was so leaky, the walls so bowed, the termites so widespread that it began to crumble. Now don’t misunderstand me; the bedrock is still there, the bedrock which too often we honor in the breech, but which we honor just the same. The bedrock of a free and fair society based on the constant and open exchange of ideas. But it would be a tragedy and a lost opportunity if all of you rebuilt and constructed a house that looked like what we had before, tried to build the same old house, which we now know was in large part a house of cards. 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, that’s how I learned it as an Irish Catholic kid growing up. 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 SUV, which was way too big, or the McMansion that was way too big, or the corner office that was way too big. That you will not do better. 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? And on a more personal level, if you are part of the generation that ditches the 80-hour work week, and returns to a sane investment in your professional life, the first generation in which young women no longer agonize over how to balance work and family, and young men stop thinking they will balance work and family by getting married, won’t you have done better than we did?
Believe me when I tell you that we made a grave error in thinking doing better is mathematical, a matter of the number at the bottom of your tax return. At the end of their lives, all people assess how they’ve done, not it terms of their income, but in terms of their spirit, and I beg you to do the same even if those who came before sometimes failed to do so. And I beg you not to let fear define you. I have enough of a memory of this day of my own to know that at some level it is preposterous to say that right now. You should be afraid; of leaving what you know, of seeking what you want, of taking the wrong path, of not finding the path at all but simply muddling along. Your friends are going in one direction, you in another. From this safe and beautiful place, you pass through an estuary to the great ocean and sometimes, the current out there is harsh and the riptides are rough, and you will be afraid. But you have to learn to put the fear aside, or at least to refuse to allow it to rule you, because it’s fear that tamps down our authentic selves, turns us into some patchwork collection of affectations and expectations, morays and mannerisms, some treadmill set to the prevailing speed of universal acceptability, the tyranny of homogeny, whether the homogeny of that straight world of the suits, or the spiky world of the avant-garde.
The voices of conformity speak so loudly. Don’t listen to them. People are going to tell you what you ought to think and how you ought to feel. They will tell you what to read and how to live. They will urge you to take jobs they loathe themselves and to follow safe paths that they themselves find tedious. Don’t do it. Only a principled refusal to be terrorized by these stingy standards will save you from a Frankenstein life made up of others’ expectations grafted together into a poor semblance of existence. You can’t afford to do that. It’s what has poisoned our culture, our community and our national character. No one ever does the right thing from fear and so many of the wrong things are done in its shadow. Homophobia, sexism, religious bigotry, xenophobia – they’re all bricks in a wall that divides us, bricks cast of the clay of fear, fear of that which is different or unknown. Our political atmosphere has been so dispiriting because so many of our leaders are leaders in name only. They’re terrorized by polls and focus groups, by the need to be all things to all people, which means they wind up being nothing at all. They’re afraid, to be bold, to be decisive, to be inventive. If they were, they might lose. As it is, they have often lost their way. Our workplaces are full of fear; fear of innovation, fear of difference. The most widely used cliché in management today is to “think outside the box.” The box isn’t just stale custom, it’s terrified paralysis. If at work you ever find yourself uttering the sentence, “We’ve always done it that way,” I urge you to wash your own mouth out with soap and start fresh.
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 distant 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 with 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.