John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Would You Tell December 2013 Graduates?

November 25, 2013John N. GardnerInsights1

John N. Gardner

Some speeches truly do require more thought in preparation than others. Even though my grade in Speech 101 my first year of college was a D, I have had enough practice since then to probably raise that grade some….But I am not over confident about that. They can take the professor out of classroom but not the classroom out of the professor. So I still conscientiously prepare for speaking commitments. I always prepared for class, and tried never to use the same material twice. And now I am faced with a commencement address to a graduating class in December 2013. I love doing commencement addresses. Only wedding days are as happy for both are forms of commencement, new beginnings, celebration for friends and families. Both are milestones for the measure of one’s life.

I thought that if I posed to the readers of my blog this question of what should I say to this fall term’s graduates,  maybe, just maybe, a few of my readers might send me some suggestions. Please do.

I am not getting desperate about this; I do have a few ideas of my own.

Should I exhort them to try and get along better with their colleagues in post college work settings than our elected representatives in Washington do today? Surely these younger citizens can do better in spite of the terrible leadership examples that have been set for them.

In the aftermath of the recent commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, should I ask them to reflect on that? No. Very few of them will know any of the facts of that Presidency. But I suppose I could ask them to reflect on the most memorable historical day of significance in their lives to date, which in all probability will be the attacks of 9/11/2001, when they were about ten. But then what? Why would I want to do that? Because we are still rebuilding from our losses that day and they could contribute to that. And they are entering a world that was irrevocably changed by that event of which they need to be reminded.

And we have just commemorated the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s delivery of his Gettysburg Address, for which we unquestionably remember him more for than anything else. I could invite the students to reflect on whom they will remember from their college experience more than anyone else and why? I could remind them that fundamentally the theme of that extraordinary address was the meaning of equality. And I could remind the graduates that they are graduating at a time of widening inequality and charge them to try to do something about that. I could remind them that Lincoln was speaking about the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the promise of equality for all, as yet an unfinished American revolution.

The last commencement address I gave for the winter graduation was in 1991, in the middle of Operation Desert Storm, the first US invasion of Iraq, when we really did have a coalition of the willing and didn’t botch the job terribly. And it was dead in the middle of the first Bush recession. In contrast, these graduates are leaving undergraduate school as two wars, one definitely unnecessary, one probably necessary but equally as futile, are coming to an end. And they are entering the workforce after the Great Recession, brought on by the failed policies of the second President Bush, has technically ended, but is still lacking anything like a robust recovery. So I could tell them to take heart because a college degree is a good investment they have just made and they will ultimately have a lower probability of becoming unemployed (but not underemployed) and earn significantly more over their lifetimes (assuming that is the major reason these students came to university in the first place). Some of them may even have acquired purposes for the college education other than, and beyond, making money. I certainly hope so.

Should I give in to the irrepressible urge of the older to give advice to the younger. I am the co-author of numerous texts on “college success” and the co-author of another book on “The Senior Year Experience”, so I really do know something about what being a college senior is all about and overall strategies for success. I think I will tell them about my friend Phillip Gardner’s research, from his work through the Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute, which he directs, a study on the reasons why college graduates get fired from their first job after college. What is the number one reason why students loose their first job? Failure to take initiative. Maybe I should ask the graduates to reflect on how has college taught them to take initiative and how they can translate that into action.

I think I will tell them what it was like when I graduated from college: the Vietnam War raging, the draft ramping up, my going to graduate school to avoid the draft but ending up getting drafted anyway! The fact that I lacked the freedom to make many choices about what I would do after college, and in contrast, ask them to reflect on the extraordinary freedom they have to make choices about the courses of the rest of their lives. At the same time I would tell them that I am grateful to the US military for introducing me to what it means to live a life of service to country—in or out of the military—I have done both.

This address will be delivered in Missouri. So I am slightly tempted to remind them never to utter anything in public as stupid as the Missouri candidate for the US Senate race this past year who made the now infamous comment on “legitimate rape.” No that would not be a good idea. It would violate the first law of public speaking: never speak disrespectfully of your hosts.

I mean for this to be a serious question I am posing here, and one not just for those giving commencement addresses to students this December. What kind of advice do undergraduates most need from successful leaders today? In a speaking context that is most always characterized by its sheer forgettable quality, what might any of us say to our students that might really stick. This is not just a charge for one day, one occasion. It is a charge for every utterance we make to our students. I will do my best to rise to this occasion and would welcome your suggestions. What are you telling your students late this fall?

One Comment

  1. Joe SuilmannDecember 6, 2013 at 2:03 pmReply

    I’m responding to your request for ideas. A few of your historical references, particularly the Kennedy Assassination and Vietnam War, reminded me of a theme I’ve heard come up in conversation with many of my peers, or have seen different thinkers touch on in interviews and books, which is despair. You mentioned the Great Recession, 9/11, recent wars, and you might add to that climate change. One of UNM’s distinguished professors, Jim Brown, gave a lecture last year about the best current data on climate change. During the Q&A following the lecture, in response to a question about hope for technological answers (finding a new planet?), he answered provocatively that if you want to help climate change, the best thing is for 90 percent of us to commit suicide in order to reduce output of greenhouse gases and demand for diminishing resources. So that was an uplifting talk. It’s also not an isolated outlook on the future of our planet.

    I also recently heard an interview with Noam Chomsky about the current U.S. political state, and this may also have been in relation to climate change. The interviewer asked a question about the potential for political revolution to reset our government structures. Chomsky was dubious, and said that even considering the current failure of our political system, a revolution would be worse. I don’t mention it because I’m in favor, but it at least used to sound optimistic that if things weren’t working, you could always just start over. Given the ubiquitous evidence of bloody and failed revolutions, there isn’t even that.

    Maybe this is an illusion that many generations experience, the feeling that before you everyone always had lots of exciting things to look forward to, and we happen to belong to the first generation that’s just screwed. Or, maybe human optimism and imagination really used to have more frontiers to explore: creating the perfect society, the power of science to solve everything, (you can find more on this if you scroll down to this excellent excerpt of Joseph Heath’s book, here) and so on.

    Anyways, I just thought it might be a possible avenue for you to explore. As graduating seniors look toward the future, if you could survey them about their outlook, what would they say? Would they say most of their thoughts are about changing society and solving the world’s big problems, providing a bright future for their children, or rather worries about having to move back in with mom and dad, entering a marketplace with no jobs, a quickly changing and fragile world with no place for them.

    That’s a horribly depressing idea, but maybe this has something in common with other historical periods, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination? Something about persevering, or the value of creativity in dark times?

    In whichever direction you go, best of luck on the writing process, something with its own small moments of despair and triumph. There’s almost nothing better than writing (when it’s going well).

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