Graduation speeches can be hard on the ears. Cornball platitudes, after all, are but a few keystrokes away. And unless you’re finishing at Harvard, the Berklee College of Music or Howard University, you won’t be listening to Michael Bloomberg, Jimmy Page or Sean “Puff Daddy’’ Combs.
Instead you’ll squirm through the grave intonations of a second- or even third-tier stiff whose blather about your future will be peppered with just enough advice about rising early and working hard to prompt the sage nods of moms and dads, and to ensure the speaker’s honorarium cashes on Monday.
Graduates, think about this:
First, many of the most successful people in this country move in counterpoint to the general population. As the late Bill Norris, a founder of Control Data Corp. and an ardent fisherman, said, “When people travel in one direction, I’m most comfortable going the opposite way.’’ Remind yourself of this early and often. It’ll give you confidence to act on your dumb ideas, which in any event might not be so dumb.
Second, many of the happiest people in this country understand the value of living simply, or as simply as our culture allows, and understand also the importance of doing as many things as possible — work included — in an old way, in natural settings.
This notion of outdoors labor as therapy isn’t novel: Weeding a garden has long been a balm for minds and tomatoes alike. Ditto walking a dog, swimming a mile or exploring a woods, apropos of nothing. If you’re inclined to hunt or fish, even better; that way, you’ll know where your food comes from. The point is, dirty hands do make for happy people, a fact evermore lost in a country whose urban work force increasingly shuffles in lockstep toward cube farms, their spaces individualized only by cheap nameplates.
Today’s third point presumes a certain amount of buy-in by today’s graduates in the value of questioning convention.
This type of thinking was commonplace in 1969, when I finished high school. The Cuban missile crisis, JFK’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Detroit riots, the ’68 Democratic convention/slugfest, the killings at Kent State in 1970, the endless Vietnam War and, ultimately, Richard Nixon’s lies laid the groundwork for multiple generations who awoke in the morning doubting the sincerity of just about everything.
Notwithstanding Hunter Thompson’s admonition that the end result was “a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything,’’ this thinking bore some fruit, particularly for the environment. The Clean Air Act was passed, also the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act — legislative improvements that resonate yet today.
But cue here the main theme. Which is: What does this generation of graduates value, and how will these values shape the world 40 years from now?
This much seems obvious: Jobs and money are at the forefront of graduates’ concerns today — much more so than when I finished college. True, we wanted work, the more meaningful, generally, the better. But college debt, to the degree it existed, was manageable, and hardly a reason to enslave oneself to an onerous, or even mildly undesirable, career.
In effect, we were freer economically than today’s graduates, and, as importantly, bore only tentative ties, socially, to the establishment idea — more common today — that rising fast and making big money are valued career goals, if not the point of work altogether.
But what hasn’t changed in past decades, or really, forever, is our common dependence on clean water and air, and fertile soil. And the concern I have is that among the many passions today’s logged-on-and-online young people possess, an understanding of the value of healthy ecosystems, and, as importantly, wild places and outdoor lifestyles, isn’t among them, at least not in sufficient numbers to sway public opinion.
Yes, we’ve made progress. We litter less and recycle more. And younger generations, perhaps more so than any, regularly argue the merits of, and lobby for, clean energy.
But to retain a culture in which physical work and exercise in natural settings are valued, or even possible — laying the foundation for what Aldo Leopold called development of a “land ethic’’ — at least some of today’s graduates must be willing to move counterpoint to the general population’s seemingly onerous march toward work for money’s sake alone.
Charles Kettering, who headed General Motors research from 1920 to 1947, and who led development of the electric starter and leaded gasoline, said the future interested him because he was going to spend the rest of his life there.
That alone should give pause to today’s graduates as they consider their life plans.