I recently attended the commencement exercises of the college of the university of which I am a faculty member. Happily, we were spared the long speeches of the bloviating variety that are sometimes part of such an occasion. The speakers were all “insiders”. Their addresses were engaging and to the point. And the point was, as it generally is on these occasions, an exhortation to go forth and do great things—cure cancer, fix global warming, start up the next Microsoft or Facebook. In a word—achieve.
Now, I think that this is probably the kind of thing one should say at a graduation. Our students are, in varying degrees, talented and ambitious. This was their day, and they deserved to be pumped up. And to be completely fair to our speakers, they layered their remarks on an undercurrent of social awareness, the idea that one’s achievements should aim to serve the common good rather than one’s self-interest solely; that to be good is as important as being successful.
There is, however, always another commencement address running in the background. Nobody actually delivers it on the day of the exercise. Rather, it has been delivered subliminally, year after year, perhaps at times by teachers, perhaps more often by professors, and certainly relentlessly by the culture at large. This address has been eloquently summed up by Lionel Shriver in an article that appeared in The Guardianin 2005, of which the following paragraph captures the essence:
To be almost ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring
have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the
future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly
secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising.
We are less concerned with leading agood life than thegood life. We
are less likely than our predecessors to ask ourselves whether we serve
a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask if we are happy. We
shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty as the pitfalls of suckers. We
give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we
take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value
of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don't
especially care what happens once we're dead. As we age - oh, so reluctantly! – we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not 'Did I serve family, God and country?' but 'Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat?' We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun. (Lionel Shriver, “No Kids Please, We’re Selfish”,The Guardian, 16 September, 2005).
The author, I should note, sees nothing really wrong with such a, frankly, narcissistic philosophy of life. And I doubt whether the mild exhortations of our commencement speakers, however noble their intentions, will do very much to counteract a message that has been inculcated into the minds of our young men and women for thirty years or more.
Which brings me back to our students. They will get good jobs and have fine careers, but talented and ambitious as they are, the majority of them will not become billionaire philanthropists, pilot a spacecraft to Mars, win a Pulitzer Prize or solve the Riemann hypothesis. But, in contradiction to Lionel Shriver’s barren outlook on life, at least some of them may actually embrace “the values of self-sacrifice and duty” and strive to “serve family, God and country”. If they do this, they will not have fallen into the “pitfalls of suckers”. Rather, they will have achieved everything.