Giving credit to graduates, and sparing them empty platitudes

By Jayson Jacoby June 03, 2011 11:59 am

It’s commencement season and we are obligated, those of us who have passed this milestone, to dispense nuggets of our hard-earned wisdom to the graduates.

Well, here’s my advice to you in the gowns and mortarboards.

You don’t need it.

You’re pretty smart already.

There’s lots you don’t know, sure.

But you’ll figure all that out along the way.

Most of it, anyway.

Now, I could plunder the fathomless depths of cliche and pluck a couple of seemingly sage suggestions to help guide you.

But you’ll hear each of those platitudes often enough this weekend as it is.

You will be encouraged to “follow your passion.”

Exhorted to “make a difference.”

Cajoled into “spreading your wings.”

You don’t need anybody to tell you to do those things.

I mean it’s not as if you’re going to purposely pursue a career you despise.

You might end up in one regardless, of course.

But it won’t be because nobody bothered to warn you on the day you received your diploma.

Besides which, so what if you don’t love your job.

Save that emotion for your spouse and your kids, should you choose to have either. They’ll appreciate your affection much more than your desk ever will.

If your passion is art but you wind up working in a cubicle that has all the charm of a meat locker, this doesn’t mean you’ve forsaken your passion or, to belabor the avian analogy, kept your wings folded.

You still have weekends and evenings to paint or sculpt or sketch.

Or to do whatever it is that brings you peace and satisfaction — as I mentioned, you’ll prosper without any recommendations from me about what you ought to do with your life.

I understand that my belief that graduates will find their way in the world even without their elders illuminating the path with encouraging words so general that they mean little, will seem overly optimistic, even Pollyannaish, to some.

Certainly my attitude veers astray from the widespread belief in this country that the current crop of young people, as a general rule, fall well short of their forebears both in education and work ethic.

Yet it seems to me that this claim, more often than not, is based on sketchy evidence such as the percentage of graduates who can name the first president or find France on a map, and the prevalence of video games, cell phones and social media.

Although I appreciate the value of acquiring knowledge for its own sake, and would rather read a book than slay digital, high-definition beats, I’m not nearly as troubled by such statistics — even assuming they’re accurate, which I’m not convinced of — as some people seem to be.

I’m confident that graduates these days will succeed, in significant numbers, even if their mastery of Western European geography or American history is deficient based on the standards of decades (and centuries) past.

Critics who cite such statistics while bemoaning the state of education, and in particular public education, seem to me to imply that kids aren’t learning much of anything, what with all the texting and Facebook updates.

But here’s the thing: Students today need to acquire skills that students in 1870 or 1910, or even as late as 1970, did not.

There were no computers in those one-room schoolhouses of lore, for instance, which left considerable space in the curriculum.

But good luck finding gainful employment in 2011 by reciting the Fourth Reader with no mistakes or listing all of Shakespeare’s works.

That Americans lament the alleged intellectual vacuity of the next generation is hardly a new trend, of course.

And yet, for all this hand-wringing, I notice that each generation produces doctors and rocket scientists and engineers and all manner of other professionals on whom modern society depends.

My personal observations are purely anecdotal, to be sure, based on brief interviews or conversations I’ve had with high school and college students over the past few years, or on the stories we’ve published.

Notwithstanding the scanty sample size, I came away impressed.

Take, for example, Elliott Averett, who graduates from high school this year, and Kyle Knight, who finished high school in 2010. They are opposites in their political preferences, yet each, shy of his 20th birthday, is a local leader with his party — the very antithesis of the uninterested, lackadaisical teenager we have been led to believe is the 21st century archetype.

The high school athletes I have interviewed recently — football players Austin Villalobos and Justin Durflinger, softball player Laura Wilson — were all articulate and polite and engaging.

My colleagues have described in similar terms FBLA leaders such as Mallory Bailey and Tori Wirth, and the accomplished musicians Ellen Jampolsky, Naomi Smith and Sammi Stone.

There are dozens of others.

I think, in fact, that the greater share of the teenagers who will receive their diplomas this spring are well-prepared to, if I may briefly indulge in the sort of banality I’ve already condemned, “make the world a better place.”

I don’t, at any rate, share the common concern that, in my dotage, I’ll suffer because the people running the country will botch the job in some egregious way.

I don’t mean to suggest that we, in eschewing the traditional trite sentiments so integral to commencement speeches, should also withdraw all support for the graduates, should chase them off into adulthood in the manner of a bear sow turning her back on her cubs.

Graduates still need their parents and grandparents and friends.

They need our love and encouragement and, sometimes, yes, they need our advice.

But they’re wise enough to know when to ask.

And when they seek our counsel, the least we can do is answer with something more heartfelt than plagiarizing phrases from the greeting card aisle.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.