Today, I went to a graduation ceremony that was most like any I've ever been to. I say that with, now, 13 high school graduations at four schools under my belt as either a student or faculty member, along with a singular college graduation. Today's was at Cleveland State University, as my sister-in-law graduated along with four or five thousand of her closest friends. My largest graduation before this was with perhaps four hundred.
In this case, it was held in a basketball arena, with all the intimacy that implies. They sold concessions and--thankfully--had free wi-fi. Henry Louis Gates was one of the honorary degree recipients, and he gave a pretty good speech... just not a very good graduation speech (at least not according to the unscientific poll I conducted). All told, we have four speakers, plus the college president, who also spoke his fair share despite not actually giving a prepared speech. Given how many pairs of feet needed to walk across the stage, that seemed like about three too many--if not four--but so it goes.
I had a realization, though. Graduations have never really meant that much to me. Sure, sure, they mark the end of one part of life and the beginning of another; they celebrate, in a broad sort of way, our accomplishments. But I guess the thing about it was that it never seemed like that much of an accomplishment. I can't remember ever not knowing that I would go to college. So high school graduation was no big deal--it's not like I was going to fail high school! And sure, I achieved at a high level, but that was without that much effort.
Even college, where I finally learned to work hard, it wasn't as though the outcome was ever in doubt--of course I would graduate. "Congratulations" didn't seem all that meaningful. Today's ceremony, however, was a bit different in that regard. I would not be surprised, from the speeches I heard and what I know, if a lot of these graduates hard a hard time and/or were the first in their families to earn a college degree. For many of these students, I realized, a college education was not a given. Far from it. So I suppose congratulations were in order.
At the same time, I was particularly struck by one moment in the keynote speaker's address. She was a CSU professor, and she told a story about talking with a senior in her office recently, and the discussion turned to politics and the economy and world events, and the student--despairing of the state of the world--said "Someone should do something about these problems." And the professor told her "You are the one who should do something." It's a normal enough moment in a commencement speech, I guess, but it struck me as, well, ridiculous in a way. Because although it may very well be the case that some of these graduates will go on to do great things, I suspect that most of them are just hoping to land some kind of job where they can be told what to do and bring home an adequate paycheck to support themselves and their stuff habit. It's not just that they may not have an interest in changing the world--it's that they probably don't have the slightest idea how to go about it. And to be clear here: I'm not talking specifically about Cleveland State students--I'm talking about college graduates more generally, right up to the most prestigious universities in our country. Schools like to talk about educating the leaders of tomorrow, as a percentage, they're probably turning out a lot more of the followers of tomorrow.
And you'd have to think this professor knows that, but perhaps if she inspires just one person to step outside the box and forge her own path instead of treading trodden trails, perhaps that will be worth it.