Recently, hundreds of students graduated from Eastern Michigan University. Decorated caps, rehearsed congratulations and high spirits characterized the time and elders hoped to imbue the graduates with a completely uninhibited optimism. Nonetheless, I think the, “You can do anything you want to do!” speeches are tired and near meaningless.
While the “Scrooge” in me has always detested unbridled positivity, this was reinforced by the wonderful April 30 Wall Street Journal article that boldly asserts, “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You.” The author sensibly writes:
“I’ve studied happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. And I’ve found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead.”
Let’s face it. College, and high school for that matter, graduates have little to gain from being told that they will single handedly change the world. Could they? Absolutely. Will they? Most likely not.
In all likelihood, the vast majority, and I do mean vast, of our college
graduates will go on to lead lives of little notoriety and immediate macrocosmic impact. There is nothing wrong with this. Yet once one accepts this fairly uncontroversial assertion, it becomes much more sensible to give these young lives advice to make themselves more fulfilled.
Bombastic claims rarely resonate in reality.
Giving real advice emphasizing personal relationships, since the previously cited Wall Street Journal notes them to be incredibly important to individual fulfillment, should take precedence. The advice it forwards is to essentially enjoy the “menial” moments that we spend in our basements. Normally we would dismiss these moments as time wasters but I would wager that most people above 40 can’t name most of the classes they took in college.
Another issue I see with the overly optimistic tone of these commencement speeches is they imply all the problems of the world will be solved with youthful passion. I would think hardworking hands would out produce motivational mouths.
No doubt, passion is important. Yet to simply, if indirectly, posit that positivity alone will melt our problems away is a shame. It also marginalizes the severity of the problems we face. Consider problems like the prevalence of cancer, an ailing education system, widespread religious conflict and dilapidated infrastructure — these are not going to be fixed by simply smiling at them and guaranteeing they will get better.
At commencement we should give realistic advice only tinged with the optimism that now dominates speeches. In this way, we can create realistic expectations and give achievable direction in life.
Barbara Ehrenreich, best selling author of “Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” put it best when she wrote, “We cannot levitate ourselves into [a] blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world.”
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