A Message to the 2020 Graduates of the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University
If I had been asked a few years ago to give a graduation speech, I would have filled it with pithy wisdom and inspiring quotations, seasoned with funny quips. I would have included lots of motivational platitudes. Aim high. Dream big. Shoot for the stars. Enjoy your successes. Stop and smell the roses.
I might have told you, as actor Pierce Brosnan told the 2019 graduating class at Dickinson College, that you don’t need to be James Bond if you want to save the world. “Our world doesn’t need a lone hero, out to solve things solo,” he said. “We need people from different disciplines and walks of life who are willing to work together, who can rely on one another, who can push forward, united.”
I might have told you, as comedian Tim Minchin told seniors at the University of Western Australia in 2013, to be wary of long-term goals and to be “micro-ambitious.” Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might wind up and “the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery.”
Or I might have read part of Mary Schmich’s hypothetical commencement speech, originally published in The Chicago Tribune in June 1997, in which she encouraged college graduates to enjoy the power and beauty of your youth, and do one thing every day that scares you, and remember compliments and forget insults, and sing and dance, and most of all to wear sunscreen. This essay, entitled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” is the Commencement Speech that Kurt Vonnegut Never Gave (although he’s often credited with it),available on YouTube as Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” and if you haven’t heard it you should.
I would have said these things because you, as some of the brightest young minds of your generation, are the rightful inheritors of this community and nation and world. You are the new intelligentsia. You are the professionals: the future doctors and lawyers and cancer-curing scientists. You are the best of the best. You already understand like Minchin that the idea that the arts and sciences are at odds with one another is a “recent, stupid, and damaging idea,” as he put it. You already know that you don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art and you don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet, and you know that science is neither a body of knowledge nor a system of belief: it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. You know that science is awesome. You are smart and you get it and you know that--to add to the pile of graduation clichés--the world is your oyster.
These are a few things I would have said if I had been asked to give a graduation speech a few years ago; but, I wasn’t asked to give a graduation speech then, and the truth is, in this here and now, I don’t know what to tell you because the world you inherit is faulty and warped. I could detail what I mean, but I think you already know--all of us do. Socially, politically, environmentally, the world is on fire. We are coping with climate change and pollution and species loss. We face challenges to our democracy. We are struggling with growing economic inequality and the possibility that hard work does not always lead to well-being and fulfilment. Add to these trials a global pandemic--a deadly virus, an invisible killer that requires us to be apart from one another--and it starts to look kinda scary out there, scary enough to give in to the nihilism of the moment if we’re not careful.
And so instead I offer you this bit of unsolicited advice: Have faith and believe. It is a time not only for science and art but also for faith in the notion that things can and will get better if you make it so. Steve Almond calls it being “a fanatical optimist”:
In this climate of calculated cynicism--a cynicism designed to make us feel hopeless--we need to be fanatical in our optimism, in our belief that we can become the subjects of history again, not just the objects… we must place our faith in the fragile belief that our own individual actions as citizens still matter. We have to shake off the modern American temptation to passively consume civic dysfunction as disposable entertainment.
It’s far too simple and easy to throw up your hands and say “Who cares? The system is rigged and the soufflé has fallen and nothing matters.” But that kind of pessimism is now beneath you; you traded it for the diploma in your hand. You have the tools to succeed where others have failed, tools capable of staving off defeatism, tools capable of fixing things.
So believe in something. Believe in anything. Believe in science. Believe in art. Believe in the restorative power of American democracy. Believe in a higher power. Believe in the universe’s ability to right itself. But most of all believe in yourself. Believe in your studies. Believe in your capabilities as an FAU Honors College alumnus. Believe in the knowledge you have gained and the wisdom you have gleaned. Listen to your conscience and believe in you. Doing so will enable you to make a plan and take action. And that’s what we all need--the Boomers and Gen Xers and Millennials and Gen Zers, all of us. We need your clear minds and keen vision and quick hands to maneuver around the apocalyptic piles of flaming debris in the road. We need you to be relentlessly bright and hopeful, knowing in your bones that things can and will get better if you make it so. We need your confidence and buoyancy and positivity and assurance. You are essential personnel and we need you, all of you. You can and will do great things in this world, in spite of the fact it’s broken, because of the fact it’s broken.
Thank you, Class of 2020, for your fanatic optimism. Be proud of what you have accomplished and what you have yet to accomplish. Good luck and warmest congratulations on your graduation.