Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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David Shribman


2 stand out from crowd of graduation speeches

During the commencement season, the two most interesting speeches to graduates were delivered within 11 miles of each other.

Over the years, there have been hundreds of thousands of such speeches. They ranged from the cloying and forgettable to the historic and immortal.

Two honorary-degree addresses changed the world. Winston Churchill's speech at tiny Westminster College in Missouri in 1946 is remembered for the grim warning that an iron curtain was descending from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.

A year later, Secretary of State George Marshall at Harvard University set forth what became known as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, which Churchill would call the "most unselfish act by any great power in history."

Three others have claims on greatness.

There was Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech to the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838. He sent his transcendental notions into full battle against the strain of Unitarianism that then prevailed at Harvard.

There was Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 exhortation at Dartmouth College against book-burning, a speech about open societies and open minds.

And there was the speech columnist Art Buchwald gave at Vassar in 1975. He told the graduates: "We, the older generation, have given you kids a perfect world. Don't louse it up!"

In many ways, the two great graduation addresses from 2012 measure up, for they speak to our time -- and to the breezy sense of entitlement and achievement that so many young people, and their parents, have.

Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests … despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers, and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you … you're nothing special.

These are the remarks of a remarkable English teacher at Wellesley High in Massachusetts, David McCullough, Jr. He was pilloried, needlessly and thoughtlessly, for suggesting his young charges were not so extraordinary. They're not.

Mr. McCullough then delivered some advice quite at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, comments that bear repeating here and, indeed, deserve repetition every year to those going forth from favored circumstances:

Be worthy of your advantages. And read … read all the time … read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.

Mr. McCullough was not the only person to share that theme this spring. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust spoke of "the updraft of inexplicable luck" in her baccalaureate speech.

No matter how hard we have worked or how many obstacles we have overcome, we are all here in some measure through no cause of our own. It started for most of us by being born into … the small fraction of the Earth's population that receives the benefits of fossil fuels. After we passed through that lucky portal there were others. Our parents, our schools, our friends, our health, financial aid, a Maurice Sendak book. Predecessors who fought for access to education. Someone who plucked us up out of nowhere and guided us, or a random event that turned our heads, or moved our hearts.

In our hearts, we know that many of us were propelled to college or to lofty positions and ennobled job titles mostly by luck -- perhaps the luck of birth, probably the luck of mentors, almost certainly the luck of being born into a century that needed our skills and in a country that rewarded them.

But for all the luck Harvard graduates possess, consider how lucky they were to hear another lieutenant of the legion of luck, President Faust, deliver these sobering words:

But the problem is that over time, opportunity can come to seem like an entitlement, ours because we deserve it. We cease to recognize the role of serendipity, and we risk forgetting the sense of obligation that derives from understanding that things might have been otherwise. If, as every Harvard undergraduate knows, love is about never having to say you're sorry, then luck is about never taking anything for granted.

Commencement is over, life is beginning, luck isn't eternal. Nor is it sustaining. Mr. McCullough was right. We're not special, almost none of us.

And President Faust was right too. Almost all of us have special opportunities and special responsibilities. Life consists of what we do with them.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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