I listened to five of the brightest kids in my grandson’s Connecticut high school give addresses during their commencement on Monday. They said pretty much the same thing. And we adults should be troubled by it.
These kids are aware that they were raised in a protective, suburban, upper-middle-class bubble. One student speaker analogized the racial make-up of the town as “white as toothpaste.”
Even the weather gods smile on these children of privilege. Monday's stormy weather magically cleared shortly before the event kicked off at 11:30 A.M., and as soon as the ceremony ended and the crowd dispersed, skies darkened again.
Almost the entire senior class is college-bound. It followed that the commencement conversation centered on success in life, which translated as career success.
I didn’t need to take notes; I have a hunch the bromides I heard here were repeated in similar commencement talks across the land:
- Be bold
- Be passionate
- Take risks
- Define yourself by self-actualization
- Be immune to the judgments of others
- And through it all, have fun
Here’s the rub.
- There was no talk about matters of the spirit
- There was no invocation, despite the fact that the ceremony was held on the sprawling lawn of a Congregational church while most cars were parked on the nearby grounds of a Catholic parish
- There was no acknowledgment that suffering exists and that these students will not be not immune to it once they depart their protective bubble
This is where we are failing our children.
Having successful, driven parents can yield unwelcome fruit. Our society’s unquestioned adoption of individualism so often results in relentless pressure to succeed. The message our society teaches young people is that success is achieved and measured only through high individual achievement.
New York Times writer, David Brooks, wrote this just today in his op-ed column, titled “Mis-Educating the Young:”
We pump them full of vapid but haunting praise about how talented they are and how their future is limitless. Then we send them (the most privileged of them) to colleges where the professors teach about what interests the professors. Then we preach a gospel of autonomy that says all the answers to the deeper questions in life are found by getting in touch with your ‘true self,’ whatever the heck that is.
I was reminded of another news story I read earlier last week about Ramadan, the holy month during which devout Muslims fast from sunlight to dusk:
H. Ali Mohammed, 64, offered these words for the soul: “Less materialism. More spirituality. Think and pray for the desolate. Give alms to the poor.”
For all the commencement’s happy talk about having fun while building a fulfilling life, there was no mention that happiness is unfailingly found in giving of oneself for the benefit of others.
But . . . although this idea wasn’t articulated, the students seem to be living it.
This fact was discovered in the speech of a boy who admitted to having flirted with suicide. He credited friendships with having saved him.
In fact, all the student speakers put great stock in friendships formed during their high school years. A student choral group even chose to perform the Beatles song, “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
It is in peer friendships that my grandson’s classmates have found solace, support, and protection. In this regard, they are a family of brothers and sisters united in shared struggle. My grandson’s circle of ten close friends call themselves “The Fam.”
His mother—my daughter—notes that the same phenomenon occurs at the opposite end of our social spectrum. Street gangs form in response to inner city disadvantage, frustration, and rupture of the traditional nuclear family. Just like the Connecticut kids in their bubble of privilege, urban gang members consider themselves brothers and sisters.
Over the years, parents and educators have shifted the paradigm of education from preparation for life to preparation for work.
We have left much undone to help our children grapple with life’s hugely important questions. Brooks, in his op-ed column, offers some:
- What does it mean to be an adult today?
- What are some ways people have found purpose in life?
- How big should I dream and how realistic should I be?
- What are the criteria I should think about before entering a relationship?
- What is the cure for sadness?
- What do I want and what is truly worth wanting?
Do you notice that these questions share a common denominator? They are concerns of the spirit.
It’s coincidental that I happen to be reading right now Rumer Godden’s classic novel, This House of Brede, published almost fifty years ago. One line leaps out:
“Nowadays there’s a tendency to make everything utilitarian—even the things of the spirit,” said Dame Clare. “Beware of this . . . “
We can’t let Dame Clare’s warning go unheeded.
Your reward for reading to the end is to enjoy this video of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” at: