Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Parsing convocation addresses in America

By David Brooks, New York Times, May 30, 2011
Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.
I happened to hear a portion of the convocation address of Elena Kagan to the graduating class of the University of New Mexico. Her message can be summed up in a few words: "Whatever you do, wherever you go, please give back!"
As an Episcopal clergy, I once asked a mid-forties mother of four what she would really like to do in her life. Her comment literally stunned me: "Oh, if I ever find a half hour to think about that question, I will give you a call with my answer."
Finding yourself, finding your passion...these are  mantra's of the "callings" school of thought...they express the notion, (belief? or principle? or concept?) that there is a calling somewhere for your life. It is a very Oprahfied message, attempting to inspire people to get out of their self-imposed straight jackets, or perhaps straight-hackets jointly imposed by themselves and their choices and the people in their lives, and the jobs or relationships that they find themselves in, and since it sounds so inspiring, those who address graduates glam onto it, in the hope that their audience too will find it inspiring.
Inspiration for new beginnings is the mantra of this time: we have all, to some degree or other, driven into dead-end cul de sacs, in some aspects of our lives, and we need to know 1) that others have also done this and 2) that the vehicle we are driving can turn around, can retrace steps if that is needed and can begin a new journey in another direction with new concepts, and new design and new purposes.
We however, do not like endings that spell or define our failures. And often it is precisely those endings from which we have most to learn. And failure is not the order of graduation day. There will be time enough for that later.
The moment one receives a graduation certificate, a degree, one is really at a crossroads. The graduate has achieved much success , and acquired some of the lessons needed for future achievements. Now, the moment is pregant with possibilities, and why should and would those favoured with the college's invitation to address graduates, not wish to seize upon that moment.
After all it is in the pregancies that new life takes shape. It is in the pregnancies that new hopes and dreams are most likely to feel most real. It is in pregnancies that we come face to face with an actual new life.
And, to some extent, these college speakers, are attemping to midwife all those thousands of pregnancies in front of them. Some will be birthed into a classroom where they will attempt to "e ducere" to lead others out of their inherent skills and talents to their own new birthings. Some will enter a law firm, with a new desk and new files for their rookie minds and insights. Some will take up their stethascope and their Blackberry and march right into the nation's and the world's hospitals to care for those who are sick and dying.
Some will re-enter grad school in order to add a few more layers to their "credentials" and some will be warding off that inevitable jump off the cliff into the unknown of the job market.
Nevertheless, there is a moment both of birth and of drama, and perhaps also of some loss and leaving and parting from the familiar, from friends and colleagues, from professors and deans, from coaches and mentors...and that moment requires some  reflection as well as the wonderment of new horizons.
I think Brooks is a little too stark in his criticism of the convocation speeches he has read, listened to, and perhaps even delivered. I think Brooks also simplifies some of the reasons for any particular career or even educational choice. For most, these choices are fraught with multiple motives, some even in conflict with others and each striving for realization in the concrete daily details of each student's life, at university and beyond.
It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who said some of this best:
All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.
Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alfredlord118022.html#ixzz1NxTKLhJC
And let's not let Tennyson dominate the stage. There are others like Einstein .
Someone once asked Albert Einstein which question, among all of his inquiries into the mysteries of the universe, is the most important question to ask. He responded: "Is the universe a friendly place or not?" How we interpret the result of our own lives--and thus how those lives unfold--is largely a function of how we each answer Einstein's question. (Gregg Levoy, Callings, Three Rivers Press, New York, p.264)
Now, let's look at that other side of Brooks' concern: the team aspect of life. It is as true as the truth of today's sunrise and sunset that one can and does and will always learn much from playing with others, from working with, along side, behind and in front of others. And much of that teamwork is written in smaller fonts on our cultural imaginations. We celebrate, in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Canada, the virtues and the gifts and benefits of "rugged individualism" especially in those generations now considered "boomer". Our's is a generation that were guided into interraction with books, with new thoughts and new experiments. The PhD has to be one of the most lonely and most single-handed and single-minded exercises on the planet. There are, today, more and more scholars working collaboratively on their doctoral thesis. And that can only be a huge breath of fresh air in the academic arena.
Nevertheless, much of a lawyer's work continues to be solitary; much of a teacher's classroom work is primarily solitary; a mother is alone, often, in the decisions of her parenting; a doctor is alone in her office when the patient walks in with a presenting problem. Only later, when the first attempts at addressing the situation have either gone awry, or failed, does the "team approach" really take hold. In the O.R. there is usually always a team, and if the case is complicated enough, more than one lawyer will usually be assigned.
However, capitalism and academic pursuit still champion the individual achievment. These degrees are not given to "group"s or "teams"...they are given to the individual student.
And so, Mr. Brooks, perhaps part of your complaint is with the world of academics, the academe itself.
Could they provide more opportunities for collaboration? Of course. Will they? Uncertain. Should they? Undoubtedly.

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