The Common Good

Commencing Hubris

I can appreciate how difficult it must be to craft a good commencement address. The need to avoid well-worn pieties while also offering something of the best-distilled wisdom of the ages. The desire to be funny but not flip, sufficiently serious but not heavy-handed, memorable but not (too) controversial. And the fear of being boring -- that you'll look out over the sea of faces and, oh my god, are they texting while I'm talking? Twenty two year olds are a tough audience. I don't envy the women and men who stand in front of them every graduation season and do their best to challenge, motivate, and inspire.

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But, please, can we retire that most tiresome of commencement clichés -- the one which, in some form or another and with varying degrees of finesse and facility, will be mouthed to most members of the class of 2011, whether they're graduating from community college or the Ivy League? The one that exhorts them to go forth and "change the world."

Can we set our sights a little lower, please? Can we try cultivating a little humility instead of self-importance in these "future leaders"? Can we relieve them of the burden to go out and do "great things" so that we can encourage them instead to be attentive and useful, merciful and generous, wherever it is they find themselves? Can we acknowledge that the cycle of hubris has not served us well in our social and political institutions?

It begins not at graduation, of course, but in kindergarten (or even earlier), when we tell our children that they can do anything, be anything. We want them to be confident so we tell them how great they are -- even when they're not so great. We practice the democratization of achievement in athletics and academics: everyone on the soccer team gets a trophy; everyone in the classroom gets an award or certificate.

And so for generations we've turned out college graduates who've believed that they can be anything, do anything. Some of these graduates (from the nation's best schools) have given us the Wall Street catastrophe. Some of them have helped put policies in place that have destroyed ecosystems and inner-city neighborhoods. God save us from the world-changers!

My hunch is that college graduates would be grateful to hear that their task is not to change the world. I think they know how deeply (though unintentionally) cynical this advice is. Just this morning, one of my young Facebook friends posted this: "Graduated yesterday. Today I save the world."

And I think that this seemingly benign pressuring of young people to go out and change/save the world is not unrelated to the culture and climate of American hubris generally -- to the sense of exceptionalism we regularly exhibit as a nation. Most recently, this was on display with the killing of Osama bin Laden. Because we are Americans, because our suffering on 9/11 somehow eclipses all other human suffering (though no one says this out loud), we were justified in gunning down an unarmed criminal and several people who happened to be with him at the time. Go forth and change the world, indeed.

Last year I had a student -- a senior at the time -- who, after reading Living Gently in a Violent World, realized that all her school work and life experiences had been preparing her for a vocation she hadn't been able to name: to go and live in a L'Arche community where she would spend hours at a time feeding or bathing or otherwise caring for persons with profound disabilities. She understood that this would not be an exercise in charity or self-congratulatory do-goodism but would be damn hard work -- yet purposeful work, transformative work. Work, that as the book's subtitle suggests, reveals the "prophetic power of weakness."

I thought about Nicole at last year's graduation, as the considerable accomplishments of our school's four Fullbright scholars were being highlighted (and kudos to those very bright and talented young women). But let's face it, graduating from college to go forth and spend your days wiping someone's dirty chin or ass doesn't register any kind of social prestige. We might admire the selflessness of it, but we hardly know how to claim it as a worthy way to spend one's "career" after all the toil (and expense) of four years of college.

Change the world? If we can start with changing a diaper or changing our mind about what matters most in this life we might have something to say to the students who are listening, who -- despite being a little hungover or momentarily preoccupied with a text message -- desperately want to hear a word of grace for the uncertain future that awaits them.

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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