Commencement day and one's place in the sun

Like Uncle Sam with that finger pointing, all commencement speakers speak directly to you when there's graduate in the family. For half an hour or so your clock is turned to 21 years old again -- not necessarily what you were really looking for. But there you sit, wondering what you'll do when you grow up.

This particular commencement speaker assures you that you've already been living a full life during your 21 years in one school or another. You're not about to enter the "real world" because you've been there all along.

That makes sense -- at least for the half an hourm you're sitting under a warm sun in this very real world where every blade of grass seems to grow as you look at it, as if the future can't wait, while an ancient elm stands in the background, forever, from the beginning.

Having convinced you that you've experienced the gamut of emotions ever since the sandbox -- which certainly stretches your power of recall to the maximum -- your commencement speaker goes on to discuss ambition. He does one of those nice, thorough jobs, beginning with the origin of the word. Ambition comes from the Letin verb "to go around" -- meaning specifically, to go about soliciting votes in the manner of a Roman politician.

Do we want that kind of blatant ambition, fellow 21- year-old? Not really. Not too much of it, at any rate.

The ambition to continue learning, to grow -- that's the sort of ambition we should want, our commencement speaker tells us, and of course he's right.

All commencement speakers are right -- as right as Polonius -- as, in effect, they tell us, the once and the actual 21-years-old, "This above all: to thime own self be true."

But our scene must be put into perspective.The little circles that gather in the sun on springtime campuses are a privileged group within a still privileged country. Far away from these genial tribal rites live millions of people whose ambition is to acquirem their next meal for themselves and their family. Far, far away from our very charmed grove of academe live millions more people whose only ambition is to survive, hungry or not -- their days spaced out by air raids , rocket blasts, and sniper fire.

The circumstances under which most people live make the various styles of ambition open to college graduates on sunny springtime afternoons a highly discretionary option.

Under such circumstances the "real world" does not become defined as any world the college graduate lives in, before or after -- from that well-appointed sandbox to the university club.

The "real world" is that world where human rights are not superior fringe benefits or even free public libraries but the privilege not to be starved, not to be tortured, not to be killed.

The "real world" is what college graduates run into when they go to fight in Vietnam or are taken hostage in Iran.

Most of us are not, strictly speaking, heroes. None of us in that the springtime sun want to be martyrs. We are surely entitled to our ambitions, without undue Paroxysms of guilt. Yet those ambitions, even the most idealistic , will finally seem fragmentary and a bit naive if they are not connected to that "real world" by the moral acknowledgement that it is there -- waiting for somebody to get ambitious about it.

In the end, the "real world" is not another place but another dimension. It is what you come to when you keep going beyond all the competitive forms of ambition measured by Gross National Product, armaments races, and even civilized self-cultivation. It is an ambition for a perfect "real world," as uncompromising as the vision of Job.

All this really means is that if you sit around a campus on a balmy afternoon , with hopeful-looking grass and venerable elsm about you, and think long enough about ambition, you begin to believe that the most demanding of ambitions is to keep ambition from being too narrow a "going about."

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