This graduation season, let's remember the 20th century
Steve Jobs told college graduates to follow their inner passion. John F. Kennedy told them to solve the world's problems. At graduation ceremonies, speakers should remind men and women not just of their obligation to pursue self-satisfaction, but also of their duty to fellow human beings
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Addressing Harvard’s commencement in 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall outlined his plan for rebuilding a war-torn Europe. “I need not tell you gentlemen that the world situation is very serious,” Marshall warned, noting the vast economic and political obstacles that awaited his plan. But he concluded on an optimistic note, calling on graduates to “face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country.”Skip to next paragraph
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Likewise, John F. Kennedy invoked listeners’ shared obligations in his 1963 graduation speech at American University, where Kennedy called for a nuclear test-ban treaty. Decrying the “dangerous, defeatist belief” that war was inevitable, Kennedy insisted that human beings could prevent it.
“Our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man,” Kennedy said. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.”
The first thing you notice about these speeches, a half-century later, is their dated language. Marshall addressed his audience as gentlemen, because Harvard was all-male at the time. And Kennedy’s references to man as representative of all humankind may sound antiquated at best, sexist at worst.
But their speeches also presume a collective duty that applies to everyone, no matter who they are. You don’t find the pronoun “you” in graduation speeches of an earlier era very often. Instead, you see “we” and especially “our” – our people, our country, our world.
To be sure, some commencement addresses still evoke a sense of shared mission. In a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, for example, the rock musician and humanitarian Bono noted that we are the first generation in human history with the knowledge and capacity to end world hunger.
“So why aren’t we pumping our fists in the air and cheering about it?” Bono asked. “Well, probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we’ve got to do something about it….We have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?”
That’s still the question, about every human problem under the sun. So let’s put it to our young people, as they walk out of our classrooms and into the world. Yes, Millennials are self-involved. But they're also deeply committed to fairness and optimistic about the future, as recent surveys show.
So in this cap-and-gown season, we should capitalize on that vision. Let's tell our new graduates: Follow your dreams, yes, but don’t forget your duty to others.