Words of advice to the Class of '86

Commencement speeches tend to deserve their reputations as the college graduate's final hurdle. But as we noted on Friday, there are memorable speeches as well. (Next year's speakers take note: These stay close to the speaker's own experience.) On Friday we quoted some talks on the subject of social commitment in the '80s. Today's excerpts concern the broader realm of life and work: Virgil Thomson, American composer . . . Musicians, in other words, own music because music owns them. Anybody who feels strongly enough about music to go through a conservatory discipline and prepare himself for dealing with the materials of it, belongs to the world of music. He's joined the family. And the history of music for the next 25 years will be the story of your family operations and your family quarrels. . . The music world is not without its economic realities. But economics are not the sense that it makes. In sport we distinguish amateurs from professionals by financial criteria. If a tennis player takes money for playing tennis, he's a professional; if he doesn't, he has kept his amateur standing. This has nothing to do with the quality of his play. And so, as a musician, you may be a professional -- that is to say, earn money -- and still be irresponsible as a musician. Or you may be an amateur, not accept fees, and practice your art according to the highest standards known to your time. Any musician who practices his art, however modestly, in full acceptance of his obligation to maintain the highest standards that he is aware of, is a real musician. . . .

The rewards of obstinancy and cooperation (with fellow musicians) are very great. They are nothing less than the satisfaction of creating an auditory universe after your image of it. That satisfaction's worth everything and the hope of it justifies every labor, every risk.

I can't promise you anything more than that because musicians don't -- as a rule -- get rich in the business, and very few even become famous. But I've never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down. (New England Conservatory of Music, May 18) Diane Sawyer, CBS News correspondent

When I left here graduation day I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. In fact, I went back home to Louisville, Ky., and a few weeks later my father put me through a catechism that was brilliant in its simplicity. He said, ``What do you love doing? What would you do if no one ever paid you a dollar for it?'' And I said, ``Words. Writing. Reading.'' And he said, ``Where is the most adventurous place you can do what you love?'' And at the time there were no women on television in Louisville, which is why I showed up the next week at the smallest UHF station in my perfectly coordinated, dress-for-success outfit and announced that I was applying for a job as a serious journalist and commentator, and that's how I started my career as the nation's most inept local weather girl. (Wellesley College, May 30) Benjamin Weir, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), former hostage in Lebanon

One of the greatest experiences of my life was, after 14 months of isolation, suddenly experiencing a change in treatment and being put in a room with another human being, Fr. Martin Jenco, and then subsequently meeting three other men, and eventually being privileged to worship with them, to visit with them, to share at a very deep level, and to come to know them each in their stage of pilgrimage as a very real brother in Christ. A tremendous experience of human and spiritual community. All of this showed to me that a drive for personal success is not enough, in fact it can be a trap. . . .

To me, this brings to mind that pattern expressed in a very short sentence in the Gospel in which Jesus said, ``Greater love has no man than this, that a person lay down one's life for another.'' (Macalester College, May 24) Brian E. Urquhart, Former Undersecretary General, UN

. . . In 1940, I was a platoon commander in the infantry and we were guarding something called St. Margaret's Bay, which was the land access to Dover. I had 30 men, 29 rifles, and a rather unreliable light machine gun. And we were very, very happy with this and kept talking about how we were going to deal with the German invasion and how surprised they were going to be. At the end of the war, I happened to see a map of the German operational plan for the invasion of England, and got a very nasty shock when I saw what they were going to do at St. Margaret's Bay. They were going to land three parachute divisions behind it, four armored assault divisions on the beach, and bomb the whole thing in advance for half an hour with the whole German air force. So my 30 men and my unreliable light machine gun might perhaps have been a little bit outclassed. But you know, it never occurred to anybody even at that time that we were going to lose. Of course it didn't. And that, I think, was an important point in tipping the balance. If you think positively, people will follow you. But if you think fearfully or negatively, they won't. (Grinnell College, May 19) James Baldwin, Author

For me, too, it's a kind of ending. I've been teaching here this past year, and I've learned a lot. Now the first thing that I had to learn was that my frame of reference was antique. . . . When I referred to something that happened 20 years ago or 10 years ago, I suddenly realized . . . that the student did not know what I was talking about. I began to feel a little like somebody from ancient Rome. But I understood, I think, very quickly, that partly what I was confronting . . . was the concept of time in this society -- time having very little meaning in this society -- and the concept of history in this society, where everything is a little like last week's television show. I then had to begin to see that my Malcolm X, or my JFK, or my Martin Luther King Jr., were creatures I had to first of all recreate in my own mind before I could reconvey them to the people younger than myself. . . .

I was born 21 years before the Atomic Age. I was born to live an ordinary life. I could dream of getting to be 70 or 80, if I should live that long. Behind me stretched, however disagreeably or however beautifully, a sense of time, of continuity. But I began to suspect that to anyone born after 1945, the sense of time which I had inherited was as remote for them, really, as ancient Rome is for me. That one whole generation, two generations, have come into the world under the threat of extinction. And this changes everyone's reality.

It seems to me, in that case, . . . it is probably going to be your generation -- it is too late, I think, for mine -- to reconsider everything. (Hampshire College, May 17)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Words of advice to the Class of '86
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today