A Day of Sage Advice

The Class of 1996 has been busily shedding the trappings of a world centered on libraries and lectures in preparation for new jobs, travel abroad, perhaps even volunteer work. Many will return to academia to pursue advanced degrees. But others are leaving forever a familiar if often daunting existence, ready to test their mettle in the face of new challenges.

What follows is some of the wisdom offered to speed young graduates on their way.

Nora Ephron


Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.

What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess.... It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you.... You are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever. We have a game we play when we're waiting for tables in restaurants, where you have to write the five things that describe yourself on a piece of paper. When I was your age, I would have put: ambitious, Wellesley graduate, daughter, Democrat, single. Ten years later not one of those five things turned up on my list. I was: journalist, feminist, New Yorker, divorced, funny. Today not one of those five things turns up in my list: writer, director, mother, sister, happy.... I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.... The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your lives.

Stephen Breyer

Assocaite Justice, US Supreme Court

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

I hope you don't make a mistake, but so many do, to think of the government as them - when it's really us. Government, after all, is really "us" trying to share common problems: crime, disease, environmental degradation, child poverty, prejudice.... Those problems demand solutions that are democratic, that are participatory, and that work. And like every generation, including mine, you must and you will have to grapple with those problems because they're going to touch your lives and they're going to shape them.... Let me give you three little short suggestions.... One of them is to discard what I'd call a cynical hypothesis. Did any of you use the word "just"? As in, the reason he said that was just to make himself popular. The reasons she did that was just to get publicity. That program is just politics. Take out the word "just".... Say he said that to make himself popular. Now it calls for argument. It may be wrong. Say it's politics - it may not be. It may be people arguing on the merits. I want to tell you, in my two years on the court, I've not seen people cynical about each other's motives. When the nine of us sit ... and debate issues ... I don't hear one person dismissing anyone else's view with the word "just"....

I also hope you'll find time to participate in your church, in your temple, your mosque, your local PTA, labor union, political party, a charitable organization, or any other community group that binds you and your neighbors together. Remember then what's so obvious to you now: You and your family are part of a larger community and you must take responsibility for that community....

One other thing ... there's no single secret to success, and there is success of all kinds and varieties. So, I'd like you to be ambitious in this regard...for yourselves, your families, and for your communities.

John Silber

President, Boston University

Boston University, Boston

You will be tempted to accept a debilitating and limiting view of your potentiality by reference to prevailing dogmas that are put forward - falsely - as if they rested on the authority of science.

You know the litany: Copernicus proved that mankind was neither at the center nor the master of the universe; Darwin showed that mankind was nothing special, but merely one among millions of evolving species; and Freud claimed - by his discovery of the unconscious - that the individual was not even master in his own house.

Any of these limiting views can deny you membership in the company of those who make the highest demands upon themselves.

It is far better to overestimate the significance of our lives and the extent of our powers than to sell them short. As William James writes in "The Will to Believe," "If I refuse to bail out a boat because I am in doubt whether my efforts will keep her afloat, I am really helping to sink her."

There is every reason for us to believe in ourselves as free, self-determining agents, fully aware of our capacity to set standards for ourselves and work all out to make them real.... To adopt, as if it were true, an unproven materialism which denies all transcendent meaning to human existence, inevitably dwarfs the human spirit.

Tom Brokaw

Anchor, NBC News

Connecticut College, New London, Conn.

You have at your disposal a dazzling assortment of new tools not even imagined not so long ago.... A spellbinding galaxy of chips, binaries, codes, nets, bytes and bits all lighting up the information superhighway with infinitely more stimuli than all the strobe lights at all the heavy metal concerts in the world. E-mail and chat rooms, virtual reality and all-color graphics, software, hardware, and caller waiting. Who could ask for anything more?

This will be the cyberspace equivalent of a teenage joyride - reckless and pointless - unless we all apply the first lesson of technological revolution to this one: they almost all have unexpected consequences, and they are most successful when as much effort and thought is applied to the use of the technology as to the development of it in the first place. If this new technology becomes simply another means of amusing ourselves ... if [it] becomes primarily the province of the privileged ... if it becomes merely an instrument of greater invasion into our personal lives, then we will have failed....

This is your technology. Indeed, with the introduction of the cyber age we have fundamentally altered relations between generations. This is the first time the kids have taught their parents to drive.

Cornel West

Professor of Afro-American Studies

at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana

Every democracy must renew and rejuvenate and regenerate itself generation after generation. And the question is always: Will they have enough vision and understanding and courage and sense of sacrifice? Will we be able to talk candidly and critically about the relative economic decline, the falling wages, the falling income, the sense of estrangement in the workplace? Will we be able to talk honestly about the increasing wealth inequality, the impact of the information and communication revolutions on the increase between the haves and have-nots, or the have-too-littles? It is not a question of finger-pointing or name-calling of fellow citizens, it is a question of raising the issue of civic responsibility....

We will not save the world. But we certainly can leave it just a little bit better than we found it. If, with our sense of history, we can expand the scope of empathy, accenting nonmarket values, not just like love and care and empathy, but parenting, friendship, support of others, companionship, and, in the larger context, creating public spaces that we can enter without humiliation such that citizenship has real content and substance.

Seamus Heaney

Nobel Prize-winning poet

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

When I was in primary school, I was once asked to do a composition entitled "A Day at the Seaside" - a ... predictable subject in a country school in Northern Ireland years ago. So, I wrote about the sunlit sand, of the yachts in the bay, of the perfect sand castles and of diving in the pool, even though the weather was usually rainy and it was a coal boat rather than a yacht in the bay, and I was a farmer's son who couldn't ... in fact swim at all....

But my chief lyrical effort was reserved for the description of the bucket and the spade I said I had used.... I praised the little spade for being so trimly shafted, so youngster friendly, so small and scaled down. And so I got my grade for ... delivering the conventional goods.... But years later what came back to me was ... the truth I had suppressed about a day which had actually been a day of bittersweet disappointment....

[My mother] was a frugal woman, far too self-denying and far too much in thrall to the idea of keeping going to indulge herself or her children in the luxury of catchpennies that she would see like buckets and spades.... But still, in her mother's heart, she desperately wanted to do something for us, so off she went to a hardware store and bought ... down-to-earth farm equipment which she could utilize when she went home: She brought us a plain tin milk can and a couple of wooden spoons, durable items indeed, useful enough in their own way, but wooden spoons ... totally destructive of all glamour and all magic....

I hope it will be obvious why I tell you this: ... I want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive, but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.

Bill Clinton

President of the United States

Pennsylvania State University, University Park

Any of you who are in education know that there is a huge group of young people under 18, now coming into grade school, coming up through our system of education - a higher percentage of them than any previous generation - born out of wedlock, born without the guidance of two parents, born into difficult family situations, out there having to raise themselves.

So even if you have a PhD, you've got to care about these kids. They're your kids; they're coming home to your roost and they will affect your country and your children's future....

We cannot solve the problem of rising crime among young people ... unless there are citizens who are willing to step into the gap in those children's lives to teach them right from wrong, to give them a good future ... to give them the character and values to walk into that future, to make it possible for them to imagine that one day they might get a degree.... You have to be willing to do that wherever you live.

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