Before the caps fly off

College students across the United States are leaving grassy quads for a world filled with eye-catching job offers and new adventures. Below are some of the nuggets of wisdom graduates received from writers and poets, entertainers and entrepreneurs, as they prepared to go forth:

Tom Wolfe


Boston University

Now the truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world ... at least if they have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is the much-maligned [group] known as the bourgeoisie - the middle class.

These people are to be found not only in Boston, they are to be found in Bombay, they are in Benin City in West Africa, they are in Bonn in what used to be called West Germany, they are in Bermuda, they are in Barcelona, they are all over the world, and these people - wherever you find them, whatever country, whatever culture ... all believe in the same things. And what are these things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of your children, patriotism. How much more do you want of the human beast?

I say that the middle class around the world - and it certainly flowers in this country - is the highest form of evolution. It's better than what now passes for aristocrats who take the law into their own hands.

And we writers have spent the entire 20th century tearing the bourgeoisie. The great H.L. Mencken, probably the most brilliant American essayist of the 20th century, started it with his term "the booboisie." Then Sherwood Anderson in "Winesbury, Ohio," presented us with the oh-so-proper, oh-so-twisted Midwestern preacher who in fact is a Peeping Tom. That formula has now been ground out and ground out and ground out until it reaches the movie "American Beauty." We in the arts have been complicit in this.

Marc Adler


Atlanta College of Art, Georgia

Today, designers are behind nearly all aspects of life, whether tactile or virtual. Each of you will be able to create your own successes based on what drives you most, visual impact. This is your time. The age of the "starving artist" is over, and in its place a banquet awaits you. Today more than ever, a picture is worth a thousand words, and with your images you are not only writing our history, but defining it.

John McCain


Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.

When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.

In that confrontation, I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had before. I discovered that nothing is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone....

Let it be the most important of your life's work to remind all of us that we are part of a great experiment; that people who are free to act in their own interests will conceive their interests in an enlightened way, and will gratefully accept the obligation of freedom to make of our wealth and power a civilization for the ages - a civilization in which all people share in the promise of freedom.

Madeleine L'Engle


Haverford College, Pennsylvania

We live in an incredible universe.... What we do with [what happens in life] makes all the difference. And I see here people who are willing to do it, to look at it, to say, "yes" or "no" or "maybe" or "possibly" or "let's try." And that's the one I prefer, "let's try."

Let's try, as we start a new millennium, to make it at least a little better than the last millennium, which was pretty awful. We have a chance now. We don't have to be great. We don't have to be perfect. We just have to say, "Let's try."

Seamus Heaney


University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

There is a dreamlike quality to every commencement day. But the veil trembles more mysteriously if you are graduating in the year 2000.... A turning point in your life has coincided with a turning point in our era. It is like the moment when a tide has risen to its highest and then rests: Everything is at the full and yet everything is volatile. And for the duration of this moment, you are held between two worlds. It's like those few seconds when you pause and hold the pose, and are photographed standing between your parents and your professors.

Today, inevitably, many of you will experience this in-between condition. You stand at a boundary. Behind you is your natural habitat, as it were, the grounds of your creaturely being, the old haunts where you were nurtured; in front of you is a less knowable prospect of invitation and challenge, the testing ground of your possibilities. One kind of wisdom says, keep your feet on the ground. Be faithful to the ancestors.... Another says lift up your eyes. Spread your wings. Don't renege on the other world you have been shown. One kind of wisdom says if you change your language, you betray your origins. Another kind says all language is preparation for further language.

Bill Cosby


Franklin & Marshall College Lancaster, Pa.

When you deal with your elders, just remember that your college education doesn't give you the years that these people have spent just making biscuits. My grandmother, Gertrude Cosby, ... made the best biscuits ever....

[At Temple University,] I had Professor Lablan. There were only five of us in the class because nobody wanted him. He was one of those professors that gave you 12 books when everyone else gave you three.... It was on a Thursday that, in the middle of explaining Hegel's theory of dialectical materialism, he broke off and said, "Is the glass half full or half empty?" And we started in for three hours ... and nobody satisfied him with an answer....

[Later] I went down to Grandma and Granddad's house and my grandmother was making biscuits.... My grandmother stopped school in fourth grade to go to work. She was asking me about college.... She said, "What are you studying?" I said, "There is this thing called political science." And she said, "What is that?" I didn't want to get into the whole thing of it, "Well we have politics and we study the science of it." ... Finally I said, "Well today, grandmother, we discussed and debated the question Professor Lablan put to us and that question was, 'Is the glass half full or half empty?' " My grandmother said, "Well that depends on if you're drinking or pouring."

On Tuesday I put on a suit and tie [for class]. I was so arrogant. I stood up and I said it depends on if you are drinking or smoking.

Oprah Winfrey


Salem College, Winston-Salem, N.C.

This I know for sure: You learn and know by asking. And if you ask the question, it shall be given. The question? "Lord, what would you have me do? How would you use me? How would you use this life?"

What I know for sure is if you ask the question, the answer will come. What I know for sure is, you have to be willing to listen for the answer. You have to get still enough to learn it and hear it and pay attention, to be fully conscious enough to see not just with your eyes but through them to the truth of who you are and what you can be. What I know for sure is, you cannot run your life without surrender.... Surrender to the universe's dream for you....

I had gone to Baltimore as a 22-year-old anchorwoman and had the misfortune of having a bad perm and losing all of my hair. And if you want to know who you really are, find yourself as a black bald anchorwoman on television trying to ask the question, "Who am I really?"

I spent a lot of time trying to be and wanting to be like other people. Barbara Walters, as I said last night. Diana Ross, or just somebody supreme. And then I found that God could dream a bigger dream for Oprah than I could dream for myself, that the unfolding, the unfolding of our lives, happens every day through every experience.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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