Parting words

Advice can be a tricky thing. To kids, the word is unquestionably related to "lecture." That's why parents, for example, are routinely cautioned to temper their enthusiasm for sharing cherished wisdom with their children.

But once a year, the mood changes. In May and June, as a fresh crop of college graduates steps forward to receive degrees, lofty sentiment is in demand. It's our annual moment to suspend cynicism and disbelief, and welcome the sense of possibility symbolized by a new degree and a crisp mortarboard. (See excerpts from graduation addresses, page 14.)

Traditional graduation ceremonies have a surprising tenacity, even as the group that speakers look out upon continues to change. On college campuses today, 30 percent of students are minorities, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education. More than 1 in 10 students spoke a language other than English as a child. Only 40 percent of four-year students followed the once-typical pattern of jumping right from high school to college, or relying on parents for most or all financial needs. About 25 percent work full time.

What unites a group with such varied backgrounds and obligations is the optimism that comes with a degree that opens doors. Its members also share newfound knowledge of how quickly the world can change, as it did last September.

Speakers, for their part, joined in expressing the expectation, rather than hope, that students would channel their accomplishments for the greater good. Talk of salaries and start-ups was scarce. Former Sen. Pat Moynihan, for one, spoke of the Marshall Plan last week at Harvard's commencement. And he echoed many speakers in noting that, "History summons us once more in different ways, but with even greater urgency."

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