If I'd been invited to speak at a high school commencement this year, I would have veered away from the standard themes. Not that there's anything wrong with telling students to strive for excellence, dream big, and all that good stuff. The ceremony is all about celebrating the individual achievement of each graduate. I fully understand that.
But at the final gathering of the senior class, I would ask everyone to take a moment and think beyond the lectures, lab experiments, research papers, and report cards. Look at your classmates and ask yourselves these questions: While I was gaining academic knowledge in class, how much did I really learn about the people around me? Have I developed the skills to coexist in modern America with the wide range of opinions and social standards that aren't like mine?
I'm not convinced such skills can be taught. I think they have to be acquired as children move from the toddler stage through the teenage years, but exactly how this happens is one of the mysteries of personal development.
Professional educators might disagree with me, which is fine. I know that many teachers work very hard trying to instill cooperative attitudes among their students, and one part of this effort that nearly all of us have experienced firsthand is the "group project."
In theory, group projects are supposed to give students an opportunity to perform as a team, find out what it's like to delegate responsibility, support one another when help is needed, and produce a collective result. In practice, the group project can end up resembling a classroom version of "Survivor" or "The Apprentice."
There may be one participant who doesn't follow through on his or her part, or doesn't want any part at all, or thinks the project – and the whole team – is stupid.
I have a hunch that everyone reading those words has a similar story from school or their job.
My dad, an engineer for an aerospace company, once told me his supervisor knew which guys in the office were just going through the motions, and he avoided giving them any important task because he knew they'd have to do it over again. It was more efficient to just pile extra work on the guys who were diligent and dependable.
So, graduates, remember that while you're dreaming big dreams and making impressive plans, there's always going to be some chore nearby that needs to be done, and soon. Is your first instinct to get right on it yourself, or do you prefer to use your energy finding reasons why someone else should do it?
To me, this is the starting point for everyone who's serious about keeping our society dynamic. Some people may move into the wilderness to pursue a solitary existence, but most of us are going to live as part of a community, and learning to do that successfully is a process that doesn't end when you get a diploma.
Everyday life in the real world is the ultimate group project.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.