This graduation season, let's remember the 20th century

Steve Jobs told college graduates to follow their inner passion. John F. Kennedy told them to solve the world's problems. At graduation ceremonies, speakers should remind men and women not just of their obligation to pursue self-satisfaction, but also of their duty to fellow human beings

Paul Sakuma/AP/file
Steve Jobs smiles with a new iPhone at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco in 2010. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman questions the late Jobs's 2005 commencement address at Stanford, in which Jobs told students to follow their inner voice because 'everything else is secondary.'

Aim high. If you fall, pick yourself up. And, most of all, follow your dreams. 

Welcome, college graduate, to your 2013 commencement exercises. The speeches are all about you! You should find something that makes you passionate; you should pursue it, as far as you can.

Millennials have become even more of a "Me" generation than their boomer parents. They’ve been raised on self-esteem and digital access that fuels their focus on self-fulfillment and quick gratification.

They’ve been told they’re special and encouraged to follow their passion from childhood. Many of this spring’s graduation speeches won’t deviate far from that line. But what happens when your passion clashes with someone else’s? And what about the millions of human beings who simply can’t follow their dreams, because they’re too mired in poverty, illness, or oppression?

As thousands of young Americans don goofy medieval caps and gowns to graduate from college this month, we should be reminding them not just of their obligation to pursue self-satisfaction but also of their duty to their fellow human beings. Instead, they'll probably hear actors, businessmen, and other celebrities expound on the virtues of rugged individualism.

Consider Steve Jobs’s 2005 address at Stanford, which is probably the most famous commencement address of our time. Mr. Jobs recounted his own remarkable life story, from college dropout to computer billionaire. And the moral of the tale is simple: Find what you love, and stick with it.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” Jobs declared. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice….[H]ave the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Really? Everything else? Even, say, your friends and your family? Your country? Your world?

Or take Ellen DeGeneres’s 2009 speech at Tulane, where she recounted coming out as gay and the risks she incurred to her career. “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself,” DeGeneres urged. “Never follow anyone else’s path.”

But education should help us get beyond ourselves, to transcend the narrow particulars of our interests and wishes and ambitions. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing your passions, of course. But the real question is how they’ll affect the people around you.

That was the theme of many commencement speeches in earlier generations, when it was simply assumed that college graduates had an obligation to help others. Part of that had to do with America’s unrivaled dominance, which could spawn its own brand of arrogance. But it also imbued Americans with a sense of shared duty, to each other and to the world.

Addressing Harvard’s commencement in 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall outlined his plan for rebuilding a war-torn Europe. “I need not tell you gentlemen that the world situation is very serious,” Marshall warned, noting the vast economic and political obstacles that awaited his plan. But he concluded on an optimistic note, calling on graduates to “face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country.”

Likewise, John F. Kennedy invoked listeners’ shared obligations in his 1963 graduation speech at American University, where Kennedy called for a nuclear test-ban treaty. Decrying the “dangerous, defeatist belief” that war was inevitable, Kennedy insisted that human beings could prevent it.

“Our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man,” Kennedy said. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.”

The first thing you notice about these speeches, a half-century later, is their dated language. Marshall addressed his audience as gentlemen, because Harvard was all-male at the time. And Kennedy’s references to man as representative of all humankind may sound antiquated at best, sexist at worst.

But their speeches also presume a collective duty that applies to everyone, no matter who they are. You don’t find the pronoun “you” in graduation speeches of an earlier era very often. Instead, you see “we” and especially “our” – our people, our country, our world.

To be sure, some commencement addresses still evoke a sense of shared mission. In a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, for example, the rock musician and humanitarian Bono noted that we are the first generation in human history with the knowledge and capacity to end world hunger.

“So why aren’t we pumping our fists in the air and cheering about it?” Bono asked. “Well, probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we’ve got to do something about it….We have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?”

That’s still the question, about every human problem under the sun. So let’s put it to our young people, as they walk out of our classrooms and into the world. Yes, Millennials are self-involved. But they're also deeply committed to fairness and optimistic about the future, as recent surveys show.

So in this cap-and-gown season, we should capitalize on that vision. Let's tell our new graduates: Follow your dreams, yes, but don’t forget your duty to others.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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