For today’s Footnote, my advice to the class of 2013:
We have taught you to think of education as a code you can crack. We have taught you to value grades and scores more than learning. But as you graduate, remember that all learning begins with ignorance. Be willing to embrace wonder, to experience unexpected discovery, and to go in unknown directions. A posture of ignorance compels you to keep learning. Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you stop signing up for life’s hard classes. Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity ferocious. Keep groping in the darkness with ravenous desire to know more.
As educated Americans you have choices that most do not have. Even with the vast inequalities and continuing economic crises in our country, your diploma or degree places you among the most privileged in a privileged country. Most people are forced to work jobs that pay the bills and starve their spirits. You may be able to escape this fate, but only if you are brave enough to follow your passions even when the economic rewards are not completely clear. Never trade your soul for a paycheck.
Be of service
You are taking your degree into a society dominated by concentrated poverty and a vulnerable middle class, a society where it is harder to pay for education, harder to find a job, harder to buy a house and harder to hold onto those things even if you manage to get them. You are entering adulthood during a period of mass incarceration and near constant war. There is a lot for you to do. Service is the rent you pay for the space you take up on the earth, and as a relatively privileged American you take up a lot of space. We are the most consuming, polluting, wasteful nation on earth. So your rent is steep. Pay it with service.
We have asked you to excel in every endeavor and to avoid anything that might diminish your record of excellence. We rewarded you for following the rules and not for making your own. But you must not be afraid to make mistakes. If you are unwilling to make mistakes you cannot find your way to your passion or be of service. Mistakes are the tool of all invention. They litter the path to greatness. Throw your imperfect self headlong into the crazy, scary, painful, humbling world. Please.
Because, Class of 2013, we are counting on you. We are sending you out into an imperfect world with imperfect skills, but what you do with it will define more than your generation. It will define our nation and our world.