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JUNE 9TH 2012 

What the world needs now? Grads with ‘tude

As graduation season winds down, we have the chance to reflect on a number of inspirational speeches by a diverse group of thought leaders.

There have been the usual exhortations: “Follow your dreams!” “Say yes to possibilities!“ “Care about more than money!”

But is there something different? Maybe, just maybe. Perhaps a little context would be useful in understanding what, and more importantly, why.

We’ve just lapped the Arab Spring. You remember that, righ? It started with a Tunisian fruit-seller self-immolating to draw attention to the injustice of his world. Then one Arab country after another saw its population take to the streets, to fight for a voice, and to overthrow injustice and the dictators who perpetuated it.

Democratic elections were called where none had existed before. But sadly, now the protestors are back in Tahrir Square, lamenting the two presidential candidates, neither of whom represents the change the protestors sought.

And who is leading the charge again? Students. Students who say, “Enough is enough” as unemployment and injustice block their entrance to the adult world. Students who face beatings and death as they try to force change.

And, come a little closer to home and look at Quebec where a student protest over post-secondary tuition hikes began in the spring. It ceased to be about that several weeks ago: now, thousands of people wanting to be heard are taking to the street nightly. And heard they are thanks to their custom of banging pots! It may seem absurd, even insulting to the Arab Spring to compare what they accomplished with what’s going on in Quebec. Nobody is dying in the streets in Montreal. But at its core, the Quebec protests, the Arab Spring, and even the Occupy movement all have something in common.

Students have been told that if they toe the line and study hard, the system will reward them, that there will be opportunities for them.

But there’s been a shift: Previous generations, at least in the West, have used up a lot of the opportunity, and a whole bunch of the resources. Students are graduating into a degraded world, with massive debt and diminished prospects for meaningful employment.

Which brings us back to commencement speeches: Students aren’t just being given advice on how to pursue their dreams. They are being asked to play an activist role in changing the world. And boy, do we need it.

Michelle Obama gave a great speech at the North Carolina Agricultural College in which she set the tone for this advice. Find it here:

She told the story of 4 Aggies in 1960 who broke the colour barrier with peaceful protest. She cited it as a school tradition of acting to right wrongs. And she used it to set the stage for the 3 questions she asked the graduating students to ask themselves:

  1. Who do I want to be? Who, not what. We’ve suggested one of the most important filters we can use as citizens is to make decisions based on our values. To live them daily. That’s what the First Lady is suggesting
  2. What’s going on in the world around me? She’s exhorting an engaged citizenry, especially students, because they have the energy and idealism to make change happen.
  3. How can I help? And she’s exhorting them to do something about it.

But she’s not alone. Dan Akerson, CEO of GM, reminded the graduating class of Columbia Business School “society needs more from you right now. Many of the institutions society relies on are in serious disrepair.”

Jamaica Kincaid encouraged the grads of Grinnell College to “Bite the hand that feeds you.”

President Obama told Barnard College “I’ve seen a generation eager to step into the rushing waters of history and change its course”

Maria Shriver told USC “Have the courage to go beyond other people’s rules and expectations”.  (Just as an aside, is there some booking agent who specializes in figuring out what celeb speaks to what college? But we digress)

It’s as if we’re having a JFK moment right now: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” — with a little editorial addition —“because we, your elders, kinda messed things up, and we seem unable to get over ourselves and fix it.”

It’s ironic that probably the best graduation advice that can be given in today’s world is “It’s up to you to make the difference.”

Perhaps that’s always been true, but never more so than at this very moment in time. Go students go.



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