To the Class of '16 

You gotta go where you wanna go

It been three years since I turned out my most recent commencement address. Frankly, I just got sick of writing the damn things, then never being asked to deliver them. Stupid schools! They don't know what they've been missing.

Anyway, it's been three years and I'm back. It's this STEM thing—the push among educators to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math in their curricula—that has convinced me these kids need to hear more than one tune. This address is aimed at high-school seniors, as it is too late for graduating college kids. Not unless they want to go back and start over again.

•••

Congratulations to the class of '16 here at ­­______ High. Go ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Panthers! (Warriors, Eagles, Visigoths, Cowpokes, Pirates, Badgers, Beavers, Bruins, whatever.) By now, most of you already know whether you're continuing your education or not. And of those who are entering a college or university next fall, I suppose many of you have already decided what line of study you intend to pursue. I'm happy for you if you've already figured out what you want to do with your life. It's not such an easy thing, to have your future plotted out by 18. You will go far... assuming it turns out that what you think you want to do now actually turns out to be what you're perfectly content—or even moderately content—to be doing 10... 20... 30 years from now.

At the same time, I suspect there's a great share of you who don't have any idea what you're cut out for. At this point in your lives, I doubt you can picture yourself in grown-up clothes, let alone picture what you might be doing as a grown-up. But it is not the least bit unnatural to be undecided about your future, particularly when it comes to picking a career. Most people end up doing what they have to do to accommodate the realities that intrude upon their bright illusions as they make that slog from being someone else's dependent, to being dependable citizens. Many are the architects, for example, who dreamt of designing the eighth, ninth and 10th wonders of the modern world, only to spend their years drafting the plumbing specs for Taco Bells or trying to figure out where to put the guest bathroom so it doesn't open into the dining room.

It's simply a fact of life that most people never even get to the base camp of whatever heights they once dreamt of scaling. It's generally OK because, as it turns out, the world has more need for functional bathrooms than it has for more wonders of the world. This is not to say you shouldn't have the bright illusions and lofty dreams. Absolutely, you should have them. They are what sustains the species, bright illusions and lofty dreams—first for ourselves, then for our children. And you should never, ever allow anyone else—even those who care very much for you, like your teachers—tell you what your bright illusions and lofty dreams should be.

Which brings me to STEM. I know that for the past several years, probably starting in middle school, you have been inoculated with the notion it is incumbent on you to cram as much science, technology, engineering and mathematics into your noggins as possible—that the United States is falling behind and that if you guys don't get your STEM together, the nation could turn into one big temp service, doing the grunt work for whatever India and China are innovating.

All fine and good. Lord knows we need more science and math proficiency in America. But the whole truth is, we need more of every kind of proficiency in America. We haven't fallen behind in engineering and technical expertise alone; we are falling behind in virtually every pursuit the human mind can enter into: history, philosophy, critical thinking, exploration, languages, cultural studies... you name it. And it's not India and China that are outpacing us. It is our own past we aren't keeping up with. For whatever reason, we have lost our respect for, and our faith in, the sort of eclectic liberal arts thinking that produced the most creative minds and ideas of past centuries.

Man does not live by computer code, alone. It is our artists and writers, our philosophers and theologians, our historians and journalists and anthropologists, who put our scientific achievements and technical advancements into human perspective—who remind us there is mystery and majesty beyond all that math and machinery.

So listen, boys and girls... if you have a hankering to spend a few years, or a lifetime, studying... say... 15th century Italian art... comparing Kant and Descartes to Nietzsche and Sartre... digging up pre-Columbian artifacts on the Yucatan Peninsula... writing poems, translating Greek tragedies or looking for bugs under tropical leaves... you go right ahead and do it. And don't let anyone tell you that you're wasting your educational opportunities if you don't let the job market dictate your choices. Remember, this is a life you're living—not an economic index. What's more, by allowing industry to decide what is knowledge worth knowing and what isn't, you would be failing something more fundamental than the U.S. economy—i.e. the fulfillment of human potential, the wonders of which are many yet to be explored.

Now, go get 'em ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Panthers! (Warriors, Eagles, Visigoths, Cowpokes, Pirates, Badgers, Beavers, Bruins, whatever.) And good luck.


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