Writing by Anna Quindlen
Where once we could identify who was who by the college, the color, the crewneck sweater, now the lines of identity are constantly blurred in our perceptions and in the stages of your life.
Commencement speeches are the hardest speeches I ever give. I mean, to begin with, I am keenly aware that I am standing between you and your diploma and your graduation party and what may well be a very long night of celebrating the first day of the rest of your life.
My own college commencement speaker was the legendary anthropologist, Margaret Mead. She carried a large staff with a chased silver head, and she walked as though she were Helen and our campus was Troy. I am ashamed to admit I cannot recall a word she said.
In the years since, I’ve given and listened to many commencement speeches. Some talked about the path ahead and some talked about the way to success. Some considered the lessons of ancient history and some of popular psychology. But when I got up here today you could see before you that I only have this simple black robe of a B.A. I don’t have a higher degree that I’ve really earned and I don’t know about most of those things but of course the fact is that almost no one knows about any of those things. But I do know about you. And that’s what I want to talk about today—you people. The Class of 2003 and how extraordinary you are.
History is most often written in terms of inventions and events, revolutions, and revolutionary ideas, but it is always really the story of people—the New Deal, the new technology, Cubism, Communism—those are really tales of individuals, of Roosevelt and Gates, Picasso, and Castro. Biography is destiny, often for the whole wide world. Had Hitler been a better painter, ah, that’s a conundrum for the ages. And so I think I can predict with what I think is considerable accuracy, this about the century to come.
It will be remarkable because its history will be shaped and written too by a group of what promise to be truly remarkable human beings. Those human beings are all of you—the members of the Class of 2003 and your cohort. You’re what demographers named the millennials, born between 1975 and 1994, 70 million strong, the biggest bump in our national line graph since most of your parents, the baby boomers. For my money you are a great bunch. My three millennials are just better than I was at their age. They’re more interesting, more confident, less hidebound and up-tight, better educated, more creative, and, in some essential fashion, unafraid.
Now we, your elders, can say with pride that some of that is because of a world we’ve helped create—a rapidly changing world we try every day to embrace. One out of every seven of you is African-American, one out of every seven Latino, and because of that great diversity of population as well as greater openness at school and at home, many of you don’t have the lily-white illusions that colored my insular childhood, nor some of the fears of the other that have poisoned our national discourse for too long. You’ve grown up seeing and believing as a group that women are as capable as men, while at 10 my career choices were either mother or Roman Catholic nun.
Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, the women’s Olympic ice hockey team, and their own mothers have greatly convinced millennials that their world is bounded by their talents and not their gender. And as you have grown to adulthood it has become ever less necessary for gay men and lesbians to follow the old conventions of deception. These are all good things, not only because they satisfy the simple demands of justice, but because tolerance has made all of you as a group more tolerant of yourselves, of the quirks and foibles as individuals’ fingerprints that lead to interesting and even sometimes monumental lives.
Some of you are the first generation children of immigrants, as my mother was. Some are from families that can scarcely imagine any other heritage than the democratic vistas of the United States, whose walls are lined with cap and gown photographs, like my father’s family. Some of you are done with formal education today. Some of you will go on to graduate or professional school, but this, you millennials share: An openness and expansion of spirit that I admire and envy and which is particular to your generation.
A survey several years ago of college freshmen, maybe when you were freshmen yourselves, found that three-quarters of them had done some volunteer work in the past year at schools and hospitals, for charities and at church. The quality those freshmen said they admired most was integrity and the people they admired most were their parents. That’s not the conventional wisdom about your generation, if you read newspapers and magazines. You know even better than I do that often it’s littered with negatives and even horrors. The younger members are said to be spoiled, overindulged by guilty working parents, powered by the tympani of medication and video games. The teenagers are associated in the public mind with lewd music, foul mouths, and one school shooting after another.
And a little bit of that is true, but most of it obscures the truth, particularly if you are lucky enough to know anyone from the millennial generation up close and personal. From one generation to another, elder to younger, the complaint is always the same. You are not like us. Well, this seems more obvious than ever before, looking at you through the long lens of the twentieth century. The seminal event of your youth was one so terrifying, traumatizing, and transformative that I can evoke it in just two numbers: 9/11.
But even before that, you were singularly separate from what had gone before. Born after Watergate, Woodstock, and Vietnam, gas lines and record albums, heirs to the microchip and the cathode ray tube, under pressure from parents who are high achievers or wish they had been, in a world in which seemingly endless choices, good and bad, swirl like flakes in a snow globe. You live a life that the one-size-fits-all generations before you can scarcely imagine. I suspect that you’re going to need this spirit of individual inquiry and self-confidence as you grow along with this country.
Nations have a kind of a trickle-down effect, communicating a macro-sense of how they see themselves to their citizens who internalize that national character as their own. And for more than a hundred years the American identity has been quite simple: we rule. I suppose we’ve been the world equivalent of one of those big foam rubber mitts with the index finger making the number one that people take to football games. It has given this country a national character that sometimes bordered on arrogance and bombast. And that took a beating when we did, in Vietnam, and left the nation fractured and its young people, those of us now in our fifties, dazed and confused. But there’s always been a strange cognitive dissonance in America’s notion of supremacy, and that comes when the idea that we are the biggest, the best, the greatest, trickles down to those who are the poorest, the worst-treated, the beaten-down, the disenfranchised. And the dissonance grows greater when the boom goes bust in this country.
When people used to being not just the haves, but the have-a-whole-lots, find that their bubble has burst. When that happens a nation’s people need more than the sense that they can whup the Iraqi army if they feel the need. They need the authentic, examined self that you as a group have turned towards and embraced far earlier than your elders ever did. For so many years the children of peace and prosperity, your personalities nevertheless made you ready for difficult times even before they arrived. Your core generational belief that there is usually more than one answer for any question is threatening to your elders, raised on “Because I said so.” So is the fact that as a group you’re not all of a piece. The dutiful son has a pierced tongue. The student government president dresses like Morticia Addams. Where once we could identify who was who by the college, the color, the crewneck sweater, now the lines of identity are constantly blurred in our perceptions and in the stages of your life.
We parents didn’t always deal very well with that. Oh, when you were first born, each of you, our great glory was in thinking you absolutely distinct from every baby that had ever been born before. You were a miracle of singularity and we knew it in every fiber of our being. You shouted, “Dog!” You lurched across the playground. You put a scrawl of red paint next to a squiggle of green and we put it on the fridge and said, “Oh, my god, oh, my god, you are a painter, a poet, a prodigy, a genius!” But we are only human. And being a parent is a very difficult job, more difficult than any other, I think, because it is 24/7, because it is unpaid and unrewarded, because it requires the shaping of other people, which is an act of extraordinary hubris. And over the years sometimes we learn to want for you things that you did not necessarily want for yourselves.
We learned to want the lead in the play, the acceptance at our own college, the straight and narrow path that often leads absolutely nowhere. We sometimes learned to suspect and even fear your differences, not to celebrate them. Sometimes we were convinced that conformity would make life better or at least easier for you. Sometimes we had a hard time figuring out where you ended and we began. Continue to guide us back to where we started. Help us not to make mistakes out of fear or out of love. Learn not to listen to us when we are wrong.
Whether you are 24 or 54, begin today to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it really knows is the homogenization of human existence. We need to eschew that way of being today more than ever before, to the extent that we have defined ourselves sometimes in this nation in terms of false gods. We have to turn toward the true because perhaps soon the true will be all we will have. There was once a forward march in this country, ditch digger to cop to lawyer to judge in four generations, that’s how we learned it in Irish households. Our children would do better than we had done. But maybe we’ve topped out and that progression is no longer true. I think in some ways this is a very good thing. Because perhaps we will learn to redefine what doing better really means. After all, it’s hard to escape the notion that we have sometimes become spoiled and a little lost. People who once thought that TV was a miracle now feel impoverished if there isn’t one in every room, then wonder why their kids don’t read more.
Twenty years ago we’d never heard of the Internet. Ten years ago most of us had never gone online and today we go ballistic if we can’t sign on in seconds. You millennials, bombarded by a culture that sends you so many divergent messages—to wear khakis, to smoke cigarettes, to live clean, to drink Bud, to take jobs your parents hate, to pierce your navels, to dye your hair, to have casual sex but seek enduring love—have had to puzzle out for yourselves what truly has meaning. That is disconcerting, difficult, and wonderful. Socratic is better than rote. Discussion teaches more than dictums and paths set in stone are, as we’ve discovered, often rocky when we move along them. By giving us a model of individuality, tolerance, adventure, and risk-taking you have already taught us a good deal about living fulfilled in the future. You’re the bungee-jumping generation.
We could never do it ourselves, but our hearts leap and our adrenaline rises at the sight of all of you, arms outstretched, poised to do—what? Something great. Camus wrote: “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” So: Follow Camus, go. Party hearty. Sleep late. Work hard. Love someone better than yourself. Give all to the present, and the future will take care of itself. The future has already done so, I am convinced, because I look out at all of you today and I see the future, and it looks so good.
One quote more: Samuel Butler once said, “Life is like playing a violin in solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.” That sounds terrifying, doesn’t it, and difficult too. But somehow you have always known that that way lies music. Look in the mirror tonight. Who is that man? Who is that woman? She is the work of your life. He is its greatest glory, not some out there, they, view of what he or she ought to be. I know you will not dare to diss them by dressing them up in someone else’s spiritual clothing. So pick up your violin and lift your bow and play, play your heart out, live well, because you are our role models.