I have been away in California for awhile and so did not post for almost two weeks. We spent three days with family in Los Angeles and then went up the coast to Santa Barbara , Solvang, Big Sur and Monterey before striking out across the Central Valley to Yosemite National Park. A wonderful, wonderful trip and it all began with attending our nephew’s graduation at Harvey Mudd College in Duarte just outside of Los Angeles.
Harvey Mudd is a small engineering college , one of the Claremont Group of Colleges ( along with Pomona, Claremont-McKenna, Scripps and Pfitzer). It is an exclusive college with high admission standards and a challenging curriculum . The total enrollment at Mudd is only about 800 and the entire graduating class of 2009 consisted of just 170 students. The commencement exercises took place outdoors under a huge , white , opensided tent in the California sunshine.
Sitting there along with other parents and relatives on a golden California day, I reflected on how much I love attending such events . I enjoy a commencement even more than I do a wedding. Both weddings and commencements mark the start of a new phase of life but many, many more people are affected by a commencement.It’s not just those who are about to graduate and begin their careers .There are also all the parents who made it possible, the relatives who are there to share in the joy, and the professors for whom it must be a bitter-sweet moment as they see their charges about to venture out on their own. I love to peek at the faces of the family members and see the look of love and pride as the students file in and take their seats. In not a few cases, it is apparent that the grad-to-be is the first in his family to attend college and is a shining example for his younger cousins to emulate. The grads themselves are a very interesting lot and even though they are all dressed in ceremonial robes they manage to add individual touches. Some wear leis around their necks, others have messages written on top of their mortarboards. At Mudd, most of the grads to be wore highly polished dress shoes, some were clad sneakers or sandals and one free spirit chose to come barefoot! They exhibited a wide variety of emotions as they received their diplomas. Most were solemn and dignified, some exuberant and one threw up his arms and let out a Tarzan yell as he walked off the stage.
Some people may feel that the ceremony , the traditional robes, the custom of the newly minted grads turning around the tassels on their mortarboards after they have received their diplomas is antiquated and unnecessary.I don’t agree. All these little touches and rituals invest the occasion with a solemnity befitting one of the important passages of a young person’s life. Without them, the whole exercise might be more efficient but it would not be as meaningful or memorable.
There are some who find the commencement speeches boring . Not me. I find them interesting and , sometimes, exhilarating. It is true , as Meghan Daum writes in the Los Angeles Times , that many commencement addresses are ” heavy on motivational sanctimony” and filled with platitudes. Among the examples she offers :
” This really is your moment. History is yours to bend.” ( Joe Biden @ Wake Forest University)
” You really haven’t completed the circle of success unless you can help somebody else move forward.” ( Oprah Winfrey @ Duke University)
” There is no way to stop change ;change will come. Go out and give us a future worthy of the world we all wish to create together.” ( Hilary Clinton @ New York University).
Big name speakers are not a guarantee of memorable commencement speeches. When my son graduated from Wharton six years ago, the speaker was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who unfortunately chose to delve into politics and a criticism of U.S foreign policy before a closing exhortation to the graduates to usher in a new world. This day should have been all about the graduating seniors, a day of joy and hope, a day of recognition of the sacrifices that people had made to reach that moment. Instead, it was politics as usual and it was deflating.Archbishop Tutu was completely overshadowed by the previous speaker , a Japanese lady whose name I forget. She had spent more than twenty years tackling refugee problems all over the world and , listening to her, it was apparent that she had walked the walk, that she was not merely spouting platitudes. Without pontificating, she evoked in her listeners a sense of what they could achieve if they put their mind to it.
Sometimes, speakers tend to forget the students and get too wrapped up in their bombast. I remember attending my nephew’s high school graduation four years ago. The commencement address was given by a senior teacher and it was based on some obscure and exceedingly dark poem which he quoted from at great length. It had something to do with a group of black clad creatures ( teachers?)cutting open the skulls and altering the brains of people ( students?). It was somber, gloomy , creepy and, to me , not at all appropriate for what was a joyous occasion.
Luckily, the Commencement address at Harvey Mudd 2009 was given by the inventor and engineering genius , Dean Kamen . It was wonderful. It was everything such an address should be : meaningful but not sanctimonious, fresh not cliched,laced with humor,full of hope and possibilities for the future. Kamen is known to the public as the inventor of the Segway human transporter which did not quite live up to it’s hype but he has a number of other inventions to his credit: a portable insulin pump, an all-terrain prototype wheelchair ( iBot), a water purification system etc. Not for nothing is he called the modern Edison.A passionate advocate of science , Dean Kamen is also the founder of FIRST ( For the Inspiration and Recognition of Technology).
Kamen began his address by giving us an overview of his background and how happy he was to be invited to speak at Mudd. While acknowledging that the world was in a heap of trouble , he said that there would be a need for big, fundamental changes. He urged students to be optimistic about the future and to see themselves as agents for change. Declaring that the era of financial engineering was over, he said there was a need for true engineering solutions and that it would be easier to implement innovative ideas than ever before in a world that was desperate for them.He closed by offering one hundred tips for success. First , he said , find something that you are passionate about and work hard at it. Second,don’t give up even when you hit a roadblock. The other ninety-eight tips , he continued, don’t matter as long as you follow the first two.
Reading what I’ve just written doesn’t do justice to the speech. The synopsis makes it sound trite but it was not. Its appeal lay in the passion and conviction which it was delivered. Listening to Kamen speak, you knew that he meant every word of what he was saying and that he himself was engaged in the sort of dedicated life that he was recommending to students.I know I was moved and I think the students were too.
In her L.A Times article, Meghan Daum is quite negative about commencement addresses likening them to wedding toasts. She imagines that students listening to them are thinking about how hot and uncomfortable it is under their graduation robes, bothered by their too tight shoes, wondering about how soon the ceremonies will end so that they can text their friends and go out and get drunk. These are the cogitations of a newspaper reporter taking a dispassionate, even cynical, view of things. No doubt some students may have such feelings but , in later years, they will have forgotten such trivia.What they will remember when they think back to this day , the culmination of their college career, is the joy and pleasure of one of the great days of their lives and perhaps a whiff of nostalgia for the carefree days of their youth. And perhaps, just perhaps, one or more of those who listened , really listened to Dean Kamen’s speech will take his words to heart and go on to make a real difference in the world.