25 Jun

To SOU graduates: Congratulations, despite everything

My Southern Oregon University commencement speech, June 14, 2014:

My favorite commencement speech was given 20 years ago by another newspaper columnist, Art Buchwald of The Washington Post, who looked out over the graduates and said, “We, the older generation, have given you a perfect world. Don’t screw it up.”

Possibly some of his listeners didn’t quite believe him, and maybe some of you would find it hard to believe, too. As we both know, you’re coming out of here with the burden of paying for both your student loans and my Social Security.

And it’s hard to say that the state of Oregon has been as helpful to you as it might have been. Those of you who came up in the Oregon public school system, starting your educational careers in the 1990s, have seen cuts and tightenings in just about all of your school years. It may be hard to believe, but there are schools in this country that don’t feature overflow seating on the classroom radiator, and that don’t charge students a user fee for using the multiplication table.

And I don’t need to tell you about how Oregon supports, or rather doesn’t support, its higher education system. Oregon is 47th in the country in support of higher education, and if there were more states, Oregon would be lower. In particular, nobody has to tell graduates of Southern Oregon University about the state’s curious policy of investing less and expecting more.

Then there was the national inspiration, over the past two decades, of a great new idea for dealing with the exploding costs of higher education: We’ll charge the students for it, and they can just borrow to pay their tuition. Not only was this strategy an abandonment of a centuries-long tradition of generational responsibility – previously, each generation took on the obligation of educating the next one, back to when educating the next generation meant demonstrating just how to hunt a mastodon – but it’s left us with a trillion-dollar dead hand of student debt lying on the back of our economy.

Economic projections say that current college graduates will be able to buy a house just about the time they will no longer need one, because their kids will be leaving for college.

But despite all that, here you are, college graduates. And despite all that, it’s still a promising and hopeful place to be.

People talk about the benefits of countries having the advantages of petroleum, or diamonds, or access to the sea – although any time now, global warming could give the sea access to a lot more countries. But the only real enduring resource, the only thing that can change the world and reinvent how people live, is the creativity, imagination and drive of a rising generation.

If you don’t believe me, you can look it up on your smart phones.

The Stone Age didn’t end because humanity ran out of stones. The great asset of Silicon Valley is not silicon. The key element is always people. The world is always changed by people too young to know how hard it is to change the world.

We know we got out of the Stone Age due to young people, because back then people didn’t live to be old. We know that Silicon Valley is driven by people barely old enough to sign their billion-dollar contracts, because we’ve seen the movie.

Not all that long ago, when you folks began your educational careers, people would send important documents to each other by fax; now I think any remaining fax machines are used as toasters. Back then, you couldn’t even get vodka in marshmallow flavor, although hopefully as elementary school students you didn’t try.

And at that point, gay people could not get married in any state in the Union. That is changing – that has changed – not because huge numbers of 60-year-olds changed their minds, but because society felt the approach of a vast demographic wave of a younger generation who thought that treating gay people as less than people was wrong and stupid.

Not too long ago, change happened over decades. In your time, in the time you’re coming into, change happens in a blink, creating constant new possibilities. If you’ve learned anything from going to college 15 miles from California, you should have learned that.

Personally, I come from the other side of the state, across the river from Washington, where on a clear day you can see Microsoft. I bring you greetings from Portlandia, where, allegedly, young people go to retire. Smart people in their twenties come to Portland whether they have a job or not, giving us the world’s best-educated bicycle messengers and baristas. We pride ourselves on our farmers’ markets, where at virtually any time of the year, you can buy an artichoke grown by a liberal arts major.

Yes, there is a joke here. But in the long run, the joke will not be on Portland. Those young people are Portland’s secret weapon for the 21st century, especially if they’ve been careful about their tattoos.

I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do, or what you’re going to do. I didn’t foresee the iPad or the caramel Frappuccino or the career of Lady Gaga either, but they were all acts of imagination that changed things and created vast new possibilities.

I didn’t even foresee my own career. I went to college planning to become a lawyer; I left college on track to become a college professor. (My mother didn’t speak to me that entire summer.) After three years as a professor, I left to become a writer, with the strong encouragement of the college where I had been teaching. It took a while, but it turned out all right. As a writer named C.P. Snow once said, what you end up with is the best indication of what you wanted all along.

I do have to warn you that whatever happens in the Oregon elections this November, there won’t be room in the marijuana business for all of you.

Even the largest demographic cloud in your sky, all of us baby boomers, will clear up fairly soon. Thomas Jefferson once said about the Federalist judges named by his predecessor, “Few die and none resign.” I suspect that some of you, and the generation before you, have the same feeling about Baby Boomers. But honest, we won’t be around forever, as much as we like to delude ourselves that we will. Eventually, our Beatles records will wear out, and our 1960s jeans will cut off our circulation.

And even if we do plan to hang around for a long and expensive physical deterioration, Boomers will soon no longer be the people making things happen in this society. Millennials like you, who soon will be running the place, will be a smaller proportion of the population than we baby boomers were, making each one of you more valuable.

I understand the difficulty of coming out of college into this economy. I have a basement that was occupied for years by my college graduate sons.

Don’t worry; they did move out.

I say that to reassure you graduates, but even more to reassure you parents.

As you may have noticed, you’re not coming out of college into the easiest situation. We still don’t have the strongest economy, and many of you are coming out of here with debt burdens suggesting that you have secretly purchased a Mercedes.

Investment in you by our state and society has been unfairly low, and the immediate demands and expectations of you are unfairly high. But you are the only real resource for any society, and the demand for you will be even bigger than the demands on you.

That may be part of why recent surveys have found that despite all of young Americans’ burdens and discouragements, you are the most optimistic generation out there.

By the time you come back here for your twentieth reunion – and whatever you may be thinking these days, Southern Oregon University will still be here – the world will have been reinvented several times, and you will be the people to reinvent it.

As you may have noticed, you’re not being given a perfect world. But you are getting one that can turn on a dime, that’s endlessly improvable, and one that only you can improve – and that might actually improve you.

And I’m absolutely certain you will astonish us.