by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that "individuality" is the key to success.".... ...Robert Orben.
Commentary of the Day - June 20, 2006: Entitlement (A Commencement Address). Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).
Poor Elijah's annual commencement address is a tranquil affair. This is because he delivers his remarks in his living room, and we're usually the only two people there. Nobody barks like Arsenio Hall, nobody sets off air horns when their kid's name gets called, and the iced coffee is on the house. Feel free to join us. He's just getting started.
* * *
I attended a high school graduation last June.
I've almost recovered.
Actually, I think I attended a high school graduation. It might've been a telethon or a public radio fundraiser. Mostly what I remember are phones ringing, although very few really ring anymore. That's because we live in the age of cell phones, and we have many optional features. We no longer count ourselves lucky because it's only six weeks to the New World, or the mail comes everyday, or there's a phone in the kitchen. Now we're all so important that we need to remain in constant radio contact, presumably just in case somebody wants the nuclear launch codes.
A young woman four seats down took advantage of the principal's welcome to call her boyfriend to tell him she'd found his pants. No, the green pants. Moments later she redialed to add that she'd also found his hat. Then she called her mother to report the weather. Four times, on the eights. In the middle she phoned someone else to complain about her phone plan.
The grandmother behind me carried on a running conversation while the choir sang. At first I thought maybe she just didn't realize there was a song in progress. I could barely hear it myself on account of all the commotion. That was until she interrupted her monologue, but only for a moment, to inform the other party, "Oh, the choir is singing." She then continued with complete aplomb, except now that she realized the choir was performing she spoke louder.
I missed the salutatorian's speech when the clan in front of me arrived late. Their seats were empty because somebody's cousin had strategically placed handbags, programs, and sections of The New York Times on a dozen "saved' chairs, but instead of just blushing a little and silently filing in, they stood there for five minutes and argued about who was sitting where.
It was shortly after I got hit in the head with the second balloon that I realized there was a dog under my seat. I like dogs, though I have to admit I've never accompanied one to a commencement ceremony. This was apparently the dog's first time, too, and while he behaved considerably better than many of the humans in attendance, he was restless. Maybe he couldn't hear the choir either. Anyway, to keep him occupied the alleged adults sitting next to the grandmother suggested that their four-year-old engage the dog in a tug-of-war.
The dog won most of the time. I know this because both combatants remained under my chair for entire contest.
It didn't completely surprise me that a four-year-old wouldn't realize that a graduation ceremony isn't the same as day camp or Monday night wrestling. His unruliness and self obsession were annoying and inappropriate, but the more worrisome problem was that his adults encouraged him to be unruly and self-obsessed.
This is how people grow up believing they're the center of the universe. The trouble with thinking that way isn't just that it makes life difficult for other people around you. The danger lies in the fact that it isn't true. None of us is the center of the universe, and the universe has a way of sooner or later making that plain.
I'm afraid schools have had a hand in promoting the delusion, and I'm afraid many of you are its victims. We've taught you to glory in self-expression while we've disdained troubling you with the tedious details like spelling, punctuation, and grammar that make clear expression possible. We've so inflated your grades and your self-esteem that they far exceed your achievements and abilities. American students, for instance, are more confident and comfortable with their math skills and prowess than their international peers, even though their actual math skills and prowess don't rank anywhere near the top of the international heap.
We've inaugurated an era of guaranteed student success, regardless of ability or effort, an absurdity that should make us blush but that somehow still undergirds education mission statements and public policy. We've tolerated disruptive, even criminal behavior in our schools in a perversion of compassion. We've bent so far over backwards to be open minded that we've swallowed nonsense whole.
We've magnified your rights and minimized your responsibilities, and many of the responsibilities we have given you, like directing your education and governing your classrooms, should have remained ours. We've abdicated our duties as adults, handed them off to children, and called it empowerment.
We've taught you the religion of entitlement, that all good things are due you, and that if you lack them, it's the fault of whoever was supposed to give them to you. It isn't true. We own few unalienable rights, and even those are ours only through Providence and the good will of others. Charity means giving even though it's not required, and gratitude means understanding that nobody owed you what you just received. Entitlement has deposed both and left us graceless.
It isn't too late to rediscover the virtues of the ages. It isn't too late to correct our course, as long as you don't confuse what's easy with what's necessary.
Humility is waiting in the mirror.
Honor and truth are a moment away.
Perseverance is simply a procession of those moments.
© 2006 Peter Berger..
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.
The IP comments: Well said Peter!