Updated: June 10, 2012 8:05AM
Let the commencement addresses begin. Of course, if college graduates are not being encouraged by a speaker to pursue their dreams, it’s probably because they are being told to “chart their own course” or “find their passion” instead. Such are the mainstays of modern American culture, you see.
Case in point: Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple, gave the commencement address to the graduating class at Stanford University in 2005. Even before his cancer death in 2011, it was heralded by Time magazine as one of the Top 10 great college-commencement addresses ever given. Jobs talked about his experience with cancer, first thinking after he was diagnosed that he would swiftly succumb to it, then being told it was curable. He said:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. ... And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. ... Everything else is secondary.”
Earlier in the address, he had said:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
I admired Jobs and love my Mac products as much as the next person. He was clearly a person of integrity who also lived and thought outside the box. But throughout this speech, Jobs was almost an avatar for the extreme individualism that has come to rule our age and, I would argue, leads to misery more than contentment.
After all, building on other people’s thinking is generally what gives us civilization. By the way, sometimes our work isn’t “great” in a worldly sense, even to us. Often we don’t love it. But maybe in doing it to provide for a family we are putting others ahead of ourselves or tying ourselves to our communities. I happen to think that’s not just settling. In this “all about me” age, it’s heroic.
A generation earlier, President Ronald Reagan gave a very different speech, to the graduates of Notre Dame. It was 1981 and Reagan, too, had had a near-death experience, an assassination attempt just weeks earlier. Funny, but I couldn’t find his talk on a Time Top-10 list even though it was in that speech that Reagan famously, and presciently, said that the West would not defeat communism, but would transcend it. (For which he was mocked at the time.)
Far from extolling radical individualism, which has never been a conservative tenet, he talked about the sacrifices of America’s founders, and how they had created something unique in human history:
“My hope today is that in the years to come — and come it shall — when it’s your time to explain to another generation the meaning of the past and thereby hold out to them their promise of the future, that you’ll recall the truths and traditions of which we’ve spoken. It is these truths and traditions that define our civilization and make up our national heritage. And now, they’re yours to protect and pass on.”
“I have one more hope for you: When you do speak to the next generation about these things, that you will always be able to speak of an America that is strong and free, to find in your hearts an unbounded pride in this much-loved country, this once and future land, this bright and hopeful nation whose generous spirit and great ideals the world still honors.”
Reagan sought to help the graduates he was addressing understand that their significance came not from a notion of radical self, but from the link they were in the long chain of civilization itself.
This May, graduates will most likely hear from commencement speakers observations very much along the lines of Steve Jobs’ famous words. But I think today’s graduates would be better served by being reminded of Ronald Reagan’s less-exalted sensibilities.