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Jewish World Review
June 18, 2012/ 28 Sivan, 5772
You're nothing special: Luck is what you make of it . . . and what it makes of you
The commencement season is over and -- who would have guessed it? -- the two most interesting speeches to graduates were delivered within 11 miles of each other.
Over the years there have been hundreds of thousands of such speeches, ranging from the cloying and forgettable to the historic and immortal. I don't remember a word of the speeches at my high school graduation, and all that I remember from my college graduation is that Arthur Fiedler got an honorary degree. There was a time when everyone knew his name; today he's remembered, if at all, as a distant relative of quarterback Jay Fiedler, who actually earned his degree from the very same college.
Two honorary-degree addresses changed the world. The first was Winston Churchill's speech at tiny Westminster College in Missouri in 1946 -- not a commencement speech, but Churchill was given a Westminster degree to match his degree of indispensability in another Westminster. We remember his remarks for the grim warning that an iron curtain was descending from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.
Then, just a year later, came Secretary of State George C. Marshall's speech at Harvard, setting forth what became known as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, which Churchill would call the "most unselfish act by any great power in history." It wasn't exactly selfless -- the United States had a great stake in a stable Europe -- but it was America at its grandest and most generous.
Three others have claims on greatness.
There was Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech to the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, when he sent his transcendental notions into full battle against the strain of Unitarianism that then prevailed at Harvard.
There was Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 exhortation at Dartmouth against book-burning, a speech about open societies and open minds.
And there was the unforgettable speech the columnist Art Buchwald gave at Vassar in 1975, though I sigh in sad recognition that Buchwald is today also forgotten. He told the graduates, "We, the older generation, have given you kids a perfect world. Don't louse it up!"
But what really deserves remembrance are his reminiscences of a poor boy who once thought Vassar women, in their Angora sweaters and plaid skirts, were beyond his reach, and not only because he was short and they wore shiny heels. He'd see them in the Biltmore lobby and would fantasize that one of those "Scarsdale goddesses," as he called them, would bicker with her Ivy League boyfriend, throw her corsage in his face and "come up to me and ask her to take me to the Stork Club ... with her money."
In many ways the two great graduation addresses from 2012 measure up, for they speak to our time -- and to the breezy sense of entitlement and achievement that so many young people, and their parents, have.
Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests ... despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you ... you're nothing special.
These are the remarks of a remarkable English teacher at Wellesley High in Massachusetts, David McCullough Jr., who was pilloried, needlessly and thoughtlessly, for suggesting his young charges were not so extraordinary. They're not.
Mr. McCullough then delivered some advice quite at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, comments that bear repeating here and, indeed, deserve repetition every year to those going forth from favored circumstances:
Be worthy of your advantages. And read... read all the time... read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.
Mr. McCullough was not the only person to share that theme this spring. Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust spoke of "the updraft of inexplicable luck" in her baccalaureate speech.
No matter how hard we have worked or how many obstacles we have overcome, we are all here in some measure through no cause of our own. It started for most of us by being born into ... the small fraction of the Earth's population that receives the benefits of fossil fuels. After we passed through that lucky portal there were others. Our parents, our schools, our friends, our health, financial aid, a Maurice Sendak book. Predecessors who fought for access to education. Someone who plucked us up out of nowhere and guided us, or a random event that turned our heads, or moved our hearts.
In their hearts and in our hearts we know that they, and many of us, were propelled to college or to lofty positions and ennobled job titles mostly by luck -- perhaps the luck of birth, probably the luck of mentors, almost certainly the luck of being born into a century that needed our skills and in a country that rewarded them.
(My particular skill is the ability to write a little essay at 1,050 words, printed with a petroleum byproduct on paper and then delivered by petroleum-fueled truck to households in my home city. It is not art, and most of the time it is not even artful. Had I come of age in a decade, like the next one almost certainly will be, that does not reward that, I might be indigent. The writer and reader of this column were lucky. The beginning of knowledge is understanding that.)
But for all the luck Harvard graduates possess, consider how lucky they were to have sat in Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass., to hear another lieutenant of the legion of luck, President Faust, deliver these sobering words:
But the problem is that over time, opportunity can come to seem like an entitlement, ours because we deserve it. We cease to recognize the role of serendipity, and we risk forgetting the sense of obligation that derives from understanding that things might have been otherwise. If, as every Harvard undergraduate knows, love is about never having to say you're sorry, then luck is about never taking anything for granted.
Commencement is over, life is beginning, luck isn't eternal. Nor is it sustaining. Mr. McCullough was right. We're not special, almost none of us. And President Faust was right, too. Almost all of us have special opportunities and special responsibilities. Life consists of what we do with them.
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David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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05/21/12 Inside out: Almost nothing about this year's presidential election conforms to conventional analysis
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05/07/12 50 years later, MacArthur's farewell to arms continues to inspire
04/30/12 The likability factor: We're going to find out how important it is in these troubled times
04/23/12 Romney's four battles: With the nomination essentially in hand, he must turn to new challenges
04/16/12 For GOPers, expect the frustration to build, not abate
04/09/12 The political battles you cannot see
04/02/12 Romney's roadmap: Doing better in Democratic states may complicate his fall campaign
03/26/12 Romney struggles with same GOP forces his father faced long ago
03/19/12 The writer and the president
03/12/12 Romney could learn from his rivals after Super Tuesday
03/05/12 The GOP race continues, and Republicans continue to grouse about their choices
02/27/12 The turnout threat: when voters vamoose
02/20/12 The Winter's Tale: Republicans are engaged in a 'problem play,' full of psychological, and real, drama
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02/08/12 A tale of two elections: Voters today are making their most profound choice since 1912
01/30/12 Whither the GOP establishment?
01/23/12 The Democratic coalition is breaking up
01/09/12 The verdict that wasn't
01/02/12 These are the keys to who will persist
12/19/11 Another Gingrich rebellion
12/12/11 A defining fight for the GOP
12/05/11 A distinct lack of enthusiasm
11/28/11 For GOPers, the winds are beginning to pick up, the horizon is darkening
11/21/11 Today's polarized politics . . . blame FDR and the political scientists
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11/07/11 Ron Paul, true believer
10/31/11 Why Cain isn't able
10/10/11 GOP starting over
10/03/11 The Forgotten War of 1812
09/26/11 The way we live now
09/19/11 The crisis this time
09/11/11 But what will it mean?
09/05/11 A horse race column: Who might win the GOP nomination and how it might unfold
08/29/11 The vacuum calls
08/22/11 Passion and politics: How Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got crowded into the same dangerous corner
08/15/11 Eleanor's little village
08/08/11 The agony of August
08/01/11 The politics of the impossible: What a country this might be if the political class served the broad interests of the majority
07/25/11 Pennant fever grips 'Burgh
07/18/11 Exemplar of an era
07/11/11 On summer
07/04/11 The soul of the party
06/27/11 What the Secretary said
06/20/11 Romney has big advantages over his rivals, but they will be coming after him
06/06/11 One question each
05/30/11 The 14-week challenge
05/23/11 Delay tactics
05/16/11 Republicans are waiting
05/09/11 Bin Laden is dead. What does it mean?
05/02/11 From nobodies to nominees
04/25/11 The founders left slavery for future generations to settle, and we still haven't fully come to terms with it
04/18/11 From audacious to cautious
04/11/11 Dreaming of space
12/12/10 The GOP takes control
12/06/10 DECEMBER 7
11/29/10 GOP presidential hopefuls already are lining up local supporters in what is now a red state
11/22/10 Burning down the House
11/15/10 Institutions of higher learning are finally beginning to teach important lifeskills
11/04/10 The war has just begun
11/01/10 Echoes of a speech 40 years ago this week still resonate today
10/25/10 50 years ago America chose between two men who were dramatically different --- and eerily similar
© 2011, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Universal Uclick, as agent for UFS.
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