Commencement at the University of Virginia. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Megan Lovett)
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Here may be the most commonplace sentence anyone could write about graduation day in any year: when I think back to my own graduation in 1966, an eon, a lifetime, a world ago, I have no memory of who addressed us. None. I have a little packet of photos of the event: shots of my parents and me, my grandmother and me, my aunt and me, my former roommates and me, my friends and me. You can even see the chairs for the ceremony. But not the speaker. And yet it’s odds on that he—and in 1966, it was surely a “he”—made some effort to usher me into the American world, offering me, as a member of a new generation, words of wisdom and some advice. You know, the usual thing that no one pays much attention to or ever remembers.
Here, on the other hand, is my most vivid memory of that day. I reserved a room at a local motel for my parents the night before the graduation ceremony. As it happened, I had reserved the same room the previous night for my girlfriend and me (and conveniently not paid for it). When, on the morning of graduation, I picked my parents up and my father went to pay, the hotel clerk charged him for both nights, winked and said something suggestive.
It was, believe me, a humiliatingly uncomfortable moment. Despite what you’ve heard about the 1960s, this wasn’t acceptable behavior. I wonder what was in my mind then? Was I really incapable at the time of thinking twenty-four hours ahead? Or was I simply out to rile my parents up? At this distance, who knows? I may not even have known then, since our motivations tend to be far more mysterious, even to us, than we like to think.
In any case, on this sun-dappled afternoon forty-seven years later, standing here before you, the class of 2013, I have little doubt that not much has changed when it comes to graduations. As your last experience here, your final moment, you’ve been guaranteed the same regurgitation of “wisdom,” passed on from those who supposedly know to those who supposedly don’t. So, as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut might once have said, it goes. Or every now and then, it doesn’t.
I could certainly tell you what a mess this world of ours is in. It’s my stock in trade at the website I run, TomDispatch.com, and from wars to eco-catastrophe, this is the country and the planet that just keeps on giving when it comes to a publication like mine. But I already know that, like me all those years ago, you won't remember what I say. You’ll have your equivalent of that motel room, something more immediate on your mind. So let me make a suggestion. Take out your iPhone. Text a friend at a graduation ceremony elsewhere. Chat with your relatives. Shoot video of your classmates. Check out your favorite websites. If you’re a pioneer with access, put on those Google glasses. Amuse yourself.
Graduating the Class of 1966
In the meantime, let me address a group with far less time than you, but perhaps a longer attention span at this particular moment. I’m talking about your grandparents sitting here with you today. Or to make things simpler, let me just speak directly to my own cohort.
Class of 1966, it’s my feeling that all of us post-post-docs of life need a graduation speech that will usher us back into our world for one last round of action and activity. After all, we have two obvious things going for us. We’re living longer, so no one should write us off quite yet and we’re the generation for whom, briefly, the American world seemed to split open back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among other things, we saw into a certain heart of imperial darkness in those Vietnam years, so that nothing after, not Abu Ghraib, nor CIA torture, nor drone assassinations, nothing could truly be news to us when it came to the American way of war.