The following was adapted from a commencement speech delivered to the Independent Concentrators of Brown University at their diploma ceremony on Sunday, May 25, 2014, in Providence, Rhode Island. Miriam Markowitz is deputy literary editor of The Nation.
Standing here, looking at you today, I am in awe. Not of your accomplishments, which I believe are many, or your character, which I’ve no doubt is stalwart and true, but at the thing I can see with my own eyes: your youth.
Seriously, I’m impressed. Which can only mean one thing: I’m old.
I mean, not that old, just a decade further along than you lot. But at 32, a few centuries ago I’d be middle-aged, or older. Maybe close to dead. Now that 30 is the new 20—or something like that, I don’t know—there’s a lot of confusion these days about whom we consider “adults” and who are “just kids.” So let’s say, for now, that because I am standing at this lectern, having been asked to dispense some words of wisdom about life going forward, that I am an adult. And I am going to do one of the things adults like doing best: I’m going to talk at you.
By that I mean I’m going to tell you a story, and I’m hoping that it won’t be a boring one. It isn’t supposed to be, according to conventional wisdom, because it’s a story about what many adults would say is your favorite subject: yourselves.
Right? You’ve heard this story before, because people love to tell it. The Millennials, or Generation Y, or whatever they’ve decided to call you—us actually: I’m at the tail end of 1981, so I just barely made the cut—you believe the world revolves around you. You’re ignorant, lazy and entitled. You don’t want to work hard, like your elders did, and you don’t value their wisdom or respect their authority. You—we—are a generation of selfish, mollycoddled, narcissistic brats.
Of course you know this story. You’ve seen it on TV and read it in the Style section of The New York Times and heard it repeated incessantly by those elders and betters, the adults. So I imagine it’s pretty familiar to you by now; you might even half believe it. But the thing about this story is that it’s a load of crap.
I’m serious. It isn’t just a lousy, clichéd and reductive story, without richness or nuance, but a lie. It’s a bad little bite of conventional wisdom, one that’s hijacked the narrative of what’s really happening in the world today. It’s pernicious and even profane. Please believe me when I tell you that it is only because this story is so wrong, and so dangerous, that I would speak of it to you here of all places, on this of all days.
Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but more fundamentally, it is received. It is information we are expected to believe because newspapers of record and experts in their fields tell us it is so. Conventional wisdom would prefer you learned your lessons without thinking too hard about what they mean. And to disrupt its conventions is to become, at best, a pain, and worse, to varying degrees, an egotist, an iconoclast, even a miscreant. Not just garden-variety uppity and obnoxious, but potentially a threat.