The Common Good – Commencement Address 2013

Here is the transcript of a speech I delivered on the occasion of the graduation of the Marin Academy class of 2013.  The venue was a gym, and the event was a luncheon offered by the parent association for the entire faculty and staff and the senior class.

Let’s begin with a poem.  This is The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

The one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life? 

Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation – this opportunity – to bend your ear for a few minutes on this, the eve of your commencement.  Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about: commencement.

It is an odd term, isn’t it, for a time that feels so much like things ending.  But that’s what we call it.  Commencement.  As in the beginning.  The starting point.  As in, something commences tomorrow.  But what?  What begins for you tomorrow?  Do you know?  Have you wondered?  Have you made plans?  Like, now what?  High school is over.  What are you supposed to do now?  Go on to college?  Maybe.  But college isn’t a mission.  It’s a place.  Right?  It is not a thing to do.  It is a place to do something.  But what?  Well, I want to suggest something here today, and I want to ask that you think about it.

But first, we need to consider that in order to know what you should do next, you have to know what you have been doing so far.  Because it is connected. 

So, think for a moment about what you have been doing here for four years.  For four years – I mean, actually for quite a bit longer, but let’s just consider high school for the time being – for four years, at least, you have been reading and writing and studying and thinking.  You have been speaking and listening.  You have been passing tests and completing projects and turning in assignments.  You have been performing and competing and honing your skills and constantly striving for more.  Thinking, questioning, and creating.  You have been learning every day here for four years.  But, why?  Why have you been doing that?  To what end?  What has been the point?

Was it to pass the test?  No.  If that were the point, there was an easier way.  Was it to get into college?  No.  We already talked about that – college is not a point, it’s a place.  Was it to fill up your permanent record with the first letter of the alphabet?  No.  That’s a means to an end, but not an end in itself.

Was it to guarantee yourself a paycheck later in life?  Maybe.  And here is where it gets interesting.  Actually, money is a fine objective.  You know the old saying that money doesn’t buy happiness?  It is not true.  Turns out, up to about $75,000.00 a year in salary (averaged nationwide, it is a bit more here in Marin), money buys happiness.  It does.  No question.  Above that, across the spectrum, it doesn’t seem to make much difference in degree of happiness.  But if you have been doing all this learning so that you can go on, get a good job with full pay and be okay, there is nothing wrong with that.  Just realize that money is not your objective.  Happiness is.  You, like everyone else on the planet, want to be happy.  And I expect that comes as a relief.  Doesn’t it?  I mean, your are not in it for the money.  You are in it for the joy.  For happiness.  Just like everyone else.  And that is why I want to suggest a greater mission, a higher purpose, and a larger context. 

The common good.  The common good

Not personal gain.  Not to get ahead.  If someone is ahead, lots of folks are behind.  I submit that your education, like every system of education, anywhere, ever, is intended to serve the common good.  Education, as a system, is supposed to raise the quality of life of people.  And I am not just talking about the 1%.  I am talking about the 100%.  Everyone.  We all want to be happy and we all have the same claim to that desire.  And reading and writing and studying and thinking should help us satisfy that desire. 

Okay.  So, if the purpose of your education – and by that I mean the toil, the tests and projects and papers, the thinking, the questioning, the creating – if the point of all that is to raise the quality of life of all people, then what?  How does one put one’s education to use?  And that is the main question to ask at this juncture.  How can I be useful?

The simple answer is that you find a need and fill it.

So, if you want to know what is commencing for you and what you are supposed to do now that high school is over, just ask yourself, “How do I put my education to use for the common good?”  And not just for myself – or for people like me – or for my investors.  Right?  But for the common good.

Because when you think about it, one way or another today, we all live downstream. 

There are 7 billion people here.  Resources are finite.  It is a closed system for matter.  When the climate changes, it changes for everyone.  We all live downstream.  And climate change is not the only crisis we are facing.  Right?  We have real, live problems in the world and plenty of opportunity to fill a need and get involved.  The planetary population explosion.  The problem of war and global militarism. Pandemics and disease.  Human rights abuses.  Poverty.  The global bacon shortage. 

(Yeah, look into it.  It’s a pretty big deal.)

Look.  My message is not about doomsday.  My message is about the common good. 

And the need we all have to be useful and not just to ourselves.  The time of providing solely for yourself, of amassing a personal fortune and that being called success, is over.  We are all connected.  And there is no benefit for one without an attendant effect on someone else.  With all due respect to Joseph Campbell and Hippocrates, gone are the days of blissfully following your bliss and doing no harm. 

Harm is being done.  The old school educator, Horace Mann, put it well.  He said, Be ashamed to die before you have won a victory for humanity.  Ashamed to die before you have won a victory for humanity.  A little morbid, maybe, but it certainly raises the bar.  Doesn’t it?  And I don’t think your victories have to be grand.  They can be small.  Local.  Because there are a lot of us here and we can all contribute.  But they have to be victories for humanity and not solely the self.

The only question to ask now in going forward with your education is, What good can I do with what I know and for whom?  Because, you know, you are all really, really good.  Think of how good you are.  You have spent the last four years learning to be as good as you can be.  And think of how well you have learned it.  Think of all you have accomplished, everything you have done here in these classrooms, these studios, these athletic fields, and in getting outside.  You are good.  We all are. 

And you have been recognized for it.  You have been honored and awarded and spotlighted and patted on the back – and you deserve those plaudits and recognitions – and there will be more tomorrow.  

But now, as you move forward from this place of preparation, it is time for something more.  Because you are not just good.  You are also capable.  And it is time not just to be good.  But to do good and to do good wellThat is what is beginning for you.  That is what is commencing.  Because that has not yet been asked of you.  How good are you is the question school asks.  But what good can you do and how well is not asked in school.

So, I am asking you now.  What good can you do and how well can you do it?  But I can’t just ask you the question without giving you a way to answer it.  So, how do you do good well?  You ask yourself one question all the time: For whom is it good?  Right?  Who benefits from what I do?  If the answer is only me or only people like me or only the 1%, it is not enough.  Sadly.  We are not down with minimum impact or zero impact or even Leave No Trace.  I want you to be thinking about positive impact.  Active and intentional contribution to the common good. 

But how?  What can one person do and how is it done? 

Well, how about a Twitter account?  Consider Josh Begley, Marin Academy class of 2003 and current NYU grad student, a man who got upset one day that the government’s campaign of CIA-controlled drone strikes on human targets was going largely unnoticed by the public so he decided that he would tweet each one simply to raise people’s awareness of what he felt and still feels is an unjust use of power and an unethical military tactic.  He has received national recognition for his efforts, and recently the Obama administration announced the CIA would no longer be overseeing its drone program.  Because of Josh Begley?  In part.

Or on a more local scale, consider Marianne Moore, MA class of 2004, who worked with a group of community organizers in Oakland to open the Victor Martinez People’s Library. Because where there is a library there is reading and that means learning and that means education and we all know what education is for.  The common good.

Those are just two examples from your predecessors and I am not going to name any more – there are dozens of examples.  You know what good people are doing out there.  And you know how good you are.  Get to it.  If we all just stopped just being good and committed to doing good, to putting our learning to use, think of the possibilities in this room alone.  It is staggeringly hopeful.

You know, I hope it is fairly obvious that my point is not to push a particular political agenda and it doesn’t matter to me whether you think that what Josh and Marianne are doing is politically right or wrong.  My point is that these people care enough to act, to do something with what they have learned in service to the common good. 

And that is what I am asking you to consider.  You have one wild and precious life and a hell of a good education.  Now what good are you going to do with it?  It all begins tomorrow.

Congratulations to the class of 2013 for all you have accomplished.  So far.  I will watch your paths unfold with great interest.

Be well.  Do good.  And take care of each other.

Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s