(My daughter is graduating high school in a couple of weeks. She’s very academically gifted. She’s ranked third in a class of 250 students from one of the richest [hence generally smartest] school districts in the state of Alabama. She, along with seven other honor grads, has the opportunity to give a speech at her commencement. She has two minutes at the podium. This is what I wish she would say.)
What a whirlwind of activity to close out my high school career. There have been parties and picnics (even crawfish boils) and practices and performances and awards and baccalaureates, etc., etc., etc. It almost makes it feel as if I’d actually done something remarkable simply by virtue of graduating from high school. I haven’t.
And I certainly haven’t done anything remarkable to warrant your being forced to listen to me speak for a couple of minutes. I stand before you today because my academic record compares favorably to that of my peers. But so what? That only means that I was lucky enough to draw from the genetic deck a hand that makes my mind slightly more efficient or a split-second faster at processing information than some others. I was born with it. I had nothing to do with it. It’s like having red hair or something—sort of remarkable in its infrequency but really nothing to make a big deal over. True, I didn’t squander the unwarranted blessing. I applied myself and got good marks. But is that really so remarkable? And can I even be sure that the same batch of fortuitously good genes didn’t motivate me to make the most of my academic talents? If so, then what is there to celebrate? It couldn’t have happened any other way.
Besides, nobody but me could possibly know whether I did the best I could with the intellectual endowment provided me. What of others who tried harder and did more with what they had? There’s no way to tell, outside of people with obvious outwardly visible handicaps, how deserving of accolades is any particular student for how they performed relative to potential–always the true measure of achievement. Nobody can possibly ever know about anybody but themselves. So, it’s not that I’m not happy with myself. I happen to be very satisfied with my performance. But my having lived up to my expectations is not something that can legitimately be externally rewarded. And it anyway need not be. The satisfaction and self-respect is reward enough.
As much as my academic success depended upon an accident of genetic probabilities, the relationships I have formed during my years in the Homewood school system are also accidents, but of space and time. I and those with whom I am friends happened to arrive at this time and place by independent paths we had no, or very little, input in choosing. I am leaving for the University of Georgia in Athens later this year. I don’t know of anyone else in our class who is also going. Our family is moving out of Homewood to a hipster condo in the city later this week. I don’t know of anyone else’s family who is joining us. How many of these accidental relationships that were formed during my time here will stand the tests of time and geography—tests they will face almost as soon as the ink dries on my diploma? I don’t know, of course, but it will be interesting to see. My parents met in high school, but didn’t get married until almost ten years later, after going their separate ways for several years. Some relationships persevere. Others don’t. That’s about all I know for sure about such things right now.
So, what has been the point to all this celebratory madness? Why make such a big deal of things? As a practical matter, it appears to have less to do with me and my fellow students, and more to do with the parents and educators seeking affirmation of their status in the community and validation of their educational efforts. But really, is there a point to it all, even from their perspective?
Consider the insights of one of the greatest minds Alabama has ever produced, the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. He started out studying ants as a boy in the bayous and backwaters the Mobile and Tensaw River Deltas in South Alabama, but eventually made his way to Harvard University as a Ph. D biologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author. He practically invented the field of what is now called evolutionary psychology by applying the lessons learned studying ant colonies to human social behaviors. In his 1978 book, On Human Nature, he made this observation about the human condition:
The first dilemma, in a word, is that we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature. It could be that in the next hundred years humankind will thread the needles of technology and politics, solve the energy and material crises, avert nuclear war, and control reproduction. The world can at least hope for a stable ecosystem and a well-nourished population. But what then? Educated people everywhere like to believe that beyond material needs lie fulfillment and the realization of individual potential. But what is fulfillment and to what ends may potential be realized? Traditional religious beliefs have been eroded, not so much by humiliating disproofs of their mythologies as by the growing awareness that beliefs are really enabling mechanisms for survival. Religions, like other human institutions, evolve so as to enhance the persistence and influence of their practitioners. Marxism and other secular religions offer little more than promises of material welfare and a legislated escape from the consequences of human nature. They, too, are energized by the goal of collective self-aggrandizement. The French political observer Alain Peyrefitte once said admiringly of Mao Tse-tung that ‘the Chinese knew the narcissistic joy of loving themselves in him. It is only natural that he should have loved himself through him.’ Thus does ideology bow to its hidden masters the genes, and the highest impulses seem upon closer examination to be metamorphosed into biological activity.
And perhaps that is what all this is. For today anyway, parents and educators can love themselves by casting glory upon the achievements of the graduates. But there is no particular point to any of it that transcends our biological nature. It seems that all we can really know about the point to life, from which the point to this celebration is ultimately derived, is that nothing of it transcends our biological nature. And it is the happenstance of biological endowment that is considered the most singular of achievements in this orgy of celebration.
I gained a lot of knowledge in my four years here, but not a lot of wisdom, as the first prerequisite of wisdom is humility, and this celebration, along with pretty much everything through the years leading up to it, stands as the antithesis of humility. But today, as I stand in awe at the vastness of the world outside these walls, I find myself humbled at my own insignificance. And maybe that is the point to all this, at least for me.
In the end, though I may have no particular place to go, still, I am for some reason quite eager to get out of here in order that I might get there. Thank-you.