Members of the Class of 2013, I salute you.
As everyone keeps telling you, you are graduating at a difficult and even frightening time. I wish it were otherwise — that my generation was bequeathing you a finer world. We aren’t. The world into which you are entering is rich with challenges. Many are scary.
This does not make your generation unique. Through the nation’s history, America’s colleges and universities have sent forth graduates in times of war, of fear, of economic risk. Eighty years ago, the world was mired in a four-year-old economic depression. Seventy years ago, many schools skipped commencement exercises entirely because their graduates were all heading off to World War II. Fifty years ago, Bull Connor was setting fire hoses and police dogs on civil-rights marchers in Birmingham, Ala. And 45 years ago, today’s exercises would have been sandwiched between the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
In short, there was never a golden age — a period when new graduates could step into the world and simply start building careers and families without worry.
So what is the great challenge of your generation? Protecting the environment? Increasing equality? Abating poverty? Achieving world peace?
I am going to suggest that it is none of the above. Instead, your great challenge is to regain the high ground my generation once championed and has long forgotten: the freedom to think for yourselves.
I mean this quite seriously.
We live in the era of groupthink, when to disagree is to be tagged as either wicked or stupid — either way, as part of the enemy. We baby boomers marched on campus in the 1960s and ‘70s for the right to make up our own minds, but now that we hold positions of power, we seem to view opposition or even criticism as dangerous. And yet, given the complexities of the modern world, there has never been a time when thinking for yourself is more vital.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote that most of the great evil in the world has come about because of people who have decided that they have found the one true idea, an idea before which everything else must yield. I think his argument is incomplete. The great evil comes about because large groups of people agree on the one true idea — and other groups of people, often larger, find it easier to go along than to raise a voice in opposition.
My father used to say that the best place for an intellectual is where it’s least crowded. What he meant was that it’s important for us to pursue our own ideas, rather than join the herd.
Bertrand Russell, in his essay “In Praise of Idleness,” warned that it’s vital for us to spend time alone with our thoughts, away from any other influences. We must put down even our books for a time — if he were alive today, he might advise us to put down our iPhones — because only when we are alone with our thoughts do we actually have any thoughts of our own. The rest of the time, we are simply responding to the ideas of others.
This seems to me exactly right. The great tragedy of my generation is how little space we have left for truly independent thought. Criticism of political leaders is equated with hatred for them — and so naturally the supporters of whoever is being criticized wind up hating right back.