The nation heard President Obama’s commencement speech at the
University of Notre Dame in May, and we’re hearing about other
high-profile speakers and honorees as they address this year’s
graduates. I saw film clips on television the other day of addresses
given by First Lady Michelle Obama, First Lady Laura Bush, Justice
Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey and even comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
It must be very difficult preparing one of these, trying to come up
with inspiring and unique thoughts that haven’t been expressed a
thousand times over by other speakers.
But now it seems there is a different message, you can probably call it unique, and a number of this year’s speakers are delivering it.
In 1969, baby boomers took podiums at college graduations around the country and pledged to redefine the world in their image.
Forty years later, they have, and now they are apologizing for it.
Their collective advice for the class of 2009: Don’t be like us.
This is bittersweet, this admission by the boomers (finally) that ‘we screwed up’.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, 60 years old, told the
graduating class of Butler University last month that boomers have been
“self-absorbed, self-indulgent and all too often just plain selfish.”
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, 55, told Grinnell College
graduates in Iowa that his was “the grasshopper generation, eating
through just about everything like hungry locusts.”
And Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, at 44 barely a boomer himself,
told seniors at Colorado College that the national creed of one
generation standing on the shoulders of the next was at risk “because
our generation has not been faithful enough to our grandparents’
In fact, the piece points out
boomers focused more on “their own inner voyage” and less on their obligation to society.
And outgrowth (if you will) of the Woodstock culture.
The speeches, which were tailored to their audience of
early 20-somethings, understandably dwelled on what younger people
could do to help fix the country’s problems. And no matter what this
year’s crop of speakers said, they were likely to encounter skepticism
from students entering the worst job market in decades.
All things considered then, what did they say?
In his address at Colorado College, Sen. Bennet, a
Democrat, used three figures to make his point about boomers’ failures.
Since the beginning of the decade, annual median family income in the
U.S. declined by $300; health-care costs climbed by 80%; and the cost
of higher education jumped 60%.
“We have limited the potential of future generations by burdening
them with our poor choices and our unwillingness to make tough ones,”
Mr. Bennet said.
That theme echoed around the country. At Texas Tech University, CBS
“60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley, 51, told graduates: “I know
you’re looking up here at my generation and you’re thinking, ‘Great,
thanks, just when it was our turn, you broke it.” Speaking at the
Boston College commencement last month, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
compared the divisiveness of this era with the Civil War period. In an
interview, he said the boomers’ tragedy was to “squander the legacy
handed to them by the generation from World War II.”
What’s the ’sweet’ in this bittersweet story? Maybe it’s the younger
generation seeing their elders take responsibility for their mistakes,
hold themselves accountable, and make the humbling (if not humiliating)
admission that they set a bad example. And that they’re sorry.
Okay. This is a reconciliation that can heal a lot of divisions.
But as Desmond Tutu
so eloquently told the graduates he addressed, the human spirit is
capable of many things, and forgiveness is greater than evil and all
things are possible to those who believe. In any generation.
And no matter what the circumstances or surroundings, the spirit is capable of soaring, if exhorted and elevated.
You know the story of the farmer who in his back yard
had chicken, and then he had a chicken that was a little odd looking,
but he was a chicken. It behaved like a chicken. It was pecking away
like other chickens. It didn’t know that there was a blue sky overhead
and a glorious sunshine until someone who was knowledgeable in these
things came along and said to the farmer, “Hey, that’s no chicken.
That’s an eagle. “Then the farmer said, “Um, um, no, no, no, no man.
That’s a chicken; it behaves like a chicken.
“And the man said no; give it to me please. And he gave it to this
knowledgeable man. And this man took this strange looking chicken and
climbed the mountain and waited until sunrise. And then he turned this
strange looking chicken towards the sun and said, “Eagle, fly, eagle.
“And the strange looking chicken shook itself, spread out its pinions,
and lifted off and soared and soared and soared and flew away, away
into the distance. And God says to all of us, you are no chicken; you
are an eagle. Fly, eagle, fly. And God wants us to shake ourselves,
spread our pinions, and then lift off and soar and rise, and rise
toward the confident and the good and the beautiful. Rise towards the
compassionate and the gentle and the caring. Rise to become what God
intends us to be — eagles, not chickens.