Commencement speakers are typically chosen for their celebrity, accomplishments, and accumulated wisdom. But some graduating seniors might welcome an alternative voice, less remote from their own experiences. Four years out of college at age 26, I feel at once close to this season's graduates and detached enough to reflect.
Most of us in our 20s and early 30s can identify common expectations and anxieties, even as we reject membership in a monolithic "generation." There are timeless desires: a stable livelihood, a happy family and social life, a nation at peace. What's distinctive for my contemporaries is that the route to these goals is less clear, or at least more variable. Higher education no longer guarantees prosperity; divorce and AIDS have altered many people's assumptions about romance, sex, marriage, and family; TV and computers have changed our appetites for entertainment and community.
While we're fortunate to have averted a military draft and to have escaped the cold war, and while we savor the fruits of technological progress, we worry about society's failings - some of which flow from the very technological advances we cherish. We also grapple with deeper public concerns. Social inequality and environmental degradation are among the greatest priorities. Many in the Class of '96 who want to address such problems are likely to be unsure of how to do so.
Should you devote years of study to obtain a PhD, given the oversupply in many fields? Are the costs of law school worth it if what you want is a career in the public interest? What about politics? Disparaged by voters and plagued by the campaign-finance system, government has little appeal. To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?