Advice to BU grads as they go into the world

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It’s commencement time in Boston, which means a stream of events with caps bobbing and gowns and parents waving. Yesterday was a beautiful day for the Boston University commencement with Attorney General Eric Holder. After the center-ring event, a number of schools have their own convocation events. Here are remarks I made at the convocation for the University Professors Program at Boston University. UNI is a really unique place to get a degree, something like the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago in its interdisciplinary approach and unabashed elitism in restrictions on access. (God knows why they let me in.)

A few segments worth highlighting:

I wish you lots of success, wealth and well-being. Often these occasions downplay wealth—but that is the luxury, perhaps the hubris, of a country that has been wealthy for so long. It is not our god-given right to be wealthy, and I sincerely hope you are. I also hope you build businesses and give people work, for supporting oneself through work is a source of dignity that no government can provide.

But I came here today with a purpose. I came to remind you of BU’s mission, embodied in its motto of Learning, Virtue, Piety. And I want to restate that motto in the form of a charge you can carry forward.

(1) Learning and virtue are inextricably linked. An increase in both throughout your life will require, however, that you jettison a common wisdom of our day, which tells you to “be yourself” or “be who you are”. A weirder tautology man has never made—and its meaning is a far cry from the Socratic “Know yourself.” It’s also a bunch of baloney. Do yourself and me a huge favor and scrub the Romantic pablum about identity from your brain. Throw away those god awful books by Emerson your lit teachers made you buy. The search for who you are is a fool’s errand. Literally.

Not because you won’t like what you find when you get there, or that you are in some way insufficient. That’s hardly the case. You’re a UNI grad. You’re smart and talented. Your work and study habits are impeccable. But we expect—and we need—greater things from you.

As someone who is built to learn throughout your life, your identity will necessarily be a moving target. What I mean is best explained by way of example. Think of Ben Franklin, who lived at a time of unimaginable uncertainty, stress—and opportunity. He aspired to two things: to know and to be a patriot. Every day he woke up with his list of “things he was working on”, “self-improvements,” and new “learnings”. His daily regimen would force him to engage every part of his being and his becoming with the world. The “learning” in the Learning, Virtue, Piety motto should mean for you “Don’t seek who you are—quite simply, strive to be better than you are today and everyday.”

(2) Which brings us to Virtue: Again, urging you to leave the navel-gazing of Romanticism to others, I’d ask you to consider the following assertion: The narrative of human life is only meaningful in terms of how much you have lived up to your principles. You are your principles, and your principles are you. Focus on them, because they are the only thing that remains constant throughout the vicissitudes of life, the successes and failures, the loves and the losses. The strength of your principles will serve you well in the days ahead, which will be some of the toughest we will face as a nation.

(3) Which brings us to Piety. Piety, from the Latin Pietas, is following through on your responsibilities to other people, to the gods and to your society. During the fight to create a home free from tyranny, our founders’ piety quickly took the form of a commitment to a fledgling nation. Two and a half centuries later, with our institutions in shambles, I ask you to re-commit to that patriotism – to rebuild our institutions. In doing so, long to be BU’s long-serving leader, John Silber. Dr. Silber took on Boston University at a time of great strife in this country. He never flinched. He walked this campus, head held high, and asserted the principles of academic excellence and ethical behavior. When he was done with that, he changed the course of our public K-12 schools, insisting on those same principles.

The full text is here for the curious.