Graduation season is upon us. Colleges have been handing out diplomas for several weeks, and the high school ceremonies are right around the corner. It can be a wonderful opportunity for honoring past accomplishments and looking forward to future adventures. If you are graduation this spring, I hope you enjoy all the festivities and have a great time with family and friends.
Just don’t believe everything you hear in the graduation speech.
The truth is: you can’t do anything you set your mind to. You can’t be whatever you want to be. You aren’t the last, best hope for planet earth. You shouldn’t always follow your dreams. You shouldn’t always believe in yourself. And you shouldn’t expect life’s most meaningful gifts to come through unchecked self expression.
Most commencement addresses boil down to three sentiments:
1. You’re amazing.
2. Follow your dreams.
3. Never give up.
While all three points can be appropriate in the right context, they don’t amount to much as a game plan for the future, let alone an approach to the good life. Central to the Western understanding (and later Christian understanding) of the good life are the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. This classic description of character is barely heard in today’s moral exhortations. Which is why most graduation speeches posit a different set of virtues: differentiation, self-expression, confidence, and a “don’t let other people stand in your way” stick-to-it-tiveness.
The cardinal virtues that anchored moral thought in the west for 2,500 years have been largely forgotten. You rarely hear about prudence with its calculated pursuit of wisdom and its disciplined use of reason, and you certainly never hear about temperance with its emphasis on self-control, humility, meekness, and sexual restraint. Even popular virtues like justice and courage have morphed. Justice has come to mean a host of policy and political prescriptions (usually for others, not for ourselves), rather than a way of life in which we not only treat one another fairly, but we also do our duty, show gratitude for what we have been given, and give God the honor he deserves. Today’s courage—as self-willed perseverance—bears some semblance to the older definition, but missing are the accompanying virtues of patience, magnanimity, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
To be sure, no one expects much from a graduation speech. The bar is pretty low. I know, I gave my high school commencement address (lo, these many years ago). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen with discerning ears. Or that we can’t ask for a better use of 15 minutes in the future. What teenagers and 20-somethings need to hear is not another banal speech about all marching to the beat of our own drums. They need to hear that lasting success comes from hard work and delayed gratification, that the dreams worth chasing are dreams of character not of career, that going further than we thought possible never happens without embracing our limitations, that self-denial will make you more friends and make you happier in the long run than self-expression, that duty and joy are not mutually exclusive, that finding meaning in life comes when you finally forget yourself, and that being true to what is good and right and beautiful is more important than being true to yourself.
If you have to sit through another graduation speech this spring, it might as well be one that eschews the silliness of find-your-selfism and focuses on virtue instead.