Good evening. I want to thank the graduating class of 2008 for inviting me to be a part of this special occasion, and on behalf of the staff and administration of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, I want to congratulate you on having achieved this important milestone in your academic careers.
Next year you will begin a new chapter in your school careers and perhaps will start thinking more seriously about what you want to do with your life, your career, and your future. It is exciting to think about these possibilities; especially when we consider that many of the careers that will be available to you do not exist today. I thought I would take this opportunity to offer you some advice in this area based on my own life experience.
First and foremost, I would advise you to get a good education. A good education is about being open to learning new things and your willingness to participate in the learning process. Joseph Campbell, an important scholar of comparative mythology, advised his college students to follow their bliss. What I think he meant by “bliss” was you need to follow your curiosity and seek out answers to questions that interest you. This is where a good education opens a world of possibilities. Don’t be a student that tells his or her teacher “I’ll never use that.” How do you know you won’t use it? Should you only learn things you think will be useful in the future based on your understanding of the present?
When I was in sixth grade, many years ago now, I was very interested in history, particularly the history of far away places in Asia such as China and Mongolia. Later in my life I had the opportunity to study Asian history and Asian languages. My parents were disappointed that I did not pursue a career in the sciences – in the 1980s many parents wanted their children to grow up to be engineers or scientists because they made a lot of money. At the time, studying Asian history did not seem to be a good career choice to them, but I was interested in learning more.
Of course, my parents were right – it was not a good career choice – , but ultimately I became a history teacher, a principal and now a superintendent, and I can say my understanding of Asian history has been very helpful in my career as an educational leader.
Through studying history, you are better able to understand yourself as well as future possibilities. As New Englanders and Vermonters, you can rightfully lay claim to a rich intellectual history. Over 150 years ago, a great New England scholar named Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a graduation speech at Harvard called “The American Scholar” and challenged future generations of Americans to think for themselves, and to ground their education in an appreciation of nature, history and physical labor. I believe his suggestions, although written over a hundred years ago, offer all of us much value. Read history. Read your history. There is much to be learned from the experiences of people that came before you.
Beyond appreciating nature, history, and physical labor, I think you, as no previous generation, need to understand how to work together with people of other cultures because technology has connected the world in a new and different way. When I was in sixth grade, there was no such thing as a personal computer, or even a Mac for that matter. A good case for not studying computers could have been made based on “I’ll never use that.” And look at where we are today. Technology has opened an even larger world of possibility to you – you will be able to follow your curiosity to places we never dreamed possible, and to work with a wider variety of people and ideas.
To find economic success in this inter-connected world will require not only a good education but also personal discipline, a value learned through hard work. Very few things in life come easily. All sports stars and rock musicians – except perhaps rap singers – share a common background: they have a great deal of natural talent but they have worked incredibly hard to develop that talent. When you see them on TV, what you don’t see is the many hours of practice and sacrifice that went into the perfection of their craft. They all learned personal discipline – the ability to do the necessary hard work to achieve your goals.
Personal discipline has been identified as a characteristic necessary for success. In the 1960s a psychologist at Stanford University named Walter Mischel conducted longitudinal studies with children using marshmallows. He would leave a child alone in a room with a marshmallow and a bell. If the child rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If they waited until he returned on his own, however, he would bring them two marshmallows. He followed up with these children in high school and found out that those children who waited longer were more successful. Being successful is not unlike eating marshmallows – you must cultivate personal discipline now in order to eat marshmallows later.
Fifty years ago, your parents and your teachers could almost guarantee your future success if you received a good education and learned to work hard. Today, that is not automatically the case because you must now compete with people all over the world who are well educated and know how to work even harder because they have had little opportunity. They are hungry for your marshmallows and they are tired of waiting. But I still believe getting a good education and learning to work hard are necessary requisites for your success, because it is only with a good education and personal discipline that you will be able to turn your curiosity or passion – your bliss – into a career.
As the new superintendent for your district, I wonder how well you will meet these challenges, but based on what I have learned about your school and your teachers, I am confident you have been well prepared for success because I have observed there is much in common between the educational focus of the Mettawee Community School and the ideals espoused by Joseph Campbell and Emerson. I know you have been encouraged to listen to your inner voice and to explore your creative side. I also know you have learned to appreciate nature, history, and hard work, and your course of studies has given you exposure to the larger world of ideas that exist beyond this valley. So now we look to you in anxious anticipation of who you might become, of what you might accomplish. Remember what you have learned at Mettawee. You have been provided a solid academic foundation that will ensure your future success. We wish you well, and we are confident you will make the world a better place.