Moments of déjà vu have been accumulating in the last couple of weeks. As I look forward to congratulating some of my current students on their graduation from high school, I’m simultaneously drawn to thoughts of my past, my future and my daughter, Zoë Crabtree’s future.
Last week, six members of our family traveled to Massachusetts to witness and celebrate Zoë’s college graduation from Mount Holyoke, 35 years after my own graduation from Stanford University. Parallels bound; we both sat in a sunny amphitheater surrounded by friends and family, sweltering under our black gowns. We’d both just been elected to Phi Beta Kappa (and I spent a considerable amount of time last week hunting for my pin, so that I could wear it at her swearing-in ceremony). We both basked in the pomp and circumstance, paying careful heed to the words of the invited speakers.
We also have in common our decision to pursue majors in the liberal arts, giving rise to questions that basically boil down to this: What are you going to do with that? I studied German, and Zoë majored in gender studies, with minors in theater and German, subjects that have been labeled “impractical” or otherwise maligned. I still remember my friends teasing me, predicting that I’d end up selling tires at JCPenney. Such questions no longer trouble me; I am, after all, nearing the end of a satisfying teaching career, and know the value of a liberal arts education.
For Zoë’s and her fellow classmates’ sake, though, I was thrilled to hear keynote speaker Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, emphasize the continuing importance of such an education. After citing a recent report (2011) in which The National Governor’s Association “said that higher education needed to reduce its commitment to the liberal arts and instead focus its scarce resources primarily on job-related training,” Schneider proceeded to skewer such narrow-mindedness.
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“And yet…employers themselves have not asked for, and in fact, do not want the kind of narrow, blinkered, truncated preparation for jobs and the economy that many policy leaders are promoting. Rather, what employers consider the most valuable preparation for long-term success in today’s economy is exactly the kind of broad, big-picture and hands-on liberal learning that a Mount Holyoke education now provides.” It’s an important message that bears repeating.
Listening to the speeches at this graduation also reminded me that I am once again on the cusp of change, just like my daughter. Zoë will be entering a master’s degree program in theater at the University of Texas at Austin, which, according to the letter offering her admission, “aims to graduate the next generation of leaders in the arts and academia.”
And my next adventure is just around the corner, more liberal arts education! And because I’m contemplating going back to school, I took careful note of what the other speakers had to say.
Robert Forrester, CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation, advised: “Leave your comfort zone, take risks, try new things, try your best, but don’t worry about getting everything right — you can’t — it’s not possible, and will just make you miserable if you try.”
Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the founder of Care.com, talked about developing an authentic boldness, about making plans but being open to change: “Focus on the journey of finding the inner authentic you to give you the freedom to take risks and be bold!” These overlapping messages seemed to be aimed at me just as much as at the graduates.
In 1980, Lewis Thomas, scientist, and author of “Lives of a Cell,” among other works, spoke to us graduates. My memory of his commencement message had faded in the intervening years, so I looked him up. A search for the manuscript of the speech yielded no results, but pearls of his wisdom did turn up. My two favorites:
▪ “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”
▪ “We leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch.”
Congratulations, Class of 2015, my dear students, my beloved daughter. Each day I am dazzled, and I hope that my daughter, my words and my smile will be my traces.
Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English, German and theater at Sierra High School.