Here's a quick question likely to stump more than 90 percent of everyone reading this - name the person who gave your (take your pick) middle school, high school, or college commencement address.

Can't remember? Don't feel bad, because you're not alone. Nor should the people who gave those speeches feel bad either. After all, when you are just about the last adult standing between an impatient group of youngsters in their teens or early twenties and their diplomas, the chances are excellent that anything you might happen to say, unless you are somewhere between Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln on the eloquence spectrum, will pale in comparison to the soon-to-be-graduates' interest in what comes next after the ceremonies are over.

The commencement address, while not a completely anachronistic exercise, and occasionally the setting for some truly memorable and remarkable oratory (think Steve Jobs's speech at Stanford University in 2005, for example) is an awkward vehicle to impart lasting wisdom. What, after all, is the speaker supposed to say that is both inspirational and original? Follow your dreams? Work hard, study hard, and the rewards will follow, sooner or later?

Good advice, and worth hearing. But trying to distill the wisdom of age and experience into a (hopefully concise) graduation or commencement address that has relevance to a disparate group of youngsters with wildly differing goals and ambitions is asking the near-impossible, unless you happen to be Churchill or Lincoln.


Advertisement

Most of us aren't; not even close.

The other route is to have something in your pocket to challenge students with something that truly is transformational in their lives, or can be if they do their part. One of our favorite commencement speeches of all time was delivered in 1981 by a New York City businessman named Eugene Lang, to an audience of graduating sixth graders and their parents in a school in Harlem.

Decades before that, Lang had been a student at the same school when the neighborhood was completely different from the one these ethnic minority students grew up in. But the intervening years had not been kind. The realistic expectation was that maybe one-quarter of the sixth graders graduating that day would even finish high school, much less go on to college - to say nothing of graduating from college.

So Lang threw away the speech he planned to give and made a challenge to the graduating class - if they finished high school and got accepted into college, he would pay for it. Money, or the lack of it, would no longer be an excuse.

Remarkably, six years later, the overwhelming number of the students in that Harlem school had not only stayed the course and graduated from high school - this during a time when their neighborhoods were drug- and crime-infested nightmares - but many did go to college and completed a degree program.

Today, of course, with the cost of college becoming such a financial issue you would have to be pretty wealthy indeed to make the same offer and make it stick, but it shows you that miracles can happen - and commencement speeches can be relevant.

So what, if anything, would we have to offer as words of advice to young graduates as they cross this milestone moment? As journalists, we can't afford to pay for everyone's college degree, so we have to fall back on the written word as our currency.

There's a lot to be said for platitudes like "Follow your Dreams," because they contain truths, if not kernels of truth. But think a little first about what your dream is. Get out the legal pad or its digital equivalent, draw a line down the middle and assess your strengths and weaknesses. What are you good at? What are you interested in? What can you definitely exclude?

Being flexible and adaptable is fine; even better is when you can be flexible within the context of a plan. Then be open to learning new things.

Which brings us to the key point. Hopefully by now, you have learned a little bit about how to learn. How do you think? How do you solve problems? How do you figure out solutions? Are you able to see problems not as roadblocks, but as opportunities?

If you have a framework for doing that, you are on your way. If you don't, you need to acquire one, and soon.

If there is one key to navigating one's way through an increasingly changing world - which is changing on every level, be it social, economic, cultural, environmental, or military-strategic at a pace that seems stunning to those old enough to remember black-and-white television sets - it's an ability to learn and master new skills, new knowledge and maintain a sense of restless curiosity.

There's a great debate underway today in education circles about whether schools, given the rapid pace of change technologically and economically, should focus more on equipping today's and tomorrow's students with more concrete job skills, or whether to continue believing in the efficacy of the traditional liberal arts model of exposing students to a wide range of disciplines and letting them sort it out for themselves. There's merit to both approaches, and sharp-eyed readers will remember that The Journal has often bemoaned the absence in the Northshire of a strong vocational or technical center along the lines of the Career Development Center in Bennington. That is a lack, and a great area for the Task Force born of the recent Manchester 2020 initiative to look into. But that said, the wide ranging, freewheeling, unpredictable world of the 21st century requires above all minds that can reflect, adapt and change on the fly when one way has run its course and a new one needed. That would seem to argue for the maintenance of the traditional liberal arts approach and its emphases on things like English and history.

Speaking of English - kids, - and this suggestion could apply to a lot of adults too - communication involves more than peering into a portable digital device held at a 45 degree angle to your faces and tapping on a tiny screen snippets of words that even Shakespeare couldn't understand. Try talking or writing in complete sentences. It's amazing what can happen.

So that's it folks - study hard, follow your dreams and - here's the hard part - stay restlessly curious. Amazing things can happen, and they will. Good luck and have fun out there.

And for you 10 percent who do remember who your graduation speaker was -- here's the bonus question - what did they say?