Monday, May 22, 2006

Melancholy Monday: Graduation

I strolled through campus today and watched the grounds crew put away all of the chairs, take apart the scaffolding, and take down the college flags. Graduation is over and I am back in my office after a semester long sabbatical. I have three glorious months ahead of me to do some research before a new crop of first year students show up in September with their parents and start unloading the family cars. Graduation is always an important moment in my academic life. My small liberal arts college has embellished it with many fine traditions that really give a sense of accomplishment, hope, and closure to the students receiving their diplomas.

I cherish the rituals of graduation. So much occurs in a year and it is so easy to just turn what we do into a "job." But teaching is so much more than a job. Many of us have seen such promise in our students, and we give to them knowing that we might play some small role in their transformation into future citizens. We hope that we have given them some guidance about how to be a truly great human, how to have integrity, and perhaps, more importantly, how to dream. So much of our lives can be limited by our own stunted imagination. Our students won't necessarily remember what Hegel wrote or how to do a regression. But, all they really need to remember is that there is a world of possibility out there and they have all the resources they need to figure out how to make a contribution. If they don't know the answers, they should now know how to find them. If they entered this college uncertain of their talents, they should leave here now knowing they can accomplish a great many things they never thought they were capable of doing.

This last graduation was particularly bittersweet. Every year it gets a little harder saying goodbye to students you have seen grow so much over the four years you knew them. I showed up to meet parents like I always do, but I realized this time something about my students I have never taken the time to notice before: they are going to be parents some day. Perhaps many of them will choose to not have children, but I imagine that most of them will. And, you glimpse something of what matters most about your students when you see them with their families. You see that no matter how much they agreed me you, or how much they were persuaded by my arguments, or how much they will care about the things I care about, most of my students will be truly fine parents.

We spend so much time thinking about issues that divide us: religion, politics, or even musical taste. But families are remarkable things in that they often can weather all those differences. I still love my family even though I find myself radically at odds with many of their views. My bond to these people is far more important than what I take to be the right answer on any given question. I think this is true of our students as well. They have spent the last four years challenging some of their most deeply held positions, interacting with people they would've never passed on a street before, or travelling to countries that give them an entirely different perspective on the world. They have become different people than perhaps their sisters, brother, mothers or fathers. And yet, all those changes, all those nuances to their identity do not necessarily tear them from their family. In fact, perhaps we have helped our students connect their families to new adventures, new ideas, and new horizons.

One father thanked me for caring for his son. I was truly moved by this gesture. He was grateful that his son entered this place, explored religion, philosophy, gender issues and international economics. Marvelous. His father struck me as someone who had not attended college, had not travelled far from his home town, but had worked very hard to ensure his son would have the opportunities that this place gave him. And, what mattered most to him, at the end of the day, was that his son had seen and experienced a world that was so different from where he came and might alter forever the path he would take. Families can be truly remarkable in they way they can absorb so much difference, without ripping apart at the seams.

So, I think I indulged myself this year by thinking that perhaps what I contribute to my students is a bit more than a sharp mind. If I am lucky I have helped them become great parents. I watched my students take their diplomas, shake the president's hand, and then march off the stage toward their future.