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Continue your education: Be open to others

AHS graduation speeches

Graham Dimmock, who teaches science, was the faculty speaker at the Arlington High School commencement on June 3, 2023.  

Thank you for this great honor and congratulations on your imminent graduation from high school.

Today I get the privilege to offer you some advice at the close of one epoch of your life, and the beginning of the next. These three pieces of advice are certainly an incomplete list. Also, these are less like tasks to be accomplished and more like habits of mind that must be nurtured.

My first piece of advice is that you continue to learn, for the rest of your life. And I don’t mean that you need to continue your formal education at university or in apprenticeships or the like. Those are fine, I suppose. What I mean is that I urge you to find something you care deeply about, and learn everything you can about it.

Read books about it, even! Build a deep and historical understanding of your thing. Experience the joy of discovering ideas that might even be useful. Ideas that may help you to learn more about yourself and your place in the world. Ideas that help you to understand where you are from, where you are going, and why.

To that end, my second piece of advice today is that you strengthen your defenses against the avalanche of information that comes at you all day, every day, indiscriminately, directed at you or at no one in particular.

Information should help you deal with specific and urgent problems. It should be in service of that type of learning I mentioned before that is relevant and useful to your life. Now it seems that the vast majority of information is completely disconnected from usefulness; it is merely inert content. Many decades before the invention of social media, the internet, and even the computer the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote these prophetic lines: 

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.

Will more information help you to navigate a path through the next phase of your life? I think, no. Each of you needs to become the loom. You must be able to select just the information that helps you learn and grow from the unending deluge of the irrelevant. Save only those ideas that can help you make the most sense of the experiences that are ultimately the rich tapestry of your life.

Which brings me to my third piece of advice for you today. Choose to be emotionally and intellectually open to the broadest possible range of life experiences. One of the best ways to find out more about what happens inside your mind is to find out what happens inside the minds of other people. You must be with them, and listen to them, and talk with them. Then, “them” and “other people” might just become “us” and “our people.”

You don’t need to go far from home or look far into your past for these experiences. Right now you are sitting among a community of people of widely varied experiences. Many of you shared some experiences with lots of these people. Some of you shared lots of experiences with just a few of these people. A few of you had experiences that are entirely your own. And you have all, in this community, shared a common experience precipitated by a certain global pandemic.

As you reflect on your time in this community, consider the choices you made to engage or disengage from these people. Looking ahead, what choices can you make that help you understand yourself and your community in a way that is deeper and more fulfilling?

Finally, I’ll take the advice I was given long ago and close with the words of someone whose wisdom far surpasses my own. The following is a short passage from a longer poem called “A Brave and Startling Truth” that Maya Angelou composed in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations charter. It truly expresses how I feel about all of you and the hope I have for our shared future. 

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it. 

Thank you and congratulations again on your graduation.

This expression of opinion at the 2023 Arlington High School commencement was published Monday, June 5, 2022.

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