The Graduate

College graduation is one of the great milestones in a child’s, and parent’s, life, a scholastic achievement that culminates years of parental prodding and is surely worthy of the blessing “Baruch she’petarani.” And yet, having experienced several, including recently, I must say that it is a strange event, underscored by the tendency of many students – and their ostensibly joyous parents – to blow off the event entirely.

Certainly, the scheduling of graduation in the middle of a workday inconveniences many parents and children, and in the recent graduation I attended, so did the scheduling of finals, oddly enough, on graduation day itself and days subsequent. Granted, as well, that there is a certain tedium to the event, punctuated by the interminable roll call of hundreds of names – in which each parent sits for 3000 seconds to listen and react to the one second in which his/her child will be briefly mentioned. But the event itself was pleasant enough, with the speeches appropriate and good-humored – and yet, something, to me at least, was largely missing: a pervasive sense of joy and exuberance, with attendance more a fulfillment of obligation than a sense of fulfillment. Why was that ?

There is always an element of the comical in these formalities. Clearly, graduations afford adults an opportunity to play “dress-up,” to parade about in funny costumes (caps, gowns, hoods, tassels and shiny medallions, each in a variety of exotic colors), an atmosphere in which Batman, Robin and Spiderman would not feel out-of-place. (In fact, Spiderman did make an appearance.) Add to the bizarre get-ups the elaborate, overly starched ceremonies (Riddle: How many Jews does it take to hood one Rabbi ? A. Eight, apparently), the award of “honorary doctorates” to those who did little academically to earn them, and the solemn declarations through which the degrees are conferred, and graduation bears more of a resemblance to the rituals of summer camp than to the recognition of an important milestone in life.

I was duly prepared with enough reading material to last an afternoon, although I try not to read when others are speaking (common courtesy), but a thought dawned on me during the proceedings related to our children, our celebration of their achievements, and especially our expectations for them that accounts, at least somewhat, for the lack of exuberance in the hall. (Granted, I am sure many were duly exuberant.) In a nutshell, we assume that our children will graduate college, and, save for the “frum” who opt out of college but usually gain a “higher” Torah education, almost all do. But that is not the norm in these United States, and therefore their achievements should be all the more acclaimed.

The most recent statistics indicate that, shockingly, less than 30% of American adults 25 and older have college degrees, and 85% (only ?) have graduated high school. This is somewhat misleading, as it includes all adults (including, e.g., immigrants from the Third World who had no opportunity to attend high school or college). The more revealing statistic is that approximately 70% of American youth today graduate high school, but only a third have the credentials to enroll in college. Of those who attend college, slightly more than 60% graduate in a timely fashion (within six years of enrollment). Only 44% of the voters in the last election were college graduates (Hmm. Memo: save that editorial for another time).

It is rather obvious but noteworthy that in the United States today, graduating high school is a respectable achievement and graduating college is a stupendous accomplishment. Attendance and completion of any graduate school qualifies one as the cream of the crop. Only the very best – and an infinitesimal percentage of the total population – succeed.

And yet, again, most of us expect all that – and more – of our children. Are we too demanding, or is it that our sights are naturally set very high ? Perhaps more the latter than the former; we do value education beyond the national norm, and our children are reared to assume that they will graduate college and enter a respectable profession – and the overwhelming majority do. Nonetheless, these expectations should not obscure the essential realization that our children are outstanding young men and women, whose intellectual attainments and moral aspirations are prodigious, worthy of note and celebration, and completely atypical of the great majority of their peers in the rest of society. What they have done – and will do – should never be taken for granted, and for all the worries we have about those who do not succeed, we would do well to applaud the fact that the overwhelming majority of our young people succeed magnificently.

It would not surprise or offend me to conclude that the true joy of graduation is just that: a celebration not only of their individual achievements but primarily of the standards that we have set for them that they have willingly embraced and successfully navigated. Perhaps that is why many were filled with a sense of satisfaction rather than exuberance. Our youngsters’ accomplishments should rightly fill us with pride that we have settled neither for the easy road of the slacker nor the diminution of greatness to more pedestrian levels achievable with little exertion. For them, commencement is both an end and a new beginning. And it should fill us with great hope and optimism for the future, when “all [our] children will be disciples of G-d, and great will the peace they build” (Yeshayahu 54:13), for the betterment of G-d’s world and the glory of His Torah.

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