Hello, Henderson graduates of December, 2017!
I would love to come up here, utter one impressive, memorable sentence, and sit right back down. One sentence, one idea, might be all anyone remembers. There’s a famous story, retold at many commencement ceremonies, about Winston Churchill giving a speech at the school he’d attended as a boy. Supposedly he got up, said, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” and sat back down. The truth is, he did not sit right back down. He kept talking, and even that first part gets misquoted. In reality, he started the speech with “Never give in, never give in, never-never-never-never…..” and then he kept going for two pages, but that’s not how most people remember the story.
What will you remember from your years of higher education? (Whether it’s four years or however many it has taken, you got through it. You’re here now.) How much? How well? Answer me this, yes or no: Will most of you ever solve another quadratic equation? No, but you will have to solve problems that require fitting things together in complicated ways, following different rules for different situations whether you fully understand them or not.
Yes or no, will most of you ever get into a lengthy discussion about how the War of 1812 could have been averted? No, most of you won’t, but you will need conflict resolution skills, and having some perspective on human history can help you make more informed decisions as members of society today.
Yes or no, will most of you ever write another thesis-driven essay? Honestly, you will do both of those things. When you write a letter to say why you deserve a promotion or explain instructions for someone else to follow or try to talk your way out of a ticket in court, you will use those skills to help you make your point. A former student of mine from years ago recently mentioned on Facebook how he’d once applied a persuasion technique that he’d learned in my social psychology class in order to convince his mother to pay for his and his new wife’s honeymoon trip. It worked. (Use your powers for good!)
You might forget most details of any topic we’ve ever covered in class, but that’s not usually the point. To get to this point in time, you’ve had to analyze and interpret and learn and relearn and unlearn and play by one set of rules to meet one professor’s requirements at the same time another crazy professor told you to do things a completely different way. Adapting to all those things develops valuable skills, important skills. To be here today, you’ve gained greater power than you know.
And with great power comes great responsibility.
That is a famous misquote. What the author who was born Stanley Martin Lieber, who turns 95 years old this month and stays busier than almost anybody in this room, actually wrote back in 1962 was that “in this world, with great power there must also come great responsibility.” “Must,” he said. It was an imperative, a charge.
So our charge to you is to take responsibility for your power. Make a meaningful mark in this world. Stand up and do the right thing. Don’t be a bystander and watch life go by. Live it. Do some good for those around you, for the lives you wander through, for people you never even meet, and for yourself. Our charge to you is to live a life that matters, a life that makes people glad you were here. Fill that life with things worth remembering, even if you get misquoted or misremember a few things yourself.
If you remember just one thing I say today, maybe it can be this, even if you don’t quite remember exactly how I say it: It’s a good life. Live it well.