VIEW VIDEO It is an honor to have our graduates with us today. How proud your family must be of you, and how delighted we are of your accomplishments. For the past twelve years, some days when you didn’t feel like it, you woke up, got cleaned up, got dressed, ate your breakfast, and went to school. You did that for 2,160 days. Because of Covid, you spent some of those days at home, tied to a computer, hoping life would soon return to normal. But you persisted, and now here you are, possessing a treasure no one can ever take―knowledge.
Knowledge is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the only thing. There are plenty of knowledgeable people who never get around to accomplishing much of anything. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in our country we believed that people who went to college were somehow better than those who went to trade school. We started thinking technical schools and apprenticeships were for people who weren’t smart enough for college. Now we find ourselves needing more and more, and paying more and more, for the expertise of people who work with their hands, who repair the machines and computers we own, who build the things we need, who grow the food we eat.
I have a friend who, when he was 12 years old, was curious about how motorcycles ran, so one summer day, while his father was at work, he took apart his father’s motorcycle engine. His efforts were successful. By the time his father arrived home a little after 5, the engine was put back together, my friend knew how engines worked, and his father was none the wiser. What would compel a 12-year-old boy to take apart a motorcycle engine? Curiosity would drive it, and confidence would allow it, both of which my neighbor has in spades. He’ll tackle anything–home repair, electricity, plumbing, motorcycle restoration.
There is a broken lawn mower in my garage because I lack the confidence to take it apart and replace the transmission seals, which are leaking. I know how to do it from watching YouTube clips, I have the knowledge, but I can’t bring myself to take wrench in hand and do the job. So knowledge isn’t enough and college degrees aren’t always an indication of one’s ability, intelligence, or potential. If you go to college and graduate four years from now, don’t let it make you a snob. Don’t look down on others who took a different path. Because one day, in the depths of winter, a water pipe in your house will burst and you won’t Google a sociologist or doctor or lawyer to fix it. You’ll seek out a plumber and when they arrive to fix your burst pipe, you will be profoundly grateful they had a different calling than you. Don’t ever look down on people whose experience and education differ from yours.
Remember too, that our education should never stop. There is always something new to learn. We can always do more than we think we can. We can always accomplish more than we think, no matter what anyone says about us. I’ll tell you a graduation story about my sister, who graduated from high school in 1974. When she told her high school guidance counselor that she wanted to be a nurse, he told her she wasn’t smart enough and said she should learn how to type and become a secretary. They called administrative assistants secretaries back then. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a secretary, but my sister wanted to be a nurse. So off she went to college and became a nurse. Last week, she returned from Kenya, where she has been nine times, helping Kenyan children who suffer from hemophilia. She is one of the nation’s leading experts on hemophilia, but if she had listened to her guidance counselor, she would never have become a nurse.
Curiosity is wonderful, but if you couple your curiosity with confidence, there’ll be no end to what you can accomplish. Be curious. Learn all you can. Never stop learning. No matter how old you get. Read, think, discuss, engage. There is always something more to learn. Have confidence in your ability to do difficult, unfamiliar things. For God’s sake, don’t end up being 61 years old with a broken-down mower you’re too afraid to fix.
Do you know there’s another definition of the word “graduate.” The conventional definition is “the receiving or conferring of an academic degree or diploma.” But there’s a lesser-known definition that I want to leave you with this morning, and this is for all of us, no matter our age or vocation. The lesser-known definition of “graduate” is “to change gradually.” What a promising word that is! Perhaps the finest word in the English language. Graduate, to change gradually. That’s what education should do for us. It should gradually change us, but not just change us, change us for the better.
If our knowledge isn’t making us better people, we are learning the wrong things. If our education isn’t inspiring us to become more loving, more helpful, more committed to a just and better world, we are learning the wrong things. I’m amazed at the number of Ivy League graduates now serving in government who show no evidence of having learned a thing, whose actions reflect no appreciation for history, science, or democracy. It isn’t enough to receive a degree from a renowned university. It’s what you do with that degree and the knowledge it represents. Use your wisdom for good, put it to work for the betterment of humankind. Whether you attend college, or a technical school, or no school at all, use your knowledge to enhance life, not diminish it. Use your knowledge courageously, let it transform you, let it help you and our world evolve. As long as we’re alive, we should study. Only death has the right to end our learning. Don’t stop graduating, just because you’ve graduated.