My daughter graduated from eighth grade tonight. I was very proud of her. As the president of her middle school’s student council she had the opportunity to address the audience and introduce the evening’s festivities.
After a few inspirational charges from school administrators, much of my evening was spent, as is the case with most of the graduation ceremonies I have attended, watching the members of my daughter’s class parade across the stage and receive a piece of paper akin to a diploma. Such an exercise requires patience.
As each student’s name was read, teachers and guidance counselors said a few things by way of biography. For example: “Mary’s favorite thing about middle school was playing in the orchestra. She wants to get good grades in high school and get accepted to a good college.” Listening to the reading of these biographies (which as far as I could tell were written by the students) helped me pass the time, but also provided a very telling glimpse of the goals, dreams, and aspirations of my daughter’s classmates.
I am not a sociologist and I don’t know the first thing about how to tell if what I heard tonight was somehow representative of all American middle-school kids. But we do live in a public school district that is socially, economically, and racially diverse for south-central Pennsylvania. So let me make some very unscientific observations about the high school class of 2016.
Most of the students who walked across the stage tonight were very well-schooled in what might be called “The American Dream.” They shared their hope of attending college, their desire to become “wealthy” and “successful,” their quest to achieve stardom on the athletic field, and their longing for a “good life.” I don’t know how much American history these students managed to soak in during their three years of middle school, but they have certainly put a definitive spin on Thomas Jefferson’s inalienable right to “pursue happiness.” Or, like Benjamin Franklin, they understood how to “make it” in the United States. One of my daughter’s classmates said that she believed life was about “me, myself, and I.” I wonder how many of these students received Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go as a graduation gift.
If the gospel of American success was all I heard tonight I would probably have left the auditorium discouraged. I am not convinced that all the things that these students want out of life—comfort, personal glory, and material gain—fit very well with the kind of civic humanism essential to a healthy democratic-republic. I know that they are just kids, but they must have learned about this version of the American Dream somewhere or from somebody.
But I heard a lot more than just good old-fashioned American individualism tonight. A significantly large number of graduates shared their dreams and goals in a way that I would call selflessness. I was surprised at just how many of these students were planning on joining the armed forces after high school graduation. Many noted that they wanted to “serve their country.” Others talked about “working for social justice,” “alleviating poverty,” and “helping people.” I counted two kids who wanted to be American historians! While I am sure that these students will change their vocational path multiple times over the course of the next ten years, it was good to see so many of them who want to live lives of service to God, country, neighbors, and humanity.
I know that a lot of us worry about our country’s younger generation. We wonder if they will be able to carry the mantle in such a way that sustains our democracy. We decry their narcissism, their television-watching habits, and their addiction to social media and video games. But from what I heard tonight, there may still be hope. Perhaps our future is in good hands.