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A Message to the Graduating Classes of 2023

Dear Class of 2023, Parents, Teachers and Alumni,

In the immortal words of Don Draper, “The universe is indifferent.”

I know that’s a chilling thought on this happy occasion, but he was right. One minute you’re pulling into a parking lot, the next minute the guy behind you was too busy texting to see you slow down. Nothing you did, but your car is now totaled.

What did you learn from this? Always have insurance? Get hit by an expensive car? No.

What you learned is that there are events beyond your control that could affect you. They are not the result of a conspiracy. Nobody sat in a meeting room and said, “Let’s cause an accident outside the Kwik Trip.”

By the way, navigating a busy Kwik Trip parking lot should become a standard part of every driver’s license exam. If you can get from one side to the other with no collisions while holding a hot sandwich in one hand, you get your license.

Anyway, back to the universe’s indifference. Another way of thinking about it, before you were here, events took place that created the world into which you were born. Very few of those events took place with you in mind. The rest of of those events were like the plowman in Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.”

And when you’re gone, the universe will continue without you. Actually, after you graduate, the school will go on without you, too. The faculty will make their decisions based upon their personal circumstances, not yours. The school’s funding will most likely be out of your hands. And the buildings will continue to need maintenance and the grass will still grow except where students ignore the “keep off the grass” signs.

What does this mean for you? It means that if you want to have an impact on the world around you, you’re going to be dealing with the universe that already exists, not as you want it to be. You cannot wish into being that tomorrow’s weather will be sunny just because that’s the only day this week you can cut the grass. Nor can you wish into being that it rains tomorrow so you don’t have to cut the grass.

Oh, by the way, your grass is too long again.

Hopefully, your education prepared you to understand the world you inhabit. Unfortunately, I doubt it.

The historian Michael Beschloss asked on Twitter how many people were taught about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in school? Don’t feel bad. Over 4,000 responses later, most were not.

Political commentator Charlie Sykes went on at length in his newsletter about never learning about the massacre. He wrote:

Decisions about what we teach and what we ignore are never value neutral. It is never merely the recitation of facts or dates. All societies tell their collective stories that define their identities.

So what kind of history do we want? Stories that make us feel good about ourselves? A tool for teaching patriotism? Or do we see it as an opportunity for exploring inconvenient truths that might lead to self-criticism (and possibly redemption)?

There are movements out there that want to change what we learn for their own agendas. On the right, there’s a feeling that we spend way too much time discussing race in our history, and about all of the bad acts of our country, rather than learning about the positives of our heritage. Ironically, what has been the most positive aspect of our country is how we strived for our ideals even as (like flawed human beings) we didn’t always live up to them.

On the other hand, there are some on the left that would try to cram the square peg of history into the round hole of their ideology. The 1619 Project is a horribly flawed attempt to simplify America’s history into the Original Sin of Racism without context. By the way, it is not Marxist, which has its own flawed, simplistic view of history as the struggle between the economic classes.

And don’t get me started on the awful Queen Cleopatra on Netflix.

But there are also gaps in your education that are caused by simple neglect and lack of time. I remember tutoring my son through his American history class. He was learning about Jacksonian Democracy. I spent an extra half-hour explaining why President Andrew Jackson was an embittered crank by the time he became president, including the controversy regarding his wife and the fact that he killed a man in a duel by literally allowing himself to get shot first.

Does this have meaning now? Yes, because when former President Donald Trump says he idolizes Jackson, you need to understand what the role model was actually like.

My son asked why these things weren’t taught in his class and I had to explain that, unfortunately, the people who set our history curriculums often have different priorities than teaching the interesting bits.

Which leads me back to the point of this address. The indifference of the universe to your desires does not mean the universe is boring or even sad. It just means that you are your own agent in life. While there will be conditions and events beyond your control, how you respond and grow during your short stay on this Earth is your responsibility.

You are not limited by what you have learned here. Go forth to live, to learn, and to love.

James Wigderson, Waukesha, May 31, 2023

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