To the Class of 2011 ...

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Esteemed graduates: You do not live in normal times. In fact, during the last four years as you ripened into this moment, the world changed forever.

Your timing, I suppose, could have been better. Born during an era when "free market capitalism" was the state religion — an article of unquestioned faith among most Americans — the wheels of the world economy started to come off just as you became freshmen in the fall of 2007. The collapse — and near Depression — occurred when you were sophomores. The Great Recession bottomed out while you were juniors. And here we are today.

So where are we exactly? And where are we heading? That, my friends, is the story you will write with the rest of your lives.

It won't be easy. I wish I could be more comforting, but the usual rah-rah conventional wisdom no longer applies. Well, some of it applies, but that's largely for you to figure out — what still works and what doesn't. Your generation, like it or not, will be in the vanguard of the transition to what comes next. To you falls the task of sifting through the old verities and deciding what to save and what no longer applies.

One thing we know: A largely unregulated economy, like the one you grew up in, is not sustainable. It dooms us to the boom-and-bust cycle, and left to its own devices, will destroy this planet. Born in the boom, you've now seen the bust, and we're not out of the woods yet. Human nature being what it is, a marketplace with little oversight unleashes greed. Greed leads to recklessness. Recklessness leads to bust. Every time. It may happen sooner. It may be later. But it always happens. If you learn nothing else during your school years, learn that.

Not everyone in positions of responsibility has learned that lesson, unfortunately. Don't drink their Kool-Aid.

Learning lessons, of course, is what school is all about. The question is how well has school prepared you for a world irrevocably changed? Among the many reasons we send kids to school, the main one is to learn how to learn, and you have done that, with varying degrees of success.

But learning how to learn means you also have the capacity to learn new ways to learn, which you will need in a rapidly changing, transitional world. The "Three Rs" have given way to the "Three Cs": Communication, Connection, and Cooperation.

School has also disciplined your mind. If you can read this column, think about it, react to it, compare it to your own experience, recognize how your biases and emotionality cause some of your reactions, push past that to understand what I'm really trying to say, and come up with other interesting ideas sparked by what I'm saying, then your mind is serving you well.

You will need a disciplined mind in the years ahead. Gut instinct can be an useful guide, but only when the heart and mind work in tandem. Too many undisciplined minds out there cannot — or do not — think for themselves. They simply swallow the junk-food ideas dispensed by public personalities who are all too adept at pushing their emotional buttons.

When the world changes, people feel threatened, and they start to embrace some pretty loopy notions. Don't panic. Don't lose your head when all around are losing theirs, as the poet Rudyard Kipling once wrote. In his poem, "If," you'll find verities that still apply in a changing world. In fact, it provides a nice, concise road map to becoming an adult.

You were born into non-ordinary times — your curse, but also your blessing. Your generation will lead the transition to a world the rest of us can only imagine. You, and the generations that follow, will be charged with taking us from an unsustainable world with deep flaws to a sustainable world that treats all human beings, indeed all of life, with greater respect and dignity.

Even if you never assume a position of leadership, vote for leaders who genuinely believe that government can be a force for good. Vote for people who understand that we're in this for the long haul and who want to raise the quality of life for everyone, not just the privileged few. The greater our inequality, the greater our problems.

Above all, remember that if freedom is your goal, you'll need to make technology and media your servants, not your master.

We're proud of you. We think you have what it takes to move us forward. We're counting on you, in fact. Live ina a way so your descendents many generations hence — who may not even know your name — will bless you.

And because all virtual commencement addresses must end with takeaway wisdom, I offer something a friend told me recently:

You can't write your life story based on what you get.

It's what you go after.


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john murtagh from oak park   

Posted: June 14th, 2011 1:05 AM

I agree with Will. The history is distorted. The graduates are probably 17-19 which means that they were born from 1992-1994. Those were not the boom years. In fact, there was a pretty nasty recession. Despite being born at a risky time with the recession, the breakup of the USSR,and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait,these kids did learn consumerism quickly, are experts on electronics, and use credit cards to buy gum. Let them have a party before burndening them with our generation's failures.

Will from River Forest  

Posted: June 13th, 2011 11:23 PM

I hope grads did not read this and the ones that did, did as you suggested and thought for themselves. The "one thing we know" is a terrible misreading and misunderstanding of history. The future will be poorly served by having our young believe this poor and oversimplified version of history. I recommend that they read all of the books outlining what really happened, themselves. Remove this "one thing" and it's not a bad message.

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