Thursday, June 01, 2006


I went to my nephew Chris' high school graduation last week in Houston. I find milestone ceremonies like this very interesting, revealing what we as a society value. Weddings, funerals, medal ceremonies in the military, political swearing-in inaugurations, graduations, all are considered "Events" in our culture, bringing families back together from across the map and whole communities out in support. Every aspect is steeped in tradition and meaning, from the color of the bride's dress to the way the flag is folded at the end of a medal presentation.

At the graduation, I tried to take a step back, attempting to look at the whole thing with fresh eyes. The graduates marched in, all looking virtually identical in their caps and gowns -- no distinctive footwear or decorations allowed -- and then were seated alphabetically, teachers at the end of each row. Eventually their names were called in the same cadence, a measured procession across the stage like figures in old-fashioned clocks, mechanically marching across in their precise patterns. "Don't do anything to embarrass yourself or us," they were told before they could take the walk.

A handshake, a pause while the empty diploma case is handed off for the camera flash, then off-stage quickly, make room for the next berobed teenager, and back to their precise, alphabetical seats while the machine grinds on.

And finally, when the ceremony is over, what is the graduates' first act as "free agents"? They rip off their uniform hats and fling them in the air, as if finally freeing themselves from straitjackets.

So what, then, is it that we're showing we value in this ceremony? It seems to me that really what we were celebrating was uniformity. Conformity. Sameness. An abnegation of individuality.

Those aren't necessarily BAD things, but I found it sad. The speeches all talk about how these young people stand at the beginning of a great journey, their first chance to set their own course and plot their own destiny. And yet we commemorate it by grasping at our last chance to shove them into a pre-set mold, wiping away any marker of individuality, greedily taking advantage of our last chance to show them what it means to be part of the machine.

It reminds me that our schools were essentially founded to groom good factory workers. We need people who can start and stop what they are doing on a schedule, at the ring of a bell or the blowing of a whistle. Factories need workers who can sit in one place for long periods of time and do the same thing over and over. Anything that would disrupt the uniform action of the assembly line is to be ruthlessly suppressed.

It works, and works well -- at producing factory workers. But how do we prepare the people who will one day own those factories? How do we communicate the values we seek in our leaders, the people who will create new industries and new factories no one thought of before? Where do we fit those people who refuse to conform, to look like everyone else, to walk the line and not question?

Looking out at row after row of black-robed students, I knew that there were some there that would break out of their constraints and become confident, brave, insightful leaders. America has been better than any country in history at doing so, after all, and this generation will be no exception.

I just wish we could find a way to let them know that we appreciate that spirit of enterprise, that sense of individual achievement, that uniquely free-wheeling American can-do sensibility, in their graduation ceremonys.

After all, milestones like this reveal what we value as a society; we should pay more attention to exactly what they tell us.

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