Commencement Address 2017

Address to University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Commencement, May 13, 2017

Welcome and congratulations, Class of 2017!

It is an honor to address this inspiring group of graduating seniors. I speak for my faculty colleagues in expressing tremendous pride in your accomplishments.

About 30 years ago, I was in your position, at my own college graduation. I distinctly remember feeling sick to my stomach – not only because of the celebratory excess marking the occasion, but also because, after four years of college, I was still uncertain about my true ambition in life.

Many of you may feel that same uncertainty. To be sure, there are those of you who have found your calling, and some of you may already even have jobs that pay a living wage. That’s great.

But for those who are still uncertain, that’s also great.

There is a widespread misperception that a college education is synonymous with job training, and that when you reach graduation, you will have set a clear career path for yourself.

On the contrary, the value of a college education, especially a liberal arts one, is not in equipping you with prescribed skills, but in exposing you to new ideas, different perspectives, and the complexity of the world. So it is perfectly natural for you to see multiple vistas on your horizon, and to be unsure about which ones to explore.

A college degree signifies that you have learned how to learn, not learned all there is to know. It means you have acquired the ability to ask questions, many of which remain unanswered. At your young age, there are still countless wonders to discover and mysteries to unravel.

One of the great mysteries that I am still trying to solve is how to raise a teenager. Your parents were very successful at this. I’m still working on it, spending sleepless nights reading books on the enigma of adolescence. One of the most helpful books is by a child psychologist who has given me some insight into the human maturation process, which applies not only to young adolescents but also to college students and adults.

This particular author identifies two kinds of selves that inhabit the personalities of us all. One is called the “baby self,” the other, “the mature self.” In teenagers, these selves struggle for supremacy.

The Baby Self does not tolerate uncertainty, stress, or change. It craves nurturing and adulation. It sees things purely in back and white. It fears the unfamiliar. It rejects facts that contradict its imaginary reality. It distrusts strangers and feels safest at home behind a beautiful wall. The Baby Self is uninterested in history, living only in the current moment, and is ignorant of the perspective of others.

The Mature Self functions at a much higher level. It ventures out into the world with open eyes and an open heart. It embraces social difference. It entertains alternative points of view. It breaks down barriers to communication and understanding. It is sensitive to the lessons history can teach us about answering difficult questions. It concedes that there are no easy answers, which creates an empowering desire for knowledge. That desire enables the Mature Self to accept evidence and reason that may change the way it thinks and acts.

What I’m saying is that the indecision that many of you are feeling is a sign that your Mature Self is taking over from your Baby Self. That is a good thing.

Today, we celebrate the education you have acquired that prepares you for the uncertainty of this moment in your lives and in the larger sweep of history. This uncertainty is much greater and more daunting than what my graduating class faced thirty years ago. There are forces at work in the 21st century that will test the strength of your mature selves in ways my generation was never tested. But, judging from all the brilliant and compassionate students I recognize in the audience today, I trust that you are up to the challenge, and that your generation will make this world a better place for us all.

May you find joy, inspiration, and fulfillment in your journey beyond the University of Iowa. Cheers for the Class of 2017!

Iowa Now, Looking Back at 2017 Commencement