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Commencement Season in an Age of Community Failures

| May 12, 2015

graduation

A somewhat lower ceiling.

By Ed H. Moore

It is May, a season of hope and fulfillment of dreams. Graduations bloom new flowers all across our state. A limitless future of choices and chances stand before those who are crossing our stages. I recently had the privilege of offering my thoughts through a commencement address to the students receiving graduate degrees from St. Leo University. This is a task I do not take lightly, even as I am fully aware that no one comes to hear the commencement address! Yet, you do have an audience of thousands and they are required to remain in their seats, so you hope they do listen and that you have a brief moment in time to plant one or two seeds, both to the graduates and to the parents, families and friends attending.


How odd that this event, graduation, the culmination of all of your months and years of hard work, time, sweat, and balancing all of the intricacies of life is formalized by an event called commencement – which according to Mr. Webster is “the time when something begins.” After all, it is the end of their school program recognized by each slowly walking across the stage and being handed a folder as a symbol of the learning they acquired during their programs.

As I sat in church recently and listened to the sermon, I found myself drifting into thoughts beyond the words being offered, and I began to think about what to say to the graduates. Do any of you drift off into the recesses of your own mind when listening to someone speak at length? I was hearing what he was saying, while at the same time I was blending his sermon into my own thoughts and preparations. It came to me that the words I was going to speak had a lot in common with the priest’s discussion about acceptance of the weakest among us and how best we can shine as examples. Our collective past is truly prologue to our current lives and the pasts of others who came before us laid a bountiful table for us to use, not freely or without effort, but in laying the foundations required for human society to evolve, for freedom to take seed and for opportunity to flourish. We owe both our ancestors and our descendants much as we move through life. But as we sit in a graduation ceremony, do these grand ideas matter at all and will students step beyond themselves to tackle the challenges facing society?

It has always been my perspective that we get so enmeshed in the activities of the day, especially when they are memorable days like a graduation, that we often miss both the end and the beginning of the things we do. So many things blend together or never seem to have a finite end. But the pursuit of a degree does have a point of finality, yet how the education gained is used doesn’t have an end point.

It is clear that an insatiable appetite for learning new things should come with education. When we see turmoil and people taking to the streets in cities like Baltimore, the catalyst to me for these acts lies within the absence of education. When only 40 percent of the area’s residents even have a high school diploma, why are we shocked when more than 50 percent are unemployed, a huge segment are underemployed and crime rates soar? It is hard to sit back and reflect upon the wonders of the world and the opportunities available when you live within a community of squalor, drugs, crime, hopelessness and despair. Yet, this all starts in the homes and then the classrooms of America. When did it become acceptable for students to fail, to quit, to walk away from opportunity towards a lifetime of failure, dependency and limited possibilities? We should not be surprised at the failure of communities when so many who live within those communities failed early and continue to fail in the basic tasks of life; building stable families, holding steady jobs, acquiring assets and planning for the future. You can’t think about the future when the immediate needs of the present grab you and shake you to your core.

context florida
In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow penned “A Theory of Human Motivation” where he posited a hierarchy of needs of individuals that both interfere with and motivate them to succeed. His focus was more on successful people and his analysis provided a common pyramid chart offering essential stages of needs that must be present, enabling us to think outwardly instead of focusing on basic needs. At the base of the pyramid are physiological needs; food, shelter, clothing. Next comes safety, both emotional and physical. Next comes forming relationships and belonging to groups. Fourth on the narrowing pyramid is the development of self-esteem, with which comes reflection, risk-taking, and positive feedback from others. And finally at the tip of the pyramid is self-actualization, where your mind is open, you have an image of who you are or who you want to be and you are available fully to learn new things and expand your horizons.

Now I realize this might be a bit academic, but to me it gives a clear model of where and why we fail or individuals fail within our culture. When you are hungry, afraid and have limited social groupings you make bad choices because you are focused on the immediate. There are no dreams when your belly is empty. Too many people self-choose to stay in this lowest realm. There are no excuses. When you quit school, you choose to lose.

The students I addressed and watched walk across the stage were as diverse a group as any I have ever seen. The University President, Art Kirk, asked a series of questions of the group that indicated this level of diversity. How many came from another country, another state? How many are married with children? How many are grandparents? So many are the first in their families to graduate. This I know from conversations with them. It was a room filled with colors and ethnicities and yet they shared the common goals of achievement and ambition. They set examples for their children and grandchildren of what can be done no matter the obstacles.

We can make excuses for failure and we too often do so. I always keep in mind the Japanese proverb, “Fall seven times stand up eight.” In life there should be no excuses for quitting, for abandoning dreams and ambitions and for pursuing our goals. Somehow we must awaken a rebirth of hope and learning in communities where the flame is diminishing. Otherwise we are fostering failure and an absence of dreams. There is another Japanese proverb that applies here too. “A frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean.” Too many Americans are in the well. We need more to conceive of the oceans.

ed h. moore columnist colleges and universitiesEd H. Moore is the President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, a Tallahassee-based association of 31 private, not for profit colleges and universities. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Higher Education Facilities Finance Authority, as a member of the Workforce Florida Inc. Board of Directors and on numerous civic and charitable boards.

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