Graduation remarks, 2020 edition: ‘We need you.’

Graduations are online this year. The good news is you can shop around for whatever speeches they want (Your choice: Barack Obama or Melania Trump). If you want one that’s under 5 minutes, with a 75/25 dark-uplifting ratio, aging leftist sensibility, and a little sociology, here’s the text:


Congratulations to the students graduating this year. You deserve to be congratulated for your accomplishments and the accomplishments of your family and community members as much as any other graduating class in history. Congratulations.

If that’s all you wanted to hear you can turn it off now. I won’t begrudge you. Because what’s next is going to be dark.

It’s common in graduation speeches to tell the promising graduates that the future is in your hands. That you will determine the course of our history in the future. I hope that is true. I sincerely hope that’s true. But I can’t promise you that, and neither can anyone else. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Humanity has gone through and is still going through a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. Millions of people have been sickened, many have suffered horribly, and hundreds of thousands have died, in the pandemic. And everyone has been disrupted, personally, economically, socially.

This virus travels the world on the backs of the healthy to infect and kill – among others – the old and the weak. The devastation has been worse in the United States than anywhere else, because of our systemic weaknesses, but now that it has set its sights on the poorer countries of the world, that likely won’t be true for long.

And that’s not the extent of our problems, of course. We’re in this predicament now because “normal” was already not on a sustainable path. Trump and the racist, nationalist horse he rode in on, the obscene concentration of wealth, climate change, guns, segregation, xenophobia, sexual violence, the degradation of our infrastructure, including science and science education, were all setting us up for this moment. Even if we can contain this pandemic, there is no sustainable normal to get back to.

And our tools for responding may not be up to the task. Our democracy is frail. Our discourse is polluted. Social media generates ever-expanding spirals of polarization, and it has displaced many of our other communication tools. Like journalism.

This pandemic will bring out more bad things. It will exacerbate inequality. It will lead people to shut down, and shut in, fear others, blame others. It has already put a damper on travel and social exchange across all kinds of boundaries, which has been a force for good – and that might last for a long time. And more people will suffer and die, many unnecessarily.

It could make bad things worse, if the economic crisis is long and deep, xenophobia rises, conflict flares up, war, political paralysis. No one can tell you these things are not very real possibilities.

But. In the contours of this crisis we can also see how to begin to make things better, how we could turn things around. If we make it possible, we could recognize the importance of collective action for global problems, including public health but also climate change. We can learn the importance of science and education. We can see the value of investing in social and material infrastructure, including the tools for public health. We might even learn the usefulness of government for saving us from the threats we face.

And you – You can still have great lives. Happy and productive and kind and generous and adventurous and doing the best you can. Which is what people have always hoped for. And you can do those things even if you can’t turn this all around. Look, people have made good lives in hard times before. You make life worth living by what you put into it, which is no more true in good times than bad.

And, we do need you. Even if you’re not not ready to invent this vaccine or fix our broken government. I hope you have your chance to do things like that, too. But before that we need you to figure out how we live with purpose and perspective. How we avoid turning inward and shutting down even as the physical distances between us grow. How to pull down barriers within our own walls. I hope you’ll help us, and yourselves, and the generations to come, figure this out.

Thank you. Good luck.