I know that everyone is saying, “Congratulations.” We say it because we are proud of you and what you have accomplished. I want to say something else; something that others may not say. “I am sorry.”
We have a lot of reasons to apologize.
We have taught you to think of education as a program, formula or code that you can crack. We have valued grades and scores more than learning. We have forgotten to teach you that all understanding begins with wonder and with following unexpected discovery in unknown directions. We have tried to stomp the wonder out of you by getting you to choose a track and stick with it. We have asked you to excel in every endeavor and to avoid anything that might diminish your record of excellence. When we rewarded you only for following all of our rules and not for making any of your own, we did more to close your minds than to open them.
I am sorry that we have taught you to value economic success over passionate engagement with your work. As educated Americans you have choices that many people in the rest of the world do not have. Even with the vast inequalities and deepening economic crisis in our country, your diploma or degree places you among the most privileged in a privileged country. But instead of teaching you to follow your passions and to serve others, we have encouraged you to follow the money.
Most people in the world are poor. Most have inadequate educations. Most will be forced to work jobs that pay the bills and starve their spirits. As you graduate, you may be able to escape this fate, but only if you are brave enough to follow your passions even when the economic rewards are not completely clear.
People like me saw our grandmothers scrub floors and mend other people’s clothes to feed their children in the Jim Crow South. Or we saw our grandfathers worked to an early grave by jobs that they hated. We wanted to save you from that fate. But we forgot that our grandmothers and grandfathers had dreams, just not the choice to follow them. Our advice to measure yourself by a paycheck instead of by the love of your work may mean that, for you, work will still just amount to a way to pay the bills — far bigger bills than our ancestors had. We are sorry for teaching you to trade your soul for a paycheck.
I am sorry that we punished you for making mistakes. We forgot to teach you that mistakes are the path of greatness. If you fall in love, don’t be afraid of the break-up, and if you break-up, wallow in the exquisite agony of heartbreak. If you ask a stupid question in class or on the job, listen to the answer. If you are unwilling to make mistakes, you cannot live your best life, you cannot be humble, or find your passion, or be productive, or be of service.
I am sorry that we did not make the world safe for you to make mistakes. We know that it is deeply unfair that more often than not poor, urban, black and brown youth are made to pay for their juvenile missteps for a lifetime, while the children of privilege are afforded safety, room to grow, multiple opportunities and a safety net. We are sorry for attacking you, instead of working to make the world equally safe for marginalized and vulnerable youth as it is for wealthy young people.
I am sorry that we are sending you into a world that does not love you. You are taking your degree into a society dominated by concentrated poverty and a vulnerable middle class, a society where it is harder to pay for more education, harder to find a job, harder to buy a house and harder to hold onto those things even if you manage to get them. I am sorry that you are entering adulthood during a period of great incarceration and criminalization, an era in which health care is less available, war is raging, racism is still alive, and sexism is still acceptable.
More than anything, I am sorry that we have not listened to you. For most of your lives you have been taught that young people should sit and listen while older people, those of us with the “information” and the “knowledge,” do the talking. School is set up this way, faith communities are set up this way, and many of your homes are set up this way. Many well-meaning adults tell me, “I want to go and talk to the young people.” Few ever say, “I want to go and listen to young people.” Our greatest failure has been that we have not listened.
For all of this, you have my apologies.
But, class of 2008, you also have a great charge on your lives. What happens next to you is entirely up to you. You have our apology. Now go out and lead. No one will make room for you at the table; you will have to draw up your own chair. We are sending you out into an imperfect world with imperfect skills, but you must find the courage to lead. You must find a way to follow your passions, to make mistakes and to unendingly attack the structures of injustice you encounter.
We are counting on you.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.