Saturday, June 12, 2004

Bad advice

At the West Linn High School graduation last evening, the unpublished theme was "risk-taking": "Follow your dreams"; "The only thing you'll regret is not taking chances"; "Don't pay any attention to what the naysayers say."

Even the school board chair, Tom Bruggere, talking about his 40th reunion with the Berkely, Calif., High School Class of 1963, took up the meme. After a toss-off line about classmates who ruined their lives in Haight-Ashbury, he said that everyone was there (at the reunion), and the only thing anyone regretted was the risk not taken.

The dozen valedictorians, along with the various teachers and administrators, gave examples of good risks--going to college, moving from Ohio to Oregon, sky-diving, joining the Peace Corps--but they spoke before hundreds of high-school seniors, many of whom are already participating in high-risk behaviors. Even in an upper-middle-class school district like West Linn (or maybe especially in an upper-middle-class school district like West Linn), drug and alcohol abuse are rampant, as are sexually transmitted diseases, along with young drivers' reckless habits. These students already ignore the tiresome naysayers (the ones who still have the courage to say, "Nay") who tell them to stay straight and sober, get more education, learn delayed gratification.

No one mentioned delayed gratification throughout the whole evening, nor even a passing obervation that the value of risk taking depends on what's being risked and the possible rewards. No, the consensus was that risk is an objective good, no further analysis needed.

I'm sure that Bruggere was not accurate when he said everyone was at his 40th high-school reunion; I wish he had mentioned what happened to the ones who ruined their lives at Haight Ashbury. And the view that his classmates regretted not taking more chances tells more about their dissatisfaction with their own lives than about the value of risk for high-school seniors, because it's impossible to know what the outcome of an untaken action would have been.

Probably most of the kids in their green robes and flat hats were too excited to hear the speeches anyway. But I wish that someone had the courage to lead, to inspire, to push toward greatness, rather than just to advise the kids to "follow their dreams" and then turn to the next class.

UPDATE: Here is the commencement address I wish someone had given. It may be what they meant, but were too careless with words to say (which is understandable in high-school kids, even a dozen valedictorians, but I wish there were more to administrators. Oh well.)

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