Last night was Senior Night, a graduation eve shindig in which the students roast the teachers, the teachers roast the students, and in between there are moments of immense sentimentality (such as when the seniors open letters they wrote to themselves in the 7th grade) and a couple of faculty speeches. This year, the kids picked me to speak, which really kind of made my year.
It was my first chance to write a graduation speech. I thought for a while about what advice I'd want to give -- I decided that rather than advise them on how to choose the right path and do great things with their lives, I'd try to focus on what I always have considered the most important intellectual value: how not to be bored.
In the students' making-fun-of-teachers skit, they also made fun of the fact that they've found my livejournal (among other things). So, it seems only right to include the speech here.
Relevant context: our school brings in one speaker for Juniors&Seniors each week. Speakers can talk about anything from patent law to hip hop. Also, our school has an "essential question" that supposedly informs the curriculum each year. Every year, the rising senior class is responsible for choosing the question (actually, they choose 2 questions and then the school votes on which one wins, but that's a technicality. This year's essential question was "how is it relevant?".
Senior class, it's a great honor to be asked to speak. It means the world to me. But, senior class, it's time I leveled with you. I really don't like this year's Essential Question. “How is it relevant?” I know – it's a good question. Good teachers make connections between what they teach and what their students need to know and good students seek out knowledge they can “apply” to “important” things like “saving the world.” But here's the thing, “how is it relevant?” implies that there's a whole world of learning that isn't relevant to you. To say “how is it relevant?” is to put up fences, to mark off from the outset your terrain.
How is it relevant? How could you possibly know? You can't know what's been relevant and what hasn't until you die. Unless, that is, you're planning from the outset to live your life within certain predictable limits, which I know none of you are planning to do. A life like that isn't so different from death.
Ramón Gómez de la Serna, a poet of sorts, a man who made a career of knowing interesting people and collecting interesting things, wrote: “Aburrirse es besar a la muerte.” “To get bored is to kiss death.”
Before I go on, let me clarify: “Aburrirse” is a reflexive verb. So if we wanted to be more literal about it, we could say that “Aburrirse” means not “to get bored” but “to bore yourself,” and that is more to the point. How on earth, after all, could anybody else bore you. It's your mind.
Boredom is anathema to any student – and I hope you all remain students your entire lives (student, by the way, comes from the latin studeo/studere, meaning “to be zealous” -- by definition, or by etymology at least, students are zealous about everything they do).
There will be people everywhere you go who tell you that what you are doing is dull: “That professor's boring”, “What a lame class”, “What a stupid job.” Avoid those people. “Boredom” is a stance of arrogance: to be bored is to assume you have nothing to learn.
Boredom is a close cousin of “cool”, it's something I hope is utterly foreign to Parker, something you all have done a great job outgrowing. Now that you're going out into the big bad world, the land of routine and jobs and lectures, you may feel tempted to slip back into boredom.
I'd like to take my graduation-eve prerogative and offer a few words of advice on how to avoid that fate. Consider these lessons from Tomás on how not to be bored, ever.
First, I'm going to let you in on a secret. One of the best ways to learn (in spite of everything we've taught you here) is to listen to a lecture. I loved lectures all my life and I love speaker hour now. Sensei Pat, the nectar guy, Joe Beats, the bird lady, the patent man, the dog trainer: I loved it all. The enlightened student knows that lectures are a unique opportunity to observe the inner workings of other people's heads, and what could be better than that. The supremely enlightened student takes the same attitude towards that guy at a party who won't shut up – but perhaps that's asking too much.
My second piece of advice is: pay attention to language. Even if what someone says is boring (which is highly unlikely), how they say it is almost certainly something you could spend a lifetime studying.
Now for my programming students, when you face a boring task: automate. Why spend an hour doing a dreary task when you could spend 4 or 5 hours developing an algorithm to do it for you.
For worst case scenarios, always have a few poems committed to memory – I know a number of you have memorized poems for me already. I find the bank of poems I've memorized comes in handy especially when I'm in my car or at the dentist office.
The key to all this advice is the following: assume, at all times, that if you're bored, it's your fault. And, the happy inverse, if you're interested, it's to your credit. And your class includes some of the most interested students I've ever taught: you all have it in you to be among the most interesting people around.
Now I don't deny that your essential question has served you in your senior year and will likely continue to serve you. But nonetheless, I'd like to close by suggesting a new essential question – a question for Div 4 if you will, where other people won't necessarily bend over backwards to keep you engaged.
How about this: rather than “How is it relevant”, which takes a lifetime to answer anyway, let's try “Isn't that interesting?” Assume from the outset that it is interesting, because let's assume from the outset that you all are the interesting, interested, people I know you to be. Let's assume you're zealous. Let's assume, that is, that you're students. Tomorrow you may be graduating, but if this school has done its job, your studenthood, your overwhelming zeal for learning and for life, is only just beginning.