Michael Leppert: A professor’s questions for Indiana’s Class of ‘23

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Michael Leppert

We gather here today to commend you graduates, to praise you, to congratulate you. That’s what commencement ceremonies are designed to accomplish. Right? It’s not just an event where people wear funny caps and creepy gowns in front of family members who are pre-scolded for their inevitable outbursts of celebratory noise when their graduate’s name is called.

I have bad news though; I need to give you one final test before you come to the stage to receive your diplomas.

The six basic questions of who, what, when, where, why and how have been put to you exhaustively in your journeys of learning. Humor me on this special day and allow me to ask them of you one final time.

Who. Who are you?

Judging by the most obvious things I know today, you are smart, committed to learning, and educated. Think about all of the books you have read during your four years of college. Were any of them provocative? Did they challenge your perspective? I hope so. And even if you ultimately did not agree with their theses, you learned from them, because learning is the process of acquiring knowledge.

What. What do you want or need?

Most likely, value. You came to this institution four years ago in the pursuit of an education. Today’s achievement in that pursuit is now yours to convert into some sort of value. Whether it is the value found in a salary from a job, a discovery in a lab, or the satisfaction that comes from making people’s lives better, value is the “what” most of you have been pursuing.

When. When can you start?

Today! Today is the start day! To those of you who have already landed that first real job, congratulations. And to those who have already committed to the next educational and learning challenge, congratulations to you too. However, I urge you all to invest more energy into the consideration of time. The job or advanced degree you seek today, may not be the one you seek tomorrow. Make a commitment to consider your possibilities a year, five years, 10 years and beyond from right now. All lives are filled with starts, with beginnings. That’s what a commencement is. You are all excited about your beginnings right now; be prepared for the beginnings you have yet to discover.

Why?

For those who took any of my classes, you know my favorite question is: why? The “why” stage likely started for you as a toddler, and officially ended around the time you started kindergarten. Why did it end? Probably because the adults around you became less tolerant of its irritating quality, not because you magically became less curious. I am proudly still in my “why” stage and am committed to never leaving it.

How. How will you accomplish anything?

Most people loosely follow the path that they know from watching the people ahead of them on that path. The older, more experienced people ahead of you are good at showing you the path most traveled. Do not forget to consider your own original, unique route. In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost wrote: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

But wait, I forgot an important question from the list. Where? Where is it that you can best answer the other five questions? Where is it that you can be who you want to be, can be most valued, the soonest and for the longest? Where is it that the reasons why things are the way they are make the most sense to you and the options of how to live and achieve are most plentiful and attractive?

Where?

The answer is either “here,” or “somewhere else.” Here is Indiana. It’s not all bad. It’s been home to you for a while now, so it can’t be.

In the last year, Indiana has banned healthcare options for women and for young people. It has invested in making guns more present in schools. It has expanded policies for banning books. It has even made pedestrians less safe in its capitol.

I understand why in the contest of “where,” Indiana ranks way behind somewhere or even anywhere else for most of you. The only obvious reason for you to choose Indiana would be to accept the challenge of making it into what it could be, not to celebrate it for what it currently is.

Choosing Indiana as your commencement, your beginning, would be admirable. I can attest to the few of you making this choice, it will be the challenge of a lifetime, and the toughest answer of all.

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com. This commentary was originally published at indianacapitalchronicle.com.