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Bob Herbert Speaks at Lawrence University Commencement

Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, received an honorary degree and spoke at Lawrence Universitys 2009 commencement.

Bob Herbert, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, received an honorary degree and spoke at Lawrence University's 2009 commencement. Here are his remarks.

It's a great privilege to be here and to be part of this wonderful day with you smiling, gorgeous, beautiful and brilliant graduates.

Thank you, President beck, and the trustees, and the faculty for this tremendous honor.

And my profoundest congratulations to you, the graduating class of 2009, and to your proud families.

Usually I start off by telling a few jokes, but I'm not going to do that today. There's nothing funny about the situation we find ourselves in right now. When I think of the state of affairs that my generation, the baby boomers, has handed off to you guys, I have to cringe...the worst economy since the Great Depression...two wars...budget deficits as far as the eye can see.

It wasn't always like this. When the first of the baby boomers headed off to college, in the mid-1960s, the United States seemed like a land touched by magic. Unemployment was low. Wages and profits were high. And the nation's wealth, by today's standards, was distributed in a remarkably equitable fashion.

We were far from perfect. There was plenty of conflict, small-mindedness and bigotry. But there was also an openness to new ideas and a willingness to extend a collective hand to those who were struggling.

The middle class was thriving and it was not yet a mortal sin for someone running for office to mention the poor.

Not even the murderous violence of the civil rights movement could stem the optimism of that era. The great civil rights leader James Farmer once told me: "They could kill us. But they couldn't stop us."

We were not good stewards of the landscape.

By the time George W. Bush made his final exit from the White House, the United States had morphed into a country that had hollowed out its manufacturing base and sent the jobs overseas. That refused to maintain and rebuild its own infrastructure. That would not, or could not, establish a first-rate public school system for all of its children. And that spent more money per capita than any other country on the planet for health care, but still could not cover some 50 million of its people.

It was a country that fought wars but had no idea how to pay for them. A country that let a great city like New Orleans drown rather than protect it with an adequate system of levees.

The election of a new president is not enough to turn all of that around. Your country needs your help, and I hope you will answer its call - by becoming more engaged in the civic and political affairs of the nation, in whatever ways you see fit.

This is your time. This is your era.

If we're to do a better job as a nation, you are going to have to decide what kind of country you want the United States to be, and what kind of effort you're willing to make to bring about the necessary improvements.

Don't sell yourselves short. The young people who were part of the civil rights movement changed the face of this nation. The young people who helped power the women's movement changed all of our lives, not just for the better, but in ways that previously had seemed unimaginable.

Now I'm going to switch gears. I'm going to mix metaphors. I'm going to change my tune.

I'm going to urge you to do something that will sound like a contradiction of everything I've said so far.

I want you to take it easy.

It's not really a contradiction, as you will see. But I do want you to take it easy, take more time to enjoy yourselves.

One of the things I've noticed is that life in America over the past few decades has been getting ever more frenetic. A few years ago Americans surpassed the Japanese as the hardest working people on the planet.

Many of my friends and colleagues in a variety of professions and occupations have been working longer and longer hours, giving up part or all of their weekends, often sacrificing vacations, and sometimes holding down two or more jobs.

We've got cell phones and Blackberrys and we're emailing and text-messaging and twittering - actually, somebody told me it's not twittering, it's tweeting. What ever it is, it sounds like a nervous disorder.

I was reading a newspaper article the other day that asked, "Are you a Facebook user who also tweets?" I turned the page.

There's no end to the frenetic behavior.

When I watch the news on television, there are additional stories being scrolled across the bottom of the screen, stock market results blinking on the right of the screen, and promos for upcoming programs in the upper left-hand corner.

There's barely any room left on the screen for the anchors.

We've got more data - information - available to us than ever before in the history of the planet. But the sheer volume of that information has to diminish its quality.

How do we distinguish between good information and bad? What's important or essential or even just interesting about the messages we're sending out and receiving, and what's just nonsense?

My assistant at the Times went to an engagement party recently. She said it was lovely. A delicious lunch, plenty of champagne toasts. But all the guests had their cell phones on the luncheon tables and text-messaged their way through the entire event.

It's almost as if an idle moment is tantamount to a crime, even in a setting in which you're supposed to be having fun.

It's crazy, all that frenetic behavior.

I thought it was a joke when a neighbor of mine in New York told me that four and five-year-olds were being given entrance exams for pre-school and kindergarten, and that children in some kindergarten programs were being given homework.

When I was in kindergarten, we weren't given homework. We were given a nap.

We need to slow down, already. Take a deep breath.

Let's put down at least some of these technological tools and spend a little time just being ourselves.

Enough with this unholy freneticism. I know people who have zillions of friends on Facebook and are close to no one.

Enough with these technological intermediaries, and with working for the sake of work, and with stealing the childhood from children by trying to make them little overworked, stressed-out versions of ourselves.

One of the essential problems of our society is that we're losing sight of what is human in ourselves. We're quick to go to war, and quicker to attend to our technological imperatives, and quickest of all at forgetting the truly human needs that are all around us.

And that includes our own individual needs - those very special, mostly non-material things that would fulfill us, give meaning to our lives, enlarge us, and enable us to more easily embrace those around us.

There's a character in August Wilson's play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," who says everyone has a song inside of him or her, and that you lose track of that song at your peril.

If you get out of touch with your song, forget how to sing it, you're bound to end up frustrated and dissatisfied.

As this character says, recalling a time when he was out of touch with his own song, "Something wasn't making my heart smooth and easy."

I don't think we can stay in touch with our song by constantly twittering or tweeting, or thumbing out messages on our Blackberrys, or piling up virtual friends - trophies - on Facebook.

The time wasted sending a hundred emails about nothing could be time spent holding one person's hand.

I don't want kindergarten kids doing homework. I want them playing. Skylarking, my father used to call it.

I want them asking spontaneous questions, not checking some standard bureaucratic multiple choice box. They should be able to spend a fair amount of time doing nothing, except maybe developing their capacity to wonder.

I remember as a kid just lying in the grass in our front yard, watching the sky - for what? I don't know. Sometimes a plane would fly over and that was cool. But if there was no plane, I was just as content.

I didn't feel like I was waiting for anything. I was just there, lying in the cool fragrant grass, under a beautiful sunny sky.

We need to reduce the speed limits of our lives. We need to savor the trip. And paradoxically, that will give us a better grasp of how so many things have gone haywire, in our lives and in the society.

Leave the cell phone at home every once in a while. Try kissing more and tweeting less. And stop talking so much.


Other people have something to say, too. And when they don't, that glorious silence that you hear will have more to say to you than you ever imagined. That's when you begin to hear your song. That's when your own best thoughts take hold.

That's when we really begin to think about what to do with our lives and with the rest of this crazy world.

Thank you so much. Good luck.

I hope you have wonderful, wonderful lives - each and every one of you.