A Graduation Letter

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. Anatole France

In a interview in the Times (5/27/12), the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, was asked, Is there any book you wish all incoming freshmen at Harvard would read? She said it would be Kathryn Schultz’s recent book, Being Wrong, suggesting it “advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom.”

I thought for a long time about this question. Would book would I recommend to incoming students to any college? It was a good question, even though the interviewer limits it to one.

This fall my grandson will be entering the freshman class at Penn. Along with a letter, I am giving him Ann Patchett’s What Now? It’s not because I think all freshmen at Penn or any other college should read it, but that the questions it poses are relevant to anyone at any time in their life.

However, in a way, What Now? is not unlike Schultz’s Being Wrong. Both stress the importance of remaining skeptical, being open to alternatives, and contrary information, whether in the form of factual evidence or personal experience. It is also a short book and like so many other freshmen these days, he doesn’t read a great deal outside of class.

He is a very fine soccer player who the Penn soccer coach invited him to enroll at Penn. And so in my letter I began by quoting legendary soccer star Romario who said recently, “The tendency of everyone is to evolve.”

I put side-by-side two photos one of me, when I graduated from high school in 1954 and one of him. I asked him to look at me now and wrote: Do I bear any resemblance to that graduating senior in 1954? I said, think how you look now. Imagine what you’ll look like or be thinking about in fifty years or so.

I wrote about how change rules our life, change in appearance, change in ideas, change in what you regard as important. We evolve as a result of the colossal number of events and experiences we have in our life, to say nothing of the aging process itself. I admitted I have no idea how I was able to do the things I did even twenty, thirty of more years ago or if any of it actually happened, let alone to me.

I told him what it was like when I entered college what a momentous experience is was for me, how it that changed my life forever. I hoped that he would be similarly affected by his days ahead at Penn. Wistfully I wrote, “I envy you so much now. How I wish I could do it all over again. You will have to do it for me.”

Like every graduation speaker, I passed along a word of advice by urging him to make the most of his days at Penn. “You’ll never have a chance to repeat them. Take them where it leads you, even if it is far from where you begin.”

I said there was much wisdom in Patchett’s suggestion, “Identify your heart’s truest desire and don’t change that for anything.”

And I concluded by writing, “Know, however, that your “truest desire” today many not be the one you’ll have tomorrow. So whatever your plans are, be open to changing them. That’s what I did and, for that, I remain forever grateful.”