David Shipley '81 delivers commencement speech.

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June 13, 2009

Guest Speaker: David Shipley '81, deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed editor of the New York Times.

Lark, members of the faculty, members of the Catlin Gabel community, parents, friends, class of 2009, thank you for that warm welcome.

I guess I should also extend a reluctant welcome to the H1N1 virus. We met back in New York. I hope his stay here is short.

I’ve had the chance over the last few weeks to read and think about commencements.

And I’ve come to a number of conclusions. The speeches tend to break down in a few different ways.

Long and less long.

Unbearable and barely bearable.

There are speeches where the speaker tells you all the things you don’t know.

There are speeches where the speaker tells you about wonderfully impressive things he or she has done — and how those wonderfully impressive things somehow apply to you. But they really don’t.

I’d like to try to do something a little different tonight.

I’d like to talk to you about all the things that you do know.

All the things you learned here. All the things that Catlin teachers, past and present, that the Catlin community, past and present, have taught you and instilled in you — things that will serve you well in the world — but that will also serve the world well — if you just hold onto them

Let me tell you why I feel this is important. My guess is that most everyone in this room would agree that this has been a tough couple of years. In too many ways, our world is fractured.

Everyone has a perspective on this. Mine is shaped in some measure by my job at the Op-Ed page.

The page is a national bulletin board. It’s a crossroads for conversation. It’s the main spot in the paper where the window is opened and the intelligence of the world is allowed in, to sweep across its pages.

And as I have seen the problems unfold — in economics, foreign affairs, and so on – as I have seen these problems documented and analyzed in the thousands upon thousands of articles we receive for consideration, it has occurred to me that some of the mess we are digging ourselves out of right now might not have come to pass had some Catlin thinking been applied.

If the approach to thought and learning and ethics that I was exposed to here, that you have been exposed to…if the culture that we are celebrating tonight had been more manifestly in play, then we might be in better shape today.

What does this culture look like?

I have an example. You do, too. You will find it in your program.

A while ago, I asked members of the senior class to answer, anonymously, the following: “What is your biggest question about your future?”

I then took the answers and ran them through a computer program called Wordle, which creates word clouds. It sizes the words according to how many times they are used. The more frequently a word is used, the bigger it is.

This piece of paper is the result.

What do we see?

Well, for starters, no misspellings. Thumbs up, English department.

“Jail.” A little troubling. I’m sure there’s a good reason.

And the rest of it?

Let’s ignore “future,” because that was part of the question. But that aside, look at what’s big. “Content” or “con-tent.” A positive either way. “Wonder. Work. Concerned. Life. Choose. Happy. Find. Figure. Matter. Know. Love. Able.”

And notice not just what’s small — Want, Need — but what’s not there at all. “Personal” isn’t there. Nor is “Mine.” “Own.” Possess. Deserve. Status. Due. Win. Entitle.

This is language about others, not about the self. It is language about connection, community, intellectual life and service.

It is language that is purely reflective of the Catlin Gabel ethic.

Which is great. But it begs the question: Will it last? Is this way of thinking and being going to slip away after you walk across this stage and out that door? After you leave this place?

I don’t think so.

At least not in my experience or in the experience of my classmates.

Here’s why. Preparing this speech, drove me — naturally, I guess — to look back on my time here, nearly 30 years ago. And what stood out was how much of that time I remember.

Which is kind of odd. You could come up to me and ask me what was on the Op-Ed page two days ago and I would pause. Or stare at you blankly. Eventually, it might come back to me.

Why is that?

It’s not because I’m not proud of it. When I look back over the page, it’s almost always with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

And it’s not, I think, attributable entirely to the fact that memory weakens as you get older. Though this, I fear, is increasingly a factor.

No…it’s the importance of the memory that gives it its durability.

And my Catlin memories are strong.

There are the simple ones. I remember where I napped as a first grader and the color of the towel on which I napped. (It was yellow.) I remember the corner of the lower school library I liked best. I remember the smell of the barn on a wet day, the quality of the dirt on the path down to the soccer fields, the way pine cones pile up in the fir grove. I even remember when the pod outside this building would light up and slowly rotate.

And there are different memories, more complicated ones – ones that encapsulate the ideas and teachings and qualities of thought represented on that piece of paper in your program. Maybe they came from Schauff. Or Clint. Charlotte Ohlman or Sid Eaton, Ed Hartzell. Maybe they came from someone you’ve heard of — or not. Those memories are indelible.

Here’s why I think that’s so.

There are a lot of different theories on memory and how it’s stored. One school of science says that memories with special resonance are those that interact with more than one part of the brain. The memory-related regions of the brain team up with the emotional regions of the brain — to bank the memory, giving it added staying-power and durability.

What you have been taught here isn’t neutral. It has an ethical dimension. For that reason, it’s likely lodged in your head good and tight.

And what’s been lodged? What are those Catlin-teachings that would have been useful had they been applied on Wall Street or in Washington?

Here are a few of them.

One: Show your work.

My math teacher in Middle School was Mary McFarlane. Mrs. McFarlane. She was small, of indeterminate advanced age, wore a lot of nice wool. And she was wonderful. Now 8th grade algebra, I must confess, did not come naturally to me. In fact, as I watched my daughter work through 8th grade algebra this year, I was amazed at how much of her work looked completely unfamiliar to me.

But there is something I remember from the class. It’s a phrase I saw over and over in Mary McFarlane’s precise cursive: “Show your work.” Show your work. Prove to me that you know how you got from there to here. Be transparent.

Why do I bring this up?

Because in a year darkened by opaque derivatives and credit default swaps and mortgage-backed assets and all manner of untransparent actions, the belief that you should show your work — a lesson passed down by Mrs. McFarlane and Lowell Herr and many other people I encountered here — seems to me to be more important than ever.

Two, and this is related: Know how things work. Again, this is something that would have come in handy with regard to those complex financial instruments that got us in so much trouble.

When I was in first grade, we made wooden boxes. I remember Ed Adamy, the shopteacher, in his Ben Davis coveralls, helping us pick the wood, helping us put that wood in little red vises, helping us saw it, saving us from driving small nails through our tiny fingers. The boxes we made were shallow, with a bottom and four sides. They were basic, simple, elemental. But Mr. Adamy taught us how to put something together.

There are other Catlin examples. In 6th grade, we worked on go-carts, taking apart lawnmower engines and, theoretically, putting them back together again. Each year had a lesson that was meant to deepen our elemental understanding of increasingly complex things.

I mentioned transparency a moment ago. Transparency is great. I’m all for it. But for transparency to mean anything at all, you have to be able to comprehend that which has been made transparent.

There’s a wonderful passage in the second Harry Potter book — the Chamber of Secrets. Adorable Ginny Weasley has been possessed — really possessed — by the Dark Lord via a compelling, angst-ridden and completely bewitched diary that tells her to do all sorts of evil things.

After the diary has been destroyed and Ginny has been freed of its power, Ginny’s father has a few words of wisdom for her.

He says — or J.K. Rowling has him say, “Never trust anything that can think for itself unless you can see where it keeps its brain.”

Good advice. And close to the Catlin rule: We are taught here to learn to understand at the most basic level. That is at the core of experiential education. And we are taught to question the things we don’t understand.

Except for the iPhone. I have no idea how that thing works.

Three, another Catlin lesson: Hills. Every day of every soccer season Bob Ashe would have us run up the hill from the lower field to the track, and back again. Over and over. With a new hill added every day.

What’s the lesson here? Besides sadistic coaching? Hard work pays off.

I know. It seems kind of obvious. But think about it.

We’re emerging from an era where the operative idea was that you really didn’t have to do anything to get ahead. Real estate values would go up. So would the stock market. Anyone could flip a house or make money on borrowed money.

It’s a lovely idea. The notion that that essay will write itself or that you’ll get stronger by not going to the gym. But it’s just not so. And yet a lot of people in my generation forgot this.

Four: Step out of your shoes. In junior history with John Wiser, I had to make the case for slavery. I had to get up in front of the class and explain why something that was morally inexcusable made sense.

John’s intention, of course, was not to advance the cause of slavery. It was to force me to approach an issue from a fresh perspective, to change the frame.

How would this idea — and it was one advanced in lots of other classes I had here — have changed the world today?

Think for a moment about Iraq. Whatever your feelings about the war, it is now clear that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not have weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was putting up a front. Bluffing. He was trying to appear stronger than he actually was.

Had we done more to put ourselves in his shoes, understood what he had to gain by giving us and his neighbors the impression that he was on the verge of developing weapons of great power, would we have acted differently? I don’t know. It’s not a topic for tonight. There are sincere arguments on both sides. What is indisputable, though, is that in the process of decision-making, this would have been crucial information to have.

Five: Sort. If you go to Catlin, you understand rummage. If you understand rummage, you understand pretty much everything — and one thing in particular: you learn how to sort.

Is that shirt at the bottom of the moldy box garbage – or vintage? Is that tableau of a penguin riding in a Chevy convertible junk – or a collector’s item? Ditto with lawn gnomes, unicycles, steam tables, C.B. radios.

These questions are not unlike the questions you will be faced with in the years ahead. With information. What’s real? What’s fake? Is the news you get on Google the same as news you get from The Wall Street Journal? The Times? Do you believe everything you read on the Web? Is Huffington Post the same as Talking Points Memo the same as Drudge? Does a healthy Dow mean a healthy economy?

Treat information the way you have been taught to treat rummage. Ask where it comes from – what’s the source. Put it in context. Then decide if it’s good, bad or moldy.

And remember: This is not trivial. The decisions you make as an informed citizen depend on how you choose to be informed.

I want to share two last lessons — lessons that are ingrained in experiences that took place in this very building.

Acting is believing. Back when I went here, the drama program was run by a remarkable guy by the name of Alan Greiner. We had one textbook. I still have it. Acting Is Believing. At the time, I pretty much made fun of it. It was heavy. And Stanislavskian. And mildly new agey.

But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to appreciate its message.

What the book — and Alan — were trying to get across was this: A play is a work of fiction. You’re pretending...whether you’re a prison guard or a French sailor or a goat. But for that pretending to be effective, it has to be rooted in truth. Your actions as an actor have to be based on something real.

I bring this up because in the last year or so we’ve had notable examples of people who believed the opposite. People who asserted truth when it was actually fiction.

Recent example: The other day the CEO of Countrywide, the giant mortgage company, was indicted for doing the opposite of what Alan Greiner taught us: pretending something was real when he knew it wasn’t, telling consumers that his product was fine and then turning around and writing emails to his pals calling those same products “toxic” and “poison.”

Alan’s lesson was one that’s stayed with me: if your fiction has to be truthful, then your reality had better be truthful, too.

Last lesson. Something I did many times on this stage. Something maybe I’ve even done tonight. Make a fool of yourself.

This lesson is distilled in a timeless and emotionally charged work of art that has touched us all: St. George and the Dragon. In St. George, you are compelled to make a fool of yourself. You have no choice. Whether you’re a dragon or a janitor or a twinkly-fairy.

Why do I bring this up?

Because you will see that in the world beyond this room people are afraid to make fools of themselves.

And it seems to me that many of the problems I mentioned earlier must be attributable in some measure to this phenomenon, to people being unwilling to stand up — in meetings, in boardrooms, in the White House, on the Senate floor, at newspapers, wherever — because they were worried about embarrassing themselves or getting shot down.

And the fact is, there are good reasons for this. Life is easier if you don’t make a fool of yourself. If you always sit quietly.

You probably have more friends. Lower blood pressure. More hair.

But what’s lost by that silence, that missed chance to hear another point of view, that possible challenge to the prevailing wisdom that just might be right?

A lot.

So if one day you find yourself trying to decide to speak up in a room that’s against you, think of St. George. And remember that most of the people who graduated from this place took part in it. Even if they’re now adults. In positions of gravity and power. Once they skipped across this stage. In pretty pink tights. With a wand.

Also remember: If you were in St. George, you were nervous beforehand. Petrified. The risk of embarrassment was high. But afterward — didn’t you feel good? The risk of foolishness was worth it.

I end tonight with the knowledge that maybe it was cheesy of me to have spent the evening telling you what you already know. But what you know, what you learned here, all this place represents, is truly, crucially important.

Look, as someone who works in an industry that is desperately trying to find its way, I would be lying if I said it was easy out there. Even at this stage in my career.

I would be lying if I said that the generation that came before you didn’t mess things up. They did. And you have your work cut out for you.

But I would also be lying if I didn’t say something else. What you learn and experience here dies hard. If you keep close that knowledge, if you stay in touch and remind one another of it, then you will be equipped not only to make your own way, but also to repair this fractured world. For many years to come.

And judging from this little [Wordle] printout, it seems to me that you’re off to a really good start.

Now I think all that stands between you and these beautiful blue diplomas is…me. And so I will do what every generation should do for another: I’m going to get out of the way.

Good luck and godspeed.