Trustees, Faculty Members, Parents, Family Members, Friends, Students, and Graduates: Good afternoon and welcome to the St. Gregory College Preparatory School Commencement 2012.
In the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a character so stunning that she may become the iconic fictional hero of our century, much as Gulliver was to the 18th, Natty Bumpo to the 19th, and Clark Kent/Superman to the 20th. A loving friend and sister, a savvy and ingenious problem-solver, and, ultimately, a passionate and persevering advocate for her people’s dreams of justice, Katniss presents many faces of the 21st century hero.
She can be seen as an exemplar of social entrepreneurship, which is the work of solving social problems creatively, collaboratively, and sustainably.
Dr. Tony Wagner has written a new book about how to “make young people who will change the world” and in it he argues that social innovation is of importance equal to technological innovation. His book was published in April, two years after he spoke here at St. Gregory, right where I am speaking to you now, under the same slogan that is written above me. In a charming coincidence, his new book is entitled Creating Innovators.
Social entrepreneurship is innovative leadership: it demands of its practitioners the habits of mind, the intellectual skills, and the character qualities that we at St. Gregory think of when we say we create leaders and innovators.
Among our graduates today are many who are already themselves social entrepreneurs. Emily Hansen and Jaxon Rickel saw a social issue, education opportunity in Kenya, and designed a strategy to address it. Quoting Mr. Roberts,
The work Jaxon and Emily put into the STG12Hour embodies everything we hope to teach our students about leadership and responsibility. It began with a vision and a passion. They took risks, invested long hours, created new connections, and along the way made many, many mistakes. With each mistake brought an opportunity to improve their work, and that they did.
Mr. Roberts identifies in Jaxon and Emily a quality which Dr. Wagner says is found in the development of every innovator: Passion. He explains that the journey of innovative leadership begins with play, the activities young people find most fun, engaging, even whimsical, and then advances into an energizing and motivating passion, finally flowering as a deep and abiding purpose.
We can see this journey of play to passion to purpose in the story of Katniss: her arc takes her from archery in the forest to feverish opposition to the injustice of the games to becoming the standard bearer of her people.
It is also the character of Katniss which is so admirable. When we see her participating in the Hunger Games, we see how her view competitors as worthy of honor, dignity, and respect: we come to realize just as she comes to realize that she isn’t as much horrified to be in these games because she might have to die as she is because she might have to kill.
The enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant best articulates this type of morality in his ethical imperative: Act in such a way that you treat humanity never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
Treat others always as ends in themselves, not as a means to an end. Graduates, you know from your study of history that the ideological regimes of the twentieth century made exactly this mistake, murdering millions whom they saw as obstacles to their perceived-to-be perfect societies, but it doesn’t require genocide to make this mistake.
In a recent book entitled Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the 21st century, Howard Gardner call us upon us to sustain the Platonic ideals in an age where moral relativism is rampant and digital technologies triumphant. In the book’s central chapter, he explains that no matter how much the world is changing, goodness is timeless. To quote
The first and primary sense of “good” has been with us over the millennia: it refers to how we treat our relatives, friends, neighbors: are we cruel or kind, generous or selfish, fair or unfair?
Dr. Gardner fears that this goodness is imperiled in our 21st century, especially in the virtual communities we form online. As he writes,
in a way that could not have been anticipated 25 years ago, people, even when very young, are finding themselves members of large communities via the Internet; any participant in the digital media is necessarily connected to an indeterminate number of others
Now that we are digitally connected so tenuously to so many, it is more difficult than ever before to uphold our obligation to treat others as ends, to treat them fully with fairness, generosity and kindness.
In the face of this challenge, Gardner does not recommend disconnecting and unplugging; instead, he calls for “constructive engagement: far more than in other spheres of young people’s lives, digital media make essential the modeling and coaching of healthy habits.” Graduates, for the sake of practicing goodness and respecting others in your digital worlds, it is incumbent upon you to seek positive role models and wise coaches, and honor their good habits and recommendations.
The St. Gregory faculty and administrators you see here are such role models: they do constructively engage students in using the power and privilege of digital media responsibly and effectively. These fine people are also exemplary practitioners of Kant’s ethical imperative: as advisers, coaches, directors, and mentors, they treat each student as an end in him or herself. In just a few moments, you will have the opportunity to see and hear our teachers’ dedication to students as unique and idiosyncratic individuals.
Others have also heroically supported our graduates, including you, their friends and family members, whom we are so glad to have here today. Another group who everyday demonstrate goodness by showing kindness, generosity, and fairness to our students is our hard-working, dedicated staff. They deserve appreciation for all that they have done to make possible your graduation; several of them have been here for the entirety of your high school careers: Mary Babbitt, Holly Ainza, Abel Herrerra, Verna Mendoza, Darrel Patton, and someone very much in our thoughts and prayers this spring, Don Goetz.
Graduates, as you become ever-greater leaders and innovators, consider Katniss as a model: be bold, creative, collaborative, ingenious, passionate, and devoted to social justice while you never forget to treat others honorably and respectfully, as ends and never means. Congratulations.