Privilege and Anxiety PDF Print E-mail
Graduation Dinner Address, 2005

I know there is a metaphor in the fact that the new building has come into the middle school on the very same day we graciously escort out our graduates.  It may be that your departure creates such a void, such an empty space, that we have had to go to extraordinary lengths to fill it.   It may be that the legacy you leave behind of intellectual achievement and student leadership contribution is so large that we needed more space to accommodate it.   Or it may be that you graduates have been so magnetic—so charismatic and so welcoming—that you have by your own virtues expanded the middle school and this new building is the token of that.

But tonight I wanted to speak for a few minutes about privilege and anxiety.  I was struck this spring upon recognizing that the two books in my reading experience that best capture the sights and sounds, the environment—the culture—the world of excellent independent schools and universities—that both books contain in their title the same word:  Privilege.

The first, Art Powell’s 1996 academic analysis of the great value independent schools have offered their students for a very long time, is entitled Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.   The second, brand new this spring and leading me to this epiphany, is a young man’s memoir of his undergraduate education: its title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

These books portray the culture of schools where teachers are passionate about ideas and intensely committed to their students, where students love learning and are restlessly striving to advance in the American meritocracy.  There is competition and there is community; these schools are places of self examination, critical thinking, independent minds, ambitious yearnings, and amazing growth.

It is striking that that both books contain the word Privilege in their titles— and probably not a coincidence.  It is truly indeed a great privilege to attend such schools, and I think our graduates tonight realize it.    It has been a privilege for them to enjoy classrooms of so few students.  It is a privilege to investigate Washington D.C. with the powerfully sharp-minded Mr. Prestianni, or to hike the volcanoes of Hawaii ’s Kona with the adventurous Mr. LaBonte and Madame Amy, or to learn Algebra from the incomparable mathophile Mrs. Ellis, or to be sensitively counseled from the compassionate Ms. LaDuc, or be coached in basketball by “T”.  Some of them even had the privilege to learn to research their family heritage from Mrs. Schofield.

And it is a privilege indeed for these graduates to have had the support of families who have provided them a Saklan education.

Privilege is complicated—having had such opportunities forces us to wonder and to worry whether we deserve what we have and others don’t, and whether we will achieve all for which we are being prepared.  To be human is to be anxious, and ironically, sometimes the more privileged we are, and the more opportunities we have, the more we worry about what is to come.   

Last fall, a British philosopher wrote a book called Status Anxiety‘Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first – the story of our quest for romantic love – is well known and well-charted. The second – the story of our quest for love from the world – is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first.’  This is an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.

Privilege and anxiety are two of the common markers of today’s independent school students and graduates.   I’d like to suggest that those benefiting from a privileged education, and suffering from anxiety, might best be served by embracing two attitudes and approaches, perhaps.

The first is to exercise wisely responsibility.  To quote President Kennedy, who was himself paraphrasing Luke: “For those of us to whom much is given, much is required.”  This is an ancient concept, so much so it is sometimes dismissed as an encrusted cliché in the term noblesse oblige.    But being ancient is not the same as being outdated. 

You our Saklan graduates have demonstrated this again and again, excelling in responsibility taking.  Responsibility entails service, as you have done by tutoring Oakland schoolchildren, in collecting canned foods for the hungry, and gathering garbage to clean up parks.  Responsibility entails leadership: you have demonstrated outstanding leadership of our family groups, bringing the younger students joy and a sense of community and connection to the school by your concern for them.    Responsibility entails self reliance, as in collecting funds yourself for your Hawaii trip, and even in hiking so many miles beyond what you might have thought was your capacity.   To be a truly realized human is to be responsible, is to recognize and accept your duties to others; as Spiderman was told, and I paraphrase “With Great Privilege Comes Great Responsibility.”

The other approach for you to do adopt is one you beautifully demonstrated only minutes ago in presenting your flowers to your mothers: to express deeply and genuinely your own sense of gratitude. 

Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, Ben Stein powerfully reiterated this message.  Ben may be familiar to you from his writings or from his work on screen; it is hard for anyone who has ever seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to forget his portrayal of a social studies teacher, but it is especially painful for those of us who have taught high school American history because we fear we see a little bit of ourselves when we watch him lecture from the blackboard, “In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the — anyone? Anyone? — the Great Depression, passed the — anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act?”  This is not the way Mr. Prestianni teaches history, to be sure!

Stein writes that although his father spent his college years washing dishes, he felt grateful for the chance to go to a great college.  Ben writes of the good fortune he has had had to enjoy a life of power and influence, of being driven by chauffeurs to what he calls “superimportant gigs.”  When his driver actually loses his car in the airport parking lot (requiring the airport police to find it for him), and then cannot find the way from Baltimore to Washington, Ben strives to feel not resentment but instead to continue to feel the simple gratitude that he has a driver at all.

Now, I know that you are thinking, or I fear that you think, that my point is that because you have and will continue to enjoy the “privilege” of a terrific education you “owe” service and gratitude toothers.    I know, or I fear, that you think my point is that you must take responsibility to make the world a better place, and to return the favor of giving to others some of the good fortune that others have given you.   I fear that you think I am guilt tripping you to make sure to say thank you to your teachers and parents because they deserve that from you, and you will disappoint them otherwise.

But if that was what you thought, you would be wrong.  It is not for others that either responsibility or gratitude makes the biggest difference, it is for you yourself.   Truth be told, I am suggesting to you that in fact is entirely selfish of you to exercise responsibility and to display gratitude—not selfish in a bad way, but in the best possible way—, through this “selfishness” you will become happier and more rewarded. These are the ways you can combat Status Anxiety and all other kinds of anxiety that lurk to lay you low.

Listen again to Ben Stein: “I think that this was the secret ingredient in my father’s success and happiness.  He was grateful for the opportunities that he had been given. I cannot tell you how to be rich.  But I can tell you how to feel rich (or, let me insert here, anxiety-free), which is far better than being rich.  Be grateful about everything, and you will feel a lot richer than the billionaires who are always moaning about everything that happens.”

Graduates, enjoy the privilege of the extraordinary education you are so fortunate to experience, and aspire to climb the greatest heights of achievement.  But know that it is not achievement that will ultimately most reward you, it is in the quality of the responsibility you take, and the the spirit of the gratitude that you manifest, that will ultimately most reward you, will ultimately make you feel happiest and most fulfilled. 

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