Graduation Dinner Address, 2005
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 such an 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.’ (more…)