"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May is here and graduations are near

Today (Tuesday) is "May Day." As a kid we were taught about the custom of "May baskets."
There was a time when I observed St. Mary's School students making the rounds with these baskets. I used to joke "Isn't May Day a Communist Holiday?" I don't think this is what the kids were thinking about.
Their baskets were full of sweets - empty calories. I passed on some of it but the ritual was charming. (I would say "heartwarming" but Liz Morrison always hated it when I used that word.)
What can we say about May? If April teased us about summer being near, May comes close to delivering the real article. It's the month known for school life becoming especially hectic. People in education talk about exhaustion.
I'm not sure what it is about May that calls for this. The culmination is of course graduation.
What advice would you give for young people donning the cap and gown? I suspect we're all equally qualified to dispense it. The grads will fall into a spectrum of life experiences much like ours.
Or maybe not. The U.S. economy has gone through changes of late more far-reaching than the usual slow evolution or tweaks. Technology and globalization have had profound effects, many of which are disruptive in a bad way. Occupations like "bank teller" seem to have all but disappeared.
We still project joy at graduation but some of this is perhaps facade. We celebrate the ritual but we look with some panic at the future.
Education itself is panicking some. There is pressure now for education to deliver highly quantifiable results. Why have music or art? Or social sciences?
It was enough in our past for colleges to simply help broaden young people. The students got a taste of various subjects that made them learned in a general sense. It was supposed to build wisdom and stability. The intangibles carried weight, like a course in philosophy.
Today the people who watch the purse strings are nervous about perpetuating this. The intangibles be damned. School must prepare you to do something. This is in spite of the fact that entering the workforce seems puzzling and uncertain.
We react to this by expecting more of school, treating it as a stubborn mule as it were. Are we just flailing?
Nevertheless we treat graduation as if it were some magically transformative event. As if all these young people at about age 17 are ready, simultaneously, to take the big step out of those school hallways.
Is it a reflection of our old manufacturing model? Are the kids "products" who have gone through assembly and are now ready for distribution? Or is the system in fact militaristic, treating the mass of graduates as automatons wearing "uniforms" (caps and gowns) and behaving in a regimented way?
The band and choir do their token numbers. How many of those senior musicians will play those instruments again?
Has our formal education system become outmoded like so many other things due to contemporary pressures? Are we preparing our kids for a 1960s world when in fact things are getting wild out there?
Kids get knowledge in ways that are separate from school. They grow up with computers. They in fact gain much literacy this way. Older people pooh-pooh this but the tech communications boom has been a godsend this way. Thing is, kids don't consume knowledge the way we did.
Let's explore: I have a thick book about the life of Lyndon Johnson in our residence. Looks impressive, but I've hardly begun digesting it. Maybe never will. It's too cotton pickin' big.
I have checked out books from the library that I don't have time to read in full. I have one on the table where I'm writing now: "Then Everything Changed," by Jeff Greenfield.
OK, how would young people broaden themselves on the same subjects? They'd go to Wikipedia. Without even looking I'm sure there's a quite comprehensive page of information about LBJ on Wikipedia. It's more than a thumbnail and less than a godawful thick book. You don't have to buy it or check it out from a library.
No cumbersome legacy systems to deal with. Just learn.
People my age perhaps haven't adjusted to the ease of this yet. We can't believe it's all so user-friendly. Learning is supposed to be arduous, we'd assert. Acquire textbooks, show up at "Room 104" or whatever, and listen to some specially anointed older person dispense knowledge.
Look forward to "study hall" (to take a nap). Fill out worksheets. Get disrupted by a "pop quiz."
These trappings of the conventional education model seem largely annoying now. We got dragged through these processes like a herd. And then we'd be gathered in a big auditorium or gym in that magical spring of our senior year for the sendoff. I'm reminded of that ritual in the movie "Logan's Run." Everyone cheered as the poor souls were actually headed for oblivion.
Not that high school graduation should actually be sad. I'm just encouraging perspective. The school loves an air of pomp, pretension and joy because the ceremony serves to help "sell" the school.
What I would say, if I could have the podium for a moment, is that "you won't wake up any different tomorrow than you are today."
High school graduation is really just a date on the calendar. It's almost cruel, making it clear to the kids that all the peers they've grown up with and developed bonds with, will now be scattered like so many seeds into the wind. Those bonds were almost like a tribal phase. They served a purpose through adolescence.
All of a sudden graduation comes and we're "free" almost as if having been released from prison. Overnight those high school friendships lose nearly all their significance.
Some of them will be maintained, of course. But you'll have to go out of your way. You're really in a new world in which you'll have to relate to a whole lot of new faces.
It's probably good for a kid if his family moves at least once during the public school years. I went K-12 in Morris, didn't flunk, so I had the same faces around me. This lasted 13 years, an awfully long time. Then at graduation, the ties are severed completely. It can have a stunning effect.
We also feel pressure to declare "future plans" as if everything should be mapped out. The high school newspaper even published a "future plans" listing for us. Better be decisive, eh? Those who declared "work" seemed at the bottom of the ladder - a quite unfair appraisal of course.
Many of my generation chose "vo-tech." Fine, but how many of these kids might have been better served learning on the job, or starting out in basic labor and then progressing to something a little more specialized?
I don't think a high school diploma conveys any special qualities today. It just frees you from the shackles - those books and quizzes - of that anachronistic (I would maintain) public school life.
Kids don't need to learn by having the whip cracked over them. By being dragged through lessons that will never have any practical value for them. By playing the clarinet or flute. Or even playing football?
We're learning the human body wasn't made to play football. Why not encourage boys to play volleyball?
Our society is being pushed through rapid change today, so who knows where it will end.
I would tell the grads of today not to be in any hurry to declare your future. Get a feel for what you want to do. Use the Internet as I'm sure you always have.
My generation grew up literally without the Internet. What a night-and-day difference. That's why maybe my peers (i.e. "over 50") just aren't qualified to guide our youth. Our youth have gone way beyond us understanding just how information can be consumed and used. They take these attributes for granted while my generation is still kind of wandering.
Graduation may not be like the ritual in Logan's Run, in which the celebrants were terminated (to keep the population down in a post-apocalyptic world), but it has no magical power in and of itself. Treat it like an excuse for getting family together. Go ahead and overeat at the reception.
Then, sleep in.
Click on the link below to read a post inspired by memories of my own graduation from Morris High School. My fellow grad Edie Martin proclaimed "don't be a Milquetoast." This post is on my companion website, "Morris of Course." Here is the permalink:
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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