David Bouchier: The Dangerous Edge

May 14, 2018

Once again it’s Commencement season, bringing relief to thousands of parents and perhaps a certain feeling of anxiety to all those young graduates. What next? Suddenly the future is wide open. That’s what commencement means, the beginning of financial responsibility, real work, and all the other horrors of grown up life. It's a scary time for the graduates, comparable to going over the top in the trench warfare of World War I, and facing live enemy fire for the first time. That's why the graduate schools are full. It makes sense to put off the dangerous moment as long as possible.

Mine was a lucky generation, educationally and in lots of other ways. We could return to school later in life without penalty, as I did, and study tuition-free all the way through graduate school. There were plenty of good jobs. We scarcely needed to make long-term career plans. Careers just came and went, and there was always another one around the corner.

This year’s new graduates may have more electronic gadgets than we had, but they do face a much more challenging future. The image that comes to my mind is this: years ago we were sitting outside a rented cottage in the French countryside. Ever since we had arrived we had heard and seen the busy activity of a birds nest in a hedge on the edge of the terrace. It was clear that a whole batch of chicks were being fed. On this day there was a waiting pause, then PUNT a tiny bird was kicked out of the nest, then another and another, until the nest was empty. They fluttered around in confusion, upside down and backwards like the bird Woodstock in the Snoopy cartoon, desperately trying to regain the nest and finally landing on the unforgiving ground.

It was bird graduation time, and it must feel much like that for today’s students. How do you fly, how do you eat, how do you find a mate and a nest of your own? Fortunately this seems to be an adventurous generation. When we hear about other people’s children and grandchildren they always seem to be doing something exotic—flying tourist balloons in Taiwan or selling real estate in Greenland. My generation, in spite of all our advantages, seems rather conservative by comparison, too attached to security. Perhaps now, when lifetime careers and economic certainties have mostly evaporated, originality is forced on young people, which may be no bad thing and which must certainly make life more interesting.

Rituals like Commencement are undoubtedly a good thing. They tell us that something important has happened, and that other people care, and want to give helpful advice. But what is helpful advice in 2018? I hope commencement speakers are not still droning on about life as a mountain to climb, or life as a race to run. Those are metaphors from another and more rational age. We know from quantum physics that randomness is at the center of how the world works at the subatomic level. Now we know that this randomness goes all the way up to the White House, and predictable futures are yesterday’s fake news. Life is a game to be played, and the name of the game is—roulette.

Copyright: David Bouchier