Graduating seniors, my message to you is simple: do not try to make the world a better place.
I realize this contradicts everything you’ve been told since you arrived four years ago. Since your freshman orientation, you have been encouraged to engage in activism, to join protests, to raise the consciousnesses of your benighted and bigoted elders. But that’s strange in itself, isn’t it? The presumption must be that you are wiser and more compassionate than the mass of men who make up the status quo. After all, if you were uninformed or had an overly simplistic understanding of the world, it would be better if you didn’t change the world until after overcoming these defects, since there would be no reason to think your changes would be for the better.
Now, the prior speakers have already praised your passion, idealism, commitment to social justice and so forth, so let us grant for the moment that you are wiser than the men of previous generations who bequeathed to us the existing order. When did you get this way? To be really confident that other men’s group attachments or understandings of sex are mere bigotry, that other men’s religions and philosophies are mere superstition, that other men’s property is unjustly held, requires arduous prior study. You must have sought out the strongest arguments of the other side and subjected your own to ruthless examination. You must have approached those you would condemn and listened to them with sympathy to be sure there is no aspect of the case you have failed to consider. A century ago, men like Planck and Einstein revolutionized physics, but even though they were certainly geniuses, they first had to have a very deep understanding of classical, Newtonian physics, its strengths (which their new theories had to reproduce) as well as its weaknesses. Likewise, for you to condemn a society, you must have come to understand it better than its own defenders and participants.
When, exactly, did this happen? Did it happen while you were here? Even if so, it’s odd that you were encouraged to start inflicting your virtue on the world from your freshman year, before this process could be completed. Do you regret any position you took prematurely as a freshman? Have you found all your early positions ratified by further study? What luck that would be! I’m twice your age, and many of the things I said in my twenties, even with a bachelor’s degree to my name, now embarrass me.
But how could this process of rigorous critique have happened here, when you have demanded, and the administration has granted, that no beliefs of which you disapprove may be presented on campus, that aspects of Western and non-Western civilizations you deem “hateful” have “no place in our community”? So, in fact, this detailed examination of our civilization, which you find so grievously wanting, must have happened before you even arrived here–or else it would have been foolish to have let you decide what ideas may and may not be given respectful consideration. It must have been in high school that you gave all those “dead white men” their careful hearing and exposed their errors.
Or perhaps it didn’t happen at all.
To learn, one must at least suspect that one might be ignorant, and I hope I have planted a seed of suspicion in your minds. Not that you are wrong, but that you cannot really be so confident that you are right. Here, though, are two truths of which you can be certain. First, it is easier to destroy than create; you’ve known this since you started playing with those legos for toddlers. Second, simply maintaining a level of civilization–to say nothing of advancing in technology or “social justice”–is tremendous work, work that must be repeated each generation. We often fail to show our ancestors sufficient gratitude for this work. Yes, society is natural to man. But just as it is natural to the predator to hunt its food and yet any day this may be exhausting work with uncertain outcome, so we humans must expend great effort to maintain a good that is natural to us. Given this, it would be no small accomplishment to leave the world not worse than one found it.
Consider one more argument against trying to make the world a better place. You will probably fail. It is statistically certain that most of you are not destined for the history books. By the time you reach middle age, your lack of world-historical importance will hopefully have become clear to you, and with it a growing acknowledgement of your own mortality. How will you make sense of your life? How can you find some meaning in your short time on Earth? You may ask yourself how most men and woman have faced these questions throughout history, having realized at last that you are not different than them. You will find that past generations drew solace from their very smallness, the fact that although they were unimportant and their time was brief, they participated in something larger: a fixed and divinely-ordained order of nature, the multi-generational chain of memory of a particular culture, nation, or race. These are the ideas that you, as an emancipated, rational citizen-of-the-world now want to undermine.
You might well ask me what an ambitious young man or woman should do, if not make the world a better place. Well, you could try raising a family. If you ask yourself what your parents’ main accomplishment was, most likely this would be it. Why imagine you should do anything grander? Remember my second truth. Just carrying things forward–holding down a job, caring for children and teaching them well, maintaining a house and the friendship of neighbors–is a huge undertaking, the work of a lifetime. Or how about this: instead of trying to make the world a better place, why not let the world make you a better person? After all, you are still very young, and the world still has much to teach you.