These Kids Today. . . (an Encomium)

This afternoon, I participated in my 24th commencement ceremony. This one (like the last nine) was for the students at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, where I am an administrative drudge. It is always fun to see our students graduate, and it is always hard to see them go. What follows will be a sentimental and optimistic tribute to the students who graduated today. Continue at your own risk.

Perhaps no narrative is older, or more culturally diffuse, than the one that starts “these kids today. . . .” and usually ends with a discussion of how much better things were “when we were kids.” I love reading Juvenal’s Third Satire, which complains that, in the 2nd century AD, the Rome just isn’t what it used to be back in the days of Cicero. And I recall the words of Cicero 150 years earlier, “times are bad, children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

These days, people my age talk about “these kids today” like we were the first generation to discover nostalgia. These kids today can’t pry themselves away from their phones? They can’t sit still long enough to read a book. They are spoiled. Entitled. Overprotected. They expect everything to be handed to them all the time. And they doesn’t know the territory.

It turns out that none of this is true, any more than it was true when our parents’ generation said it about us. From where I sit, these kids today are a pretty impressive bunch. Here are a few things that I have observed, over the past four years, about the students I know who graduated from college today:

    • They are smart. They came through 16 years of school with their natural curiosity still intact. They keep asking questions, and they are generally grateful to the people who can help them find the answers. They intend to keep learning.
    • They have a global perspective. Their school experience, wherever they have lived, has been cosmopolitan and international. Their friends include people from many countries, backgrounds, and world views. Through the Internet and through social media, they have been connected to people in remote corners of the world for their entire lives. They have never known a time when the world was not flat.
    • They are naturally tolerant. When I went to college, diversity was something that we talked about all the time. Racism, sexism, sexual orientation discrimination, and all of their relatives were things that offended us. For kids today, prejudice is virtually incomprehensible. They genuinely don’t understand how anybody could be dumb enough to be a racist.
    • They are broadly talented. I have not yet stopped being amazed at the number of students I know who, along with studying hard and getting good grades, are talented athletes, actors, musicians, and artists. These kids today continue to develop their talents in ways that I find almost dizzying.
    • They are very thoughtful about the challenges they face. They have a keen sense of what is wrong with the world, but also what is right with it. They believe that they have, or soon will have, the power to start solving these problems, and they are anxious to start.
    • They are engaged. The students at my university contribute, collectively, nearly 300,000 hours of service to the community each year. They see this as an integral part of their education. Many of them are pursuing careers where they can keep serving for the rest of their lives. They want good things to happen, in the world, and they want to be the ones who make those good things happen.
    • They are ready. The students who graduated today are now (or soon will be) taking their places as doctors, nurses, teachers, researchers, social workers, business people, and community workers (and many other things). They will soon be leaders in those fields, and they are ready to lead.

Try as I might, I cannot be cynical after I have seen these students—many of whom I have known for four or more years—walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. I know these kids. I like these kids. And I respect these kids. I am excited to see what they will build, and I am pleased that they will be in charge of the world when I am fading into the sunset.

These kids today can hang out on my lawn any time.