May 18, 1999
Volume 51, No. 31
Speaker Reich extols the virtues of 'work and wisdom' in crafting post-graduation life
Commencement speakers usually come armed to their tasks with nuggets of wisdom, and this year's speaker, Brandeis University professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, was no exception.
"It may not seem this way to you right at this moment, on the precipice of your adult lives, but I want to assure you: You can pretty much do whatever you want to do. And I urge you to give it a try," he told the almost 3,200 graduates assembled with their families and friends for Emory's 154th ceremony. "Find a job that makes you happy--ideally one that also makes the world a slightly better place to live in--find a mate whom you love and who will love you back, have children who will grow into decent men and women because you are a decent and loving parent," he urged.
Not merely content to share his own hard-won wisdom, Reich told the graduates they must obtain their own. "The education you've just received gives you tools to gain new knowledge," he said. "Knowledge isn't nearly enough. You also need some wisdom." Knowledge can be best described as "know-how," but wisdom is "know-why," Reich said.
"Wisdom involves values. It entails judgements about what's important or worthy for you to be doing. Wisdom requires self-knowledge," he said, adding, "In order to make wise choices about your life's work, you will need to know something of who you are, and you will need to be able to imagine the kind of person you want to be."
To illustrate, he recalled his own first job with the Justice Department. "I had taken the job for the wrong reason, because it looked prestigious," he said. "And for the first few months everything seemed to be coming my way. I forgot the old adage that when everything is coming your way, you're probably in the wrong lane." Reich didn't pay attention to the details of his job or to building relationships with his colleagues. The job didn't turn out as he'd planned. "I left the job exactly as I began it-fired with enthusiasm," he joked.
Still, he learned something about himself from the experience. "And I've tried to add to that store over the years," he said. "With self-knowledge you can make wise use of your knowledge about everything else."
Emory's class of 1999 finds itself in the midst of a "golden economy," Reich said. "The job outlook for people now graduating is better than it has been in decades." But that doesn't mean Americans are complacent. Thirty years ago, according to The Higher Education Research Institute, 41 percent of graduates had as their goal "to be very well off financially"; the number now stands at more than 75 percent. "Much of your anxiety about earning enough money, I think, has to do with the widening gap between rich and poor in this country," Reich said. "The reward for landing on the prosperous side of the gap is far greater than it was 30 years ago, and so is the penalty for landing on the poorer side."
But Reich assured those assembled that graduates of higher education almost always end up on the winning side of the equation. "Not because they have a piece of parchment, but because they have the right tools to gain new knowledge."