Marty Baron knew the advice he was giving to the graduates of Suffolk University was ridiculous, even before he gave it last month at a commencement ceremony in Fenway Park.
The former executive editor of the Washington Post was asking the graduates to dedicate their shiny new lives to shoring up “major institutions in this country,” which are suffering from “a crisis of trust.”
He remembers his own graduation: “I was intensely focused on myself. My job. My income. My expenses. My living arrangements. The universe of my mind was sharply constrained, and I was at the center of it. Like most of my classmates, I was overwhelmingly absorbed with self.”
And yet, Baron knows that what this nation needs is not what many of these students naturally want to be: great individuals.
Many institutions have failed the public, and those failings are fresh in our minds: Abuses by police. Court systems that treat the powerful gently and the weak harshly. Technology companies that accumulate revenue but evade responsibility. Financial speculators who escape accountability when their gambles bring an economy to its knees. A press that acts as if it knows all the answers before it has gone seeking them. Politics that is more lousy performance art than serious problem-solving.
We have been left with weakened institutions. They need to be restored. They need your help. Only with your help can they become stronger and better.
Sorry, Marty not a single graduate in that crowd sat there and slapped his or her capped forehead and thought, “By God, that boring old man is right. I’m going to use this engineering degree/finance degree/English degree not to make a big success of myself. No, I’m going to give over all my talents (and even sacrifice them) to restoring credibility to whatever ‘major institution’ I find myself working within fresh out of school.”
When I began these remarks, I mentioned that at my graduation 45 years ago, I was focused on myself. I was the center of the universe. That may be the case with many of you today as well. (Or maybe you’re better than I was when I was your age.)
Life quickly taught me how I might contribute to the greater good, how I could serve a purpose beyond myself.For the many decades of my career, I found that purpose in journalism—in the cause of seeking the truth, in delivering to citizens information that should be in their possession, in ensuring that we have the democracy our founders intended, in strengthening news organizations that dedicate themselves to such work.
You, too, can find purpose beyond yourselves. I hope and trust you will. Do it in your church. Do it in a school. Or in a business. Or in a hospital. Or in government. Or for a charitable cause. Maybe even in journalism.
They will. Just not right away. Partly because they won’t want to, and partly because they don’t yet know how to discerningly do what Baron calls for:
Choose your own institution. Make it more responsive. Make it more just. Make it more equitable. Make it more inclusive. Make it more creative. Make it better. Build it up. I make this recommendation knowing that it runs counter to the tendencies of our times.
You know who does know how to do those things? You. Let’s talk about this here tomorrow.