An Open Letter to Graduating Seniors

Graduation, well, feels a bit different this year. So, instead of recounting your accomplishments, sharing some emotional anecdotes, or offering some advice for the future, I’m going to ask you for some favors.

First, we need you to fight against ignorance.

People will tell you that if you’re a Republican, Democrats are your enemies, and vice-versa. It will become apparent that some tribalistically-inclined, acorn-brained people believe that no other poli-socio-philosophical entities or pathways have ever existed in the history of mankind; these folks are decidedly blind to the scope of human thought. There are, apparently, no other options. It’s black and white, completely binary. Neitzsche, Aristotle, Locke, Kant—that was all a fever dream.  If you’re wealthy, your enemies are the working class folks who “take advantage of the system;” if you’re poor, you demonize the privileged. Well, that’s a superficial way to see the world, through only the flimsy constructs of political or economic systems. Those palpable entities are just symptoms. The real problem—the least common denominator to all of these things—is ignorance.

The world is a beautiful place with so much to offer. But ignorance is everywhere. Social media aids this weaponization, for its curious and illusory capacity to validate the opinions of the ignorant, who so often feel inclined (and find the darn time) to pontificate at length on a swath of topics far beyond the depths of their intellectual kiddie-pools. Just the other day, someone shared with me a photo of a Facebook rant. Against my better judgment, I read it. Wow, she never struck me as a lunatic. Though the ramblings were deranged, it wasn’t the content that disturbed me the most; rather, it was its hollow core, its actual insubstance, the sheer and vapid absence of thought or empiricism that really ruffled this guy’s feathers. I thought to myself—anyone, even this voluntary illiterate, can broadcast a comment like that, devoid of any substantiated claims, evidence, data, reference, positionality, syntactic structure; rife with cognitive dissonance and logical fallacies, can send language like this out into the ether, with no palpable repercussions. Nature, which loves repercussions (consider gravity, whiplash, etc.) is still sorting out its plan for these folks, and it needs your help. But I see social media as a window that allows us to peek into a stagnant terrarium, within which cycle the fungal spores of ignorance, and blaming it does something very dangerous: It displaces responsibility. It washes the blame from people. Those nasty comments, unsubstantiated claims, and linguistic upchuck aren’t part of a sinister platform, they’re “expressions” from living organisms, individuals plagued by a dysfunctional relationship with thought.

But many humans have long held themselves, as a species, superior or somehow separate from the rest of the natural world. Many of us have operated under the narcissistic assumption that we are somehow inherently included in Mother Nature’s long-term plans. We see ourselves as evolutionarily advanced—and we are, in some ways—until we fight a lion, try to spin a cocoon from our silk thread glands (mine haven’t worked for years), use our echolocation to track down a midnight snack, or attempt to hibernate for the winter.

It seems to me that we’re inside a hefty dose of cosmic humility. Take, for example, our current relationship with science, which feels tenuous at best. Well, here’s the thing: As you already know, people don’t get to “believe” or “not believe” in science. Its very definition negates the opportunity. Please don’t allow people to make this mistake. It’s more of a linguistic point than a philosophical one. We don’t get to cherry-pick facts and science to find whatever pieces fit our needs or confirm our biases. We don’t want the climate change forecast to be so dire, but the last time I checked with climate change, she didn’t seem too concerned with your feelings. She was actually kind of sassy about the whole thing.

There’s actually a distinct gap between what we’d like to believe, and what is real, rational, true, and empirical. Don’t let people conflate the truths they’d prefer with, uhm, the truth. Sure, have your hopes, wishes, and beliefs—just keep them away from truth and fact.

The wave is swelling. Buckle up, because everyone is about to be a scientist: Your crazy uncle is now a scientist, some numbskull from Barstool is now a scientist, that boy who filled his tenth grade biology textbook with sketches of dirt bikes and Confederate flags just completed thirty hours of online “research” and— you guessed it— is now a scientist.

And, hey, consider the fact that this plea for science-appreciation comes from someone whose passions are art and literature. Though, I would argue, those disciplines cultivate our sensibilities for nuance, subtlety, subjectivity, and abstract thinking: necessary ingredients in a poison for ignorance.

So fight ignorance. In yourselves and others. Know what you do know, and know what you don’t know. Fill your own gaps. Call it out. Don’t allow it. We can’t wait to inoculate ourselves against ignorance; it needs to be eradicated. And the only known inoculum for ignorance is education.

The other favor I’ll ask of you is to tend to your roots.

When one of my dogs passed away, I went to a nursery and found a weeping willow tree, about 12 feet tall. I buried my dog’s ashes and placed the new tree over the grave to serve as a remembrance of him. My neighbor, a farmer, used his tractor to help unload and place the giant root ball. I centered the trunk, which was only about 4 inches in diameter, filled in the gaps with fresh compost, and gave it a generous watering.

For new tree plantings like this, it’s common practice to stake the tree. To do this, you simply tie a few lengths of rope around the trunk and stake the other ends into the ground for support.

I didn’t do this.

When we get storms, the poor willow bends, buckles, and shivers in the wind. Time after time, extended family, neighbors (even the farmer), and acquaintances have seen the wispy branches flutter and the elbowed trunk flexing and creaking. Without fail, they’ve all politely suggested to me that the tree must be staked.

They're just trying to help, but what they may not know is that despite the struggle it’s enduring on the surface, the tree’s essence, its relative heart, is hidden underground, in its roots. And, like most plants, an unstaked tree compensates for the violence aboveground by fortifying itself underground. The pounding winds only strengthen its roots. The trauma gives it power. Sure, it’s a gamble, as trees can crack under the pressure, but it’s an intentional investment in its long term success.

In the last year and a half or so, your stakes have been removed. The wind is whipping, and the storm looks like it’ll last a while. But while others may focus on the bending of their branches or the loss of a few leaves, my hope for you is that you focus on what cannot be seen, and keep watering those roots. Bathe them in learning and growth.

My wish is that you will all lead fulfilling lives. But my wish, as I just argued, shares nothing with truth. But, maybe for just this one time, we can wish for the same truth.

I’m rooting for you.

Dr. Todd Kefor is an English and visual arts teacher from southeastern Massachusetts. He has taught both English and visual art at Norton High School for the past 18 years. He is an AP reader and instructor of AP English Literature & Composition, and has taught over 25 different college courses, including behavioral economics, psychology, and life drawing. Dr. Kefor’s research interests encompass positive psychology, creativity in education, and cognitive biases. His doctoral research in educational psychology explored flow theory and student engagement. He enjoys the outdoors, cooking, drawing and painting, and spending time with his wife, Kristine, a principal, and his children, Declan and Mackennah. A proud member of NNSTOY, Todd was a finalist for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2018.


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