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In our opinion: Learning for a lifetime

Published: Sunday, June 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this June 7, 2010 photo, graduates listen to the commencement address at Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Mich. States across the nation are bracing for drops in their high school graduation rates as the nation changes the math used by districts to measure their success. States that converted to the new formula have seen drops ranging from modest to massive. Michigan, which made the switch in 2007, saw a nearly 10 percentage point fall.

Associated Press

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Graduation season is a time of many emotions — from the sadness students feel at leaving familiar environs and friends to the joy a parent experiences watching a child obtain a degree.

Above all, however, it is a time to celebrate the value of an education and to ponder the true meaning of that word.

Commencement speeches often serve to bring a necessary perspective to it all, attempting to draw out the things students may have had to read between the lines to glean from their schooling.

These speeches often contain sound advice that should be pondered more than just once or twice in a lifetime.

Chief among the wisdom typically imparted in these talks is the subject of failure and its place in learning.

"How you respond will determine what kind of life you will lead," U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts told graduates of La Lumiere School in Indiana, a Catholic boarding school from which he graduated 40 years ago.

The Associated Press said Roberts referred to the example of Abraham Lincoln, who failed at many endeavors but was determined to follow the advice he later passed on to a friend's son who failed to gain admittance to a college: "You cannot fail if you resolutely determine that you will not."

More than that, however, the chief justice spoke of the need to rely on faith. The graduates he addressed will be attending college next year. Roberts challenged them to go to a place of worship at least their first four weeks there.

"At a time in your life when so much is new, and how you respond to different choices will affect so much of your future, you may find it is good to be in a place one hour a week where things are not new, but familiar," he said.

That is good advice for anyone, of any age, trying to negotiate a chaotic and troubling world. And though it was unspoken, the hope undoubtedly was that the students would continue going each week.

Another common theme has to do with the best way to treat others. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, told graduates at Princeton a few years back that "Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice." The difference is that gifts can be easy while choices are hard.

"You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices," he said.

Some speakers can deliver a sermon simply by showing up. That was the case when former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords spoke at a commencement in New York this year. What she said wasn't profound — find your purpose and change the world — but Giffords' ability to carry on and deliver a speech despite being shot in the head in 2011 is a testament to perseverance and will.

Graduates often are told they can change the world, but doing so won't necessarily happen in spectacular ways.

Speaking at the University of Michigan this year, Twitter founder and CEO Dick Costolo told graduates they may not be aware of how they influence things. "Not only can you not plan the impact you are going to have, you often won't recognize it even while you're having it," he said.

Specifically, he was referencing the way Twitter has aided revolutions in the Middle East or helped people communicate during natural disasters. But he just as easily could have been talking about the impact of a kind word or deed, or of a decision to help or listen to someone else.

Humorist Stephen Colbert, probably the least serious of commencement speakers, asked University of Virginia graduates, "Why are you leaving? This could be the most spectacular place you have ever lived."

Perhaps inadvertently, he hit upon an important truth. Many people have fond memories of their school years, and that is for a variety of reasons. But one of those reasons likely is that the pursuit of knowledge alone is so rewarding in ways the world can't truly measure.

The good news is that even though graduates leave their institutions of education, they don't have to leave education and learning behind. Those ought to be life-long pursuits — just as much of the advice so freely given during this graduation season is worth pondering even after the pomp and circumstance ends.

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