On learning: a graduation speech

I am this year’s faculty speaker at our graduation. Here’s what I said after the traditional humorous anecdotes about the graduates:

I hope you have the sense of accomplishment you richly deserve. You have learned an amazing amount. But the real richness, the real accomplishment does not lie in the scores you will get on your exams. To learn in order only to get exam scores is like earning money only to look at the pictures on the bills. The real value of your learning is not only in those scores, nor is it only in the facts and ideas you have stored away in your memory – it is the knowledge of how to learn, the pattern of thinking and processing that strenuous learning requires. An athlete or a dancer, through the repetition of a specific series of movements, will develop a muscle memory, allowing them to make those same movements with greater ease and grace; likewise, serious thinkers develop an intellectual muscle memory, allowing them to process information and ideas with greater ease and dexterity. This is the prize you carry with you, more valuable than any exam score could be. But it can atrophy through as lack of use, as an athlete’s muscle can lose its strength.

Continue to learn. Learn in your universities, learn on your holidays, learn while walking around the city: ask questions and seek answers to them. You are doing more than gathering data and memorizing facts: you are looking for truth. At its best, learning is a search for the big ideas, the ones that explain it all.

The most important truth you can find is about yourself. Who are you? What really matters to you? What will be the meaning of your life this week, three years from now, when you are the age your parents are now? These are the essential questions, the ones that need answers. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Without that examination of our own lives, we fall into patterns of behavior that have no meaning — we accept our own nature as inexplicable. Take the time and the solitude necessary to find out who you are and how you fit into this world.

In your search for truth, the greatest obstacle will be yourself. When people are as intelligent, knowledgeable, charming and good-looking as all of you, a temptation exists to believe that you’ve sorted it all out – you already have all the answers, or the answers you don’t have don’t really matter. Fight the temptation. Humility – the opposite of pride – is humanity’s greatest strength. However much you know, remain open to the possibility that there is infinitely more to know, and that you might be entirely wrong.

As you learn about yourself and the wide world, the intellectual skills and instincts you have developed will serve you well, as long as you have open eyes, open ears and an open mind. But you will be well served by also having an open heart. Don’t be afraid to feel. The strong feelings you have – love. fear, compassion, anger – will help you find truth. There is much to be learned from the shiver up the spine while listening to music or the innate sense of unfairness when confronted with oppression. Intellect and emotion need balance – neither should dominate the other. And the same is true for those who look to spirituality for answers. It is not easy to balance between the brain, the heart and the spirit – it needs effort and practice – but we need not see them opposing each other, but rather complementing each other.

True learning – the search for truth wherever it may be found – is life’s great adventure. It provides direction through the fluctuation between chaos and drudgery that makes up most of life. We realize that discoveries made tomorrow may change the direction of our lives forever, and in fact may change the entire world. It is the true heroic quest of your life – accept it. Last year, I said to the graduates, This is your world – take it. I say to you, this is your world –take it, explore it, shake out its mysteries, listen to it, feel it, and tell the rest of us all about it. This is what learning is.


  1. Thank you.

  2. Nice, Norbert. Nice!

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Well done, Norbert.

  4. But Norbert, what if I do know everything? what then?

  5. Then learn humility.

  6. I know, I know. I’m kidding.

    Norbert this is a fantastic speech. When I graduated HS, I think our faculty speaker read Dr. Seuss’s oh the places you’ll go. Nice, but in the end, not very useful.

  7. Norbert,
    Those kids are lucky to have you.

  8. Beautiful, Norbert.

    I am going to share this with my childrens’ counselor at our high school.

    I especially liked the part about the need for balance.

    Thank you!

  9. sister blah 2 says:

    This is great, Norbert. I think you would enjoy this story of a biology professor’s attempts to reach his fundamentalist religious students on their terms, while getting them to begin exercising their scientific muscles.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Is this an English translation of a Finnish speech, or did you deliver it in Finnish?

  11. For some reason I was reminded me of a line from a graduation prayer by Hugh Nibley, “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood”

  12. Really nice, Norbert. The memorable part for me will be your acknowledgement of heart and spirit as valid sources of truth, and the subtle, non-preachy way you introduced them.

  13. Norbert, forgive the off topic, but I can’t find any other way to send you a message. I was trolling around the bcc tonight, I’m kind of a newbie here. I found your post on William Henry Harrison Sagers. I am a descendant of Francis Adams who was briefly married to him. I always wondered about him, in doing research on Francis Adams I found that of the 12 or so wives he had, almost all of them had their sealings to to him canceled. Francis Adams did have a daughter Eliza Jane, and although she was later sealed to her step father, based on what dates we could turn up, Eliza may have been born under the covenant to William Henry. If it plays out that way, then we might be actually related….

  14. Peter LLC says:

    Is this an English translation of a Finnish speech, or did you deliver it in Finnish?

    If I’m not mistaken, the kids at Norbert’s school pay extra to avoid using the vernacular.

  15. Norbert says:

    Thanks for the comments. Graduation speeches are a genre unto themselves, and they’re tough to write without going the ‘Wear. Sunscreen.’ route. My wife thought it was a barely veiled sacrament meeting talk, but it went over very well.

    sb2: thanks for the link. Very interesting. In Finland, no robes — they cover up the expensive dresses and suit — and funny little white hats.

    Kevin: Given in English. Peter speaks the truth. We do play each student’s national anthem while they get their diploma, and we had 11 nationalities out of 21 kids this year. France won (again!) for best anthem, but Peru’s was pretty kickin’ as well.

  16. was that last comment for me Norbert? thank you. Peru’s is pretty kickin.

%d bloggers like this: