US Chief Justice John Roberts’ Commencement Address to 9th Graders — Could as Well Be for Our Young Adults Today


In July of this year, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gave a very unusual commencement speech at the Cardigan Mountain School, a private boys-only boarding and day school in New Hampshire, from which his son was graduating. He told the graduating youngsters what can happen if we do not learn the correct lessons growing up, especially if you are born to privilege. Here are some excerpts from his address:

“Rain, somebody said, is like confetti from heaven. So even the heavens are celebrating this morning, joining the rest of us at this wonderful commencement ceremony. … …

“… If you look back to your first afternoon here at Cardigan, perhaps you will recall that you were lonely. Perhaps you will recall that you were a little scared, a little anxious. And now look at you. You are surrounded by friends that you call brothers, and you are confident in facing the next step in your education…. … And as far as the confidence goes… … it is not because you succeeded at everything you did, but because with the help of your friends, you were not afraid to fail. And if you did fail, you got up and tried again. And if you failed again, you got up and tried again. And if you failed again, it might be time to think about doing something else. But it was not just success, but not being afraid to fail that brought you to this point.

“Now commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck… I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted.

“I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.

“Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

“Now commencement speakers are also expected to give some advice. They give grand advice, and they give some useful tips. The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically… But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes. In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be…. …

“Now some tips as you get ready to go to your new school. Over the last couple of years, I have gotten to know many of you young men pretty well, and I know you are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it.

“When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school. Another piece of advice: When you pass by people you don’t recognize on the walks, smile, look them in the eye and say hello. The worst thing that will happen is that you will become known as the young man who smiles and says hello, and that is not a bad thing to start with…”

Mr. Roberts concluded his address by reciting the poem Forever Young by Bob Dylon. As I was reading the commencement speech, I recalled the following colloquial Tamil proverb:

Translation: “Even your Annan (older brother) and Tambi (younger brother) are as helpful [to grow] as the ‘beatings’ you gets [in life].” The “beatings” are the humiliations, failures, disappointments, and betrayals — even bad luck in life that the chief justice talked about in addressing his young audience. Well-educated Millennials (Desis included), many of them born to comfort bordering privilege, now are working trying to climb their career ladders. They too will benefit if they heed Justice Roberts’ speech. Given the recklessness emanating from the occupants of the West Wing offices of the White House today, I wonder whom the learned Chief Justice had in mind in his commencement address.

— By K S Venkataraman  

The author acknowledges Arun Jatkar for sending a shorter video clip of the speech, which led him to get the transcript of the entire speech. ♣

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