Richard Reeves

To the Lucky Class of 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Another year, another graduation. But, of course, this is not just another year. For the graduates themselves, it is one of the most important times of their lives. For many of them, their parents and millions of ordinary Americans, it is a very, very tough time.

My graduation was last Friday -- not as a student, but as a teacher at the University of Southern California. For me it was a great year because I had great students.

I hear I'm in a dying business -- not education, but my field: The things I teach, journalism and writing, are destined to go the way of old flesh. I don't believe that. More important, I don't want my students to believe that. Companies may die, not always a bad thing, but collecting and evaluating information is part of the human drive, human necessity, the human condition.

Journalism is changing because, one more time, technology is changing. People have thought that "adding value to information," which is how an editor of The New York Times once defined the business, was dead with the coming of other new technologies -- the telegraph and then the telephone and then television.

I have noticed -- it's hard not to -- that my students at USC's Annenberg School for Communication are bored to tears by older men and women telling them that the sky is falling. Maybe our sky is falling, but theirs is just opening. To put it cruelly: My friends in newspapers and on television are losing their roles (and jobs) to make room for my students.

It is comic to watch how teaching is done these days. Regularly, eminent scholars have to stop delivering the wisdom of the ages to ask some kid to go to this or that Web site or explain what happens in some little black box. I am most reminded of the Lower East Side of Manhattan a century ago where kids were empowered because they could speak English but their parents could not.

It's more than a little like that at home these days isn't it? "How did I lose that channel?" "The damn computer is down?" "Where is junior, dammit?"

It's the same at great universities. Yes, my students, as good as they are, could have real problems getting first jobs -- and all jobs are like first jobs now. As President Obama said last Thursday at Arizona State's graduation: "Now, some graduating classes have marched into this stadium in easy times -– times of peace and stability when we call on our graduates to simply keep things going and not screw it up. Other classes have received their diplomas in times of trial and upheaval, when the very foundations of our lives have been shaken, the old ideas and institutions have crumbled, and a new generation is called on to remake the world."

Guess where the Class of 2009 fits in. The world is being remade whether they or we like it or not.

So why not get in on the remaking? Obama has earned the right to talk that way because he decided to go where no president of the Harvard Law Review had gone before -- into "community organizing" on the South Side of Chicago. Republicans made fun of him for that during last year's campaign, the theory being that only a fool gives up the big bucks to do something like that.

His message was to do what needs to be done, what you want to do. Do something worthwhile. Have fun. Journalism is fun, I tell my classes. Every once in a while you get to touch history, change things. Civil rights. Vietnam. Watergate. My generation of reporters and writers did that, and believe me we had a great time -- wouldn't trade it for all the money Madoff stole.

Then I tell them I never met a happy lawyer in a big firm or corporation. And I would be glad to change places with my students in these hard and challenging times if such things were possible. Read Wordsworth: "Bliss was it that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven."

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