In this heartfelt commencement speech, delivered during this year's graduation ceremony on June 14, 2023, Upper School teacher Ben Smietana shared his invaluable wisdom with the graduating eighth-grade class of 2023. As the students prepare to embark on their high school journey, Ben's speech stands as a reminder of the significance of authenticity, self-reflection, and human connection in the digital age. Through candid anecdotes and genuine reflections, he urges the graduates to find balance, prioritize self-discovery, and embrace kindness in their lives.
Log Off, Touch Grass: A Commencement Speech for the Class of 2023
Eighth graders! Congratulations to all of you.
When Jody [Passanisi, Director of Upper School] told me I would be delivering the commencement speech for tonight’s graduation, I began thinking long and hard about what I wanted to say. I thought for a long time. I had many ideas, but I found it difficult to consolidate these ideas into a single, coherent plan. I realized that a good commencement speech should have at least three core elements: humor, pathos, and intellect. In other words, a good speech should make you laugh a little bit, cry a little bit, and think a little bit. But it is actually really difficult to meet those three demands.
And so I kept on thinking, mulling over in my mind the various possible themes for my speech. And I kept putting off the actual composition of the speech itself, until the fateful hour was quickly approaching and that feeling in the pit of my stomach was growing heavier and more insistent. At last, I came up with a brilliant idea: I would compose my speech using that new tool now being used by desperate students, writers, and workers around the world -- ChatGPT. So without further ado, here is my commencement speech courtesy of Chat GPT:
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, faculty, parents, and most importantly, the incredible Class of 2023.
Today is a day of celebration—a day to reflect upon our journey and the remarkable achievements we have accomplished together. As we stand here on the precipice of high school, we bid farewell to the familiar halls of middle school, embracing the unknown that lies ahead. It is an honor to address you all as we gather here for this momentous occasion—the commencement of our eighth-grade year.
First and foremost, let me extend my heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you. Today, we recognize not only the culmination of your middle school experience but also the beginning of a new chapter in your educational journey. . .
All right, I think that is enough; you get the idea. It’s impressive in its own way. But imagine if I had written my speech entirely using ChatGPT. What would have been left out? Would the speech have had any of my personality, or any personality at all? Would you have felt cheated? Would you have even bothered to listen? What would the world be like if everyone, or even most people, stopped writing their own speeches, essays, letters, and email? What will school look like if students no longer learn to write on their own, coming up with ideas from scratch and struggling to assemble words, sentences, and paragraphs out of those ideas? What if more artificial intelligence produces less human intelligence?
Hold on to those questions; I will return to them later.
II. Teachers Learning and Students Teaching
In the Talmud, Rabbi Chanina remarked, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.” (Taanit 7a) I think that most teachers will find this statement to be largely accurate. There is the formal knowledge that one learns in school and in training; but there is also the implicit, practical knowledge that one obtains in the course of doing. Teachers only learn to teach by jumping into the deep end and learning to swim. That means going into the classroom, meeting real students, and taking them as they are.
But there is a deeper sense in which teachers learn from their students, aside from learning how to teach. Teachers spend hours every day with their students -- lecturing, leading discussions, presenting information, providing advice and suggestions, and demonstrating skills. Teachers also spend much of their time at school just interacting with their students on a human level, one human being relating to other human beings. We come to know our students as individuals with their own characters, their own personality traits, their own opinions and preferences. These interactions are invaluable, as they help us to relate to our students on a human level, to understand their concerns, and to care about them. It is also inevitable that teachers learn many things from their students, both positive and negative.
And truly I have learned many valuable things from the class of 2023; let me focus on some of the positive lessons. I have learned, for example, that kindness, generosity, and empathy are the most important human values. I have learned that being a good friend is one of the highest human achievements. I have learned that there is a time for working hard and being serious, but that there is also a time for being silly and having fun. I have learned that you are happier when being true to yourself and that you can overcome your fear of expressing your true self. I have learned that hard work does pay off, that you can get better even at the tasks that you find the most difficult and frustrating. I have learned that it feels good to be appreciated. And I have learned that there are indeed intangible rewards to what many consider the thankless task of teaching middle school students. Thank you, class of 2023, for everything that you have taught me.
III. A Few Pieces of Advice
Enough praise. It is now my last chance to act as your teacher, after three years together, three years of humanities classes, homework, writing assignments, classroom discussions, reading and analyzing some of your favorite books, such as The Giver, The Lord of the Flies, and Black Elk Speaks. This is my last opportunity to impart a little bit of advice from someone who is a little bit older, a little bit more experienced, and -- who knows? -- perhaps a little bit wiser. And it is the last time you will be my captive audience.
But I will try to keep it short and sweet. I will try to leave you with five small nuggets of advice, five suggestions you can put in your pocket for later, to think about when you have the chance. I will even make it easy for you to remember.
- Log off.
- Touch grass.
- Read books.
- Hug your parents.
- Be kind.
A. Number One: Log Off
For almost half my life, and for all of your lives, humanity has been conducting a massive experiment on itself, an experiment on its minds, on its brains, and on its social relations. In this monumental experiment, conducted without awareness that we were doing so, we humans have moved our lives online and have abandoned many of our traditional ways of living. Many of us now carry smartphones everywhere, experiencing reality through the photos, videos, and social media posts that smartphones make possible. Many of us spend much of our leisure time finding entertainment through the digital world, playing video games, watching videos, and posting on social media. Much of schoolwork is now done online. And soon, if it has not happened already, many will become dependent on AI programs to do their work for them.
There are good reasons why we have made these changes, and this new digital mode of living has no doubt improved our lives in innumerable ways. But these changes also have a darker side, especially for adolescents such as yourselves, whose minds and brains are still developing and who are therefore more vulnerable to digital dangers. The signs of danger are everywhere. More and more people are becoming addicted to smartphones, to digital devices, to video games, to social media. There have been increasing rates of mental health problems connected to our online lives, especially among adolescents, including the reported incidence of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
There has been a war on human attention with weapons of mass distraction. Our attention spans are declining. Many of our thoughts, feelings, and opinions are shaped by algorithms, designed to maximize our engagement and the time we spend on screens. It is becoming harder and harder to focus, as we spend more time reading the next post, watching the next video, responding to the next text. Here is just one recent example of the mounting evidence. A researcher from the University of Columbia, studying the attention span of office workers, found that in 2004 the average office worker switched tasks every 150 seconds; in 2012 the average office worker switched tasks every 75 seconds; and in 2022 the average office worker switched tasks every 45 seconds. This is the world in which we all now live, the way most of us live now.
So a fundamental challenge for you, now and probably for the rest of your lives, will be learning to log off. All of us today struggle with logging off and living life IRL -- in real life. But we will need to figure out how and when and how often to log off.
I must say that on our class trip to Israel, when all of you were forcibly logged off, left without your smartphones or other digital devices, it was refreshing to see you interact: talking, joking, laughing, sharing, sometimes fighting, but behaving like old-fashioned human beings without some piece of modern technology intervening. Try to remember that spirit of friendship and camaraderie; would your experience of the class trip have been the same if you all had not been logged off?
B. Number Two: Touch Grass
When you do figure out when and how and how often to log off, you should also find some time to touch grass. “Touching grass,” in case you don’t know, is an online expression that means gaining perspective, or remembering what is truly important in life. People online might say “touch grass” when you are too wrapped up in some social media controversy, too immersed in the trivial details of online life, your mind full of brainworms. Don’t wait to be told to touch grass; log off and touch grass on your own initiative.
Yes, you can take this literally. Go outside. Remember that there is a natural world out there, full of plants and animals, full of sunlight and fresh air. But you should also “touch grass” in a metaphorical sense as well, in all sorts of situations. Increasingly, we are surrounded by online crowds, feeling the social pressure to compare ourselves with others; it is often easy to become a pettier, more envious, more resentful version of ourselves. Touching grass might mean finding time for thought and self-reflection. Do you know yourself, your own mind, your own thoughts? Tiktok, Instagram, Snapchat, or ChatGPT will not tell you the best way to live your life or what sort of person you should be.
A human being, with good health and some good luck, can expect to have 80, 90, or maybe even 100 years on this earth. With less luck, fewer years. You are young now and have your whole lives ahead of you. But eventually you will be in my place, just as I was once in yours. This is perhaps a somber thought, but it can serve as a stimulus for reflection. Are you making the best use of your time? Have you become the sort of person you should be? Are you a loyal, supporting friend? A loving child, sibling, relative? A generous, concerned member of your community?
I have no doubt that many of you, most of you, all of you, will find success in your lives. This is a bright, dedicated, hardworking, and motivated group. You have so many advantages in life. But what will success mean? Are there other important goals in life, besides earning money, winning status, or gaining popularity? Sometimes you will need to touch grass and ponder these questions.
C. Number Three: Read Books
As a humanities teacher, much of what I do is teach students how to read books: how to understand what they read, how to analyze, question, challenge, and apply what they read in books of literature and history.
In my own life, books have meant the world to me. As many of you may have observed, I am almost always reading a book. Works of literature, history, and politics help me to know myself and the world; they help me to figure out what I think and when to change my mind. I cannot imagine my life without a lifetime spent reading books.
We humans have built an extraordinary civilization of literacy, based on printing technology and the publication of multitudes of books. This civilization allows us to educate ourselves over the course of our whole lives; immersing ourselves in books provides us the time and attention to reflect on what is important in our lives, what purposes we can find to make our lives worthwhile.
But this civilization is threatened by the new online civilization. I do worry about what will become of the humanities in this brave new world. I fear that AI, ChatGPT, YouTube, and video games cannot replace what books give us. So if you manage to log off and find time to touch grass, also consider picking up a book. I have found nothing better for knowing my own mind and my own thoughts than immersing myself in the thoughts of another person contained in a book. The books I read return continually to the most important questions you can ask yourselves: What is the purpose of my life? What am I going to do with my limited time on earth? What is the best way to live?
D. Number Four: Hug Your Parents
When I was little, my mother used to say to me, “No one will ever love you as much as your parents.” I have found this to be true in my own life, and I think many people would agree with it. Nothing can quite replace the experience of raising another human being from a helpless infant into a self-reliant adult. You might not know that truth now, but many of you probably will realize it at some point in your lives.
That is why it is important to show your parents the appropriate love, affection, and gratitude in the present moment. One way to express your love is to hug them. But there are many other ways.
My own father passed away during this past school year; it can be difficult to deal with the loss of a parent. Right now, during this period of your lives, your parents probably annoy and embarrass you much of the time. This is only natural. But no one will love you as much as your parents. They have guided you, supported you, cared for you, worried about you, cried over you, celebrated your successes and suffered in your struggles. You have obviously by now realized that your parents are not perfect; they are flawed human beings like the rest of us, and they are trying their best to raise you. So give them a big hug.
E. Number Five: Be Kind
Sure, it is a cliche. You have no doubt heard it many times over the course of your lives. But try to think about what it really means to be kind, and think about why you personally might benefit from being kind to others.
It is actually rather difficult to be genuinely kind. It is much easier to be polite, or at least tolerant. But being kind means caring about someone else; it means recognizing someone else’s humanity, and it means understanding that this person has many of the same thoughts and feelings that you have and suffers in many of the same ways that you suffer.
I have witnessed many amazing acts of kindness from this class of 2023. You were at your best when you cared for one another and recognized each other’s humanity. Think about how you felt when you did something kind or generous for a classmate. I bet it made you feel good inside. And that is perhaps the greatest benefit of kindness; the biggest reward goes to the person showing kindness. It is often difficult to be a kind person; for many, apathy and indifference, even rudeness or hostility, come more naturally. This is especially true in the online world, a world filled with anonymous trolls and mean-spirited memes. But kindness is worth the effort.
So that’s it. Log off. Touch grass. Read books. Hug your parents. And be kind.
I guess my speech wasn’t so short and sweet. It probably did not have enough humor or pathos. But my speech did come from my heart; it did reflect my sincere thoughts and advice to you; and it did not come from ChatGPT.