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What do we wanna be when we grow up?

May 18, 2016

By the time these words come to you, dear reader, a threshold shall have been passed. My daughter Marietta will have graduated from Hampshire College, joining tens of thousands of other young men and women starting out on the next phases of their lives. (Your cheers and applause are well-deserved; she’s worked extremely hard, and I’m a very proud father.)

It’s not clear where her future lies, of course. She has a broad range of possibilities in front of her. Through dealing with a variety of challenges over the course of her college career, she’s gained skills, experience and most importantly, a certain amount of self-knowledge and self-understanding.

But of course, her education and training are not over. Far from it. To succeed in the new world she’s entering, she’ll need to keep developing, changing and growing, and the only way to do that will be by engaging fully with that world as it is. She’ll make some mistakes, some of them painful, and she’ll have triumphs and breakthroughs. But she will find out who she is and decide who she wants to be.

I’m not telling you the news, I know. I’ve gone off on this commencement-speech tangent not only because I wanted to brag on my daughter a little bit, but also because I want to draw a parallel. I think we as a people are also at a critical point in our development. Like my daughter, we have come to a point where some self-examination and self-assessment are both appropriate and required.

Like my daughter, we also have to decide: what do we want to be when we grow up?

On the national level, of course, we have an advantage that young individuals don’t have. We have founding documents that can provide a sense of who we are—or at least, of who we were intended to be—and against which we can measure ourselves. I do believe that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, along with the commentary found in the Federalist Papers, can give us some useful guidance. But I am not an “originalist.” Even if we could somehow “read the minds” of those men from long ago, their insights and ideas would still have to be constantly re-evaluated in the light of changing circumstances.