It’s fashionable these days to give Dr. Seuss’ epic work of optimism, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, as a high school graduation gift. Indeed, it’s the rare college student who hasn’t received a copy from a parent, relative, or friend somewhere along the line. Published in 1990, there are eight million copies in print in the United States, and sales spike to best-selling levels every spring when graduation rolls around. Random House, mindful of the book’s special niche, even markets it as a “graduation speech.” Dr. Seuss’s charming ode to self-discovery is so closely identified with educational transition that you can even buy Oh, the Places You’ll Go graduation caps adorned with the pastel swirls that decorate the book’s cover. (The discerning undergraduate can also procure Oh, the Places You’ll Go glasses, stationery, notecards, bookmarks, and blank books.)
The success of Dr. Seuss’ rhyming commencement address says a lot about the place college occupies in our collective imagination. We see the college years as a time of intellectual journeys and important life lessons; hard work and invigorating challenge; exploration, growth, and discovery; a time when, to borrow from Seuss, “You’ll join the high fliers / who soar to high heights”—but only as long as you “Step with care and great tact / and remember that Life’s / a Great Balancing Act.”
That’s easier said than done, of course. And it’s especially tough on campuses where diffuse curricular requirements and doctrinaire courses often inhibit the free exchange of ideas and the exploration of viewpoints, while speech codes restrict free expression. As president of an organization dedicated to ensuring academic excellence and intellectual integrity in higher education—not to mention as a parent of a college student—I see these realities quite closely, and know their impact all too well.
So if I ran the zoo, this much would be true:
From the banks of the Charles to the lawns of Berkeley
Your hearts will be open and your minds will be free
To think and to read and to write and study
Amid vibrant debate and warm repartee.
Your scholarly homes will be filled with good cheer,
Your dorms will be safe and your meals without peer.
You’ll live among friends whom you’ll come to hold dear
Whether chemist or poet or flight engineer
No need for hook-ups, no need to binge drink
From this campus culture you won’t need to shrink.
Professors will care that you know how to think
Your four years of college will pass in a blink.
To parents I give three staunch guarantees
On free speech, on standards, on low college fees–
‘Cause firmly in charge we’ll place the trustees
Our freedom, our futures will they oversee.
A primer for life and a meditation on change, Oh, the Places You’ll Go is a children’s book that doubles, the dust jacket tells us, as a guide for “out-starting upstarts of all ages.” How different things would be if one such upstart were higher education itself. So to trustees, administrators, faculty, and students, I say:
Get going! Get cracking! To free inquiry be true.
Oh, the places you’ll go just as soon as you do!
Oh, the thoughts you will capture!
The insights you’ll master!
If only your school will reform itself faster.
Change can be tough
And rocky and rough
It kicks up all kinds of unpleasant stuff
But it’s what we must choose
And there is no time to lose–
So let’s just get on with the hullabaloos.
It will be worth it.
Yes! It will, indeed.
(99 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
With special thanks to ACTA research fellows Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black for their invaluable mastery of anapestic tetrameter.