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Dean Ryan's Commencement Remarks

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family, and friends. Congratulations to you all. I’d like to begin by thanking all of the families and friends in the audience today. I’ve been so moved by your stories over the past few days and to learn about the distances and obstacles you overcame to be here. Like the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, spouses, partners, school friends, work friends, best friends, and maybe even frenemies in the audience, I share your pride in the accomplishments of our graduating students and your joy at the prospects that lie ahead. At the same time, I share in the gratitude that I know our graduating students feel toward all of you. Like I said yesterday, no one makes it to graduation alone. For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to those who helped them on this journey.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout this year to help all of us, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you all. They are the heart and soul of this place, as committed to our mission of improving education as anyone, and they deserve a huge round of applause.

Last but not least, I would also like to thank the faculty, who have served not simply as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends, and I would like give special thanks to Kurt Fischer, a pillar of this community and a true giant in the field of human development. He retired this year, after having dedicated his life’s work to this place, and he leaves the school much richer because of his time here.

We are here to award our graduating students diplomas, which we will do shortly. But first, I am required to give a speech and you are required to applaud politely at various points during my remarks. A few whoops along the way would be fine as well.

Last year, I gave a speech about time, with a few words about kindness and courage. My wife, Katie, listened to the speech, and I asked her what she thought of it. “Pretty good,” she said, “but I thought it was a little preachy.”

The preachy comment stuck with me, which is why, this year, I’ve decided to talk about sin — and in particular, the sin of omission and the basic idea that you should pay attention to what you are not doing. Rather than make this year’s speech less preachy, I thought I’d go all in and do a full-blown sermon. Now, before you get nervous, I should note that I intend to talk about the sin of omission not from a religious perspective but to use it as a metaphor for ethical behavior and an approach to life. This will be a secular sermon, not a religious one.

I want to talk about the sin of omission as it relates to your professional lives, your personal lives, and more broadly to education itself.

But before we get knee deep in sin, let me take a moment to reassure you about the careers ahead of you. Here’s the most important point I have to relay: you are all going to rock. That is a technical educational term for achieving advanced proficiency. You have spent your time here learning to change the world through education in ways large and small, you have begun to understand what it takes to fulfill the promise of diversity, and you have engaged with the world beyond Appian Way during an exceptionally tragic year of racial injustice.

I hope and trust you feel prepared and inspired for the tasks that lie ahead. You may be worried, but don’t fret. If you survived the snowpocalypse this year, you can survive anything. More seriously, you are the luckiest graduates in the entire university, because you are going to work in education, and there is no higher calling and no more rewarding or meaningful field in which to work.

So whether you are graduating from the AIE, TIE, Ed.L.D., Ed.D., EPM, L&L, L&T, TEP, MBE, HEP, C.A.S., PSP, SLP, SSP, HDP, or IEP programs. Whether you are leaving here to begin or return to teaching; to become a school leader or to start a school, to work in federal, state or local government; to be a counselor, to work in an advocacy organization; to work here in the U.S. or abroad, to work in higher ed, preK, or an ed tech start up; you will some day soon change the world.

That is, you will if you avoid the sin of omission. Cue the ominous organ music.  

By way of background, the basic idea behind the sin of omission, whether as featured in religious traditions or in its secular, metaphorical form, is that, just as it is wrong to do intentional harm, it is also sometimes wrong to do nothing — that is, it is wrong to fail to act or speak. The sin itself is recognized as such in a number of religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, though it is not a pantheistic concept, just like the concept of sin is not universal among all religions. I offer these observations, I should add, not as an expert on world religions but as a pretty good Googler. I can tell you from personal authority, however, that the sin of omission is a fairly big deal in the Catholic Church, which was the faith in which I was raised. Catholicism, as you may know, has a detailed, almost legalistic accounting of sin, including the sin of omission.

I have been fascinated by this particular sin since I first learned about it in the 8th grade, during, appropriately enough, my first confession. I vividly remember standing in line with my fellow adolescent penitents, mulling over what I might confess to the Catholic priest, when I spotted my friend Greg Iannuzi. This was significant because a few years earlier, Greg and I had basically set my backyard on fire.

We started innocently enough by trying to light a leaf on fire with a magnifying glass. When that didn’t work, we decided to pour gasoline on the leaf. Turns out that worked really well. (To the kids in the audience, please don’t try this at home — or anyplace else for that matter.) In any event, before Greg and I knew it, there was a big blaze in my backyard, which we finally managed to put out with buckets of sand and a hose but — not before my eyebrows were singed off and a sizable black mark was left in our yard. My father asked me that night if I knew what had happened. It was more of a rhetorical question, really, because there was no great mystery. Nonetheless, I denied knowing anything about it, despite him pointing out that he was pretty sure I had started the day with eyebrows.

So there I am years later standing in line with my firefighting friend, Greg. We looked at each other just before I was going into the confessional and we knew exactly what was on the other’s mind. “You going to tell?” he asked me. “Not sure,” I replied. I went in, confessed to a few minor sins — throwaways, really — and then asked the priest what happens if you confess to some sins but not all of them. (Just wanted to know my options.) He said that in itself could be a sin, a sin of omission. “Damn,” I remember thinking, but not saying, obviously. As the priest explained that failing to act (or in this case confess) when we know we should is not much different than doing an intentionally bad act, I pictured an endless loop of sin piled on sin and confessed on the spot — both to setting the blaze and, as they say in D.C., to misremembering that fact when questioned by my father. Nonetheless, I remained somewhat puzzled by the equation of acts and omissions.

As I grew older I came to appreciate that failing to act is often a choice, and that we rightfully bear responsibility for our choices. The choice not to act, I realized after a college class on postmodern thought, is itself an act, and like most people I came to recognize the secular version of the sin of omission and to understand that, sometimes, failing to act is just as blameworthy as acting badly. I personally thought at this point that I was coming along nicely on the moral development front.

And then I went to law school, and there I met the drowning baby.

The drowning baby is a well-worn hypothetical used by first-year law professors to introduce the legal concept of duty. The fictional story is simple: a man (interestingly, it’s always a man) walks down a street and sees a baby face down in a puddle. Oddly, no one else is around, and the man could easily turn the baby over to prevent drowning, without any risk to himself. He doesn’t. The question is this: Has he violated any law — civil or criminal? The answer, which first-year law students are surprised to learn, is no. The reason is that under the law, we generally don’t owe an affirmative duty to strangers. We have to avoid hurting others, but we have no legal obligation to help them, regardless of how easy it might be to do so.

If you are thinking you’re glad you didn’t go to law school because it might forever cloud your sense of right and wrong, I’m with you. I think the law contains a cramped notion of our obligations toward others. I prefer the more robust concept embodied in the sin of omission, which I would translate into these plain, secular, and very simple terms: If you have the power to help someone, if you have the ability to right a wrong, or if you have the opportunity to make your voices heard, you should rightfully feel bad when you fail to do so. Not only should you feel bad, I predict you will feel bad. From here on out, that’s all that I mean by the sin of omission.

So how does the sin of omission relate to you and your professional careers and personal lives?  Here comes the sermon part.

You are leaving a world where most of your obligations have been externally imposed and fairly clear, and where your performance has literally been graded. You will be entering a world where obligations are going to be less clear, grades nonexistent, and external indicators of performance sometimes opaque.

This is not to say that there will be no external markers of success or indicators of achievement. There will be, and I guarantee you will exceed them — because of your enormous talents and because of the drive that has led you to succeed in the past. Like I said, you are going to rock. You will be told, time and again, that you are doing great work. And you should take pride in that. You should also give thanks, perhaps even financial thanks, to the institutions that helped you along the way.

But in addition to taking pride in your work, you should always ask yourself if you could be doing more — and by more, I mean doing more to help others. It’s precisely because you are so talented that you should never be completely satisfied until you have satisfied yourself that you have done all you could.

For that to happen, you need to set your own internal expectations and do things that you know are right, even when no one would blame you for failing to act. This is just as important in your personal life as it is in your professional life. There will be chances, large and small, to help others who are closest to you, even when you are not expected to do so. No one will blame you, for example, if you can’t make it to your child’s presentation in an elementary school class because it’s in the middle of the day and you have to work. But if you can figure out a way to be there, go, because you know it’s the right thing to do.

These opportunities won’t always be staring you in the face. They will sometimes be more like tugs at your sleeve that are easy to ignore. If you haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcylcle Maintenance yet, you should. In it, the author Robert Pirsig talks about facts that tug at your sleeve, hoping to be recognized because if they were, you’d be able to solve the problem that was puzzling you or see the world in a different light. I think of that image often and believe that opportunities to help others, to right wrongs, and to speak up often appear not as obvious demands but instead as tugs at your sleeve. You should pay attention to those tugs.

I’m also suggesting that you do things that you know are right even when you won’t get any credit or thanks. The immortal John Wooden, hall of fame coach for UCLA men’s basketball team, is credited with saying that “character is what you do when no one is looking.” I believe Will Rogers and Einstein are also credited with saying this, but that’s not the point. The point is that you should do the right thing even when no one will notice. When I was kid, my father used to say, when I had left some task undone and protested that it wasn’t my job or that no one had asked me to do it, which happened incredibly rarely, but still, he’d say, “You should see what needs doing and do it without being told.” I found this intensely annoying when I was younger but have come to think it’s actually a profound statement about how to approach life: See what needs doing, and do it without being told — do it, in other words, even if it’s not your job and even if you will get no notice or credit.

Finally, you should also learn, if you haven’t already, to speak up when you have something to say, even when no one would expect you to speak or blame you for remaining quiet. It may be at work, when you have to have an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague or student that could easily be avoided. It may be at home with your partner, spouse, or children. It may be at a school board meeting, or in the halls of Congress, when you have the chance to speak out against an injustice. If you are hesitating about whether to say anything, remember MLK’s remark that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As the quote from Dr. King suggests, sins of omission can be the source of some our deepest regrets. I know this from personal experience. This is a hard story to tell, but I want to share it with you in the hope that it will serve as a cautionary tale.

My mother fell and broke her hip in August of 2009. She was relatively young, 71, but had a number of health issues that made her somewhat frail and vulnerable. She suffered from one complication after another over a tortuous five-week period, and there were a few times when I thought she was not receiving the care she needed. But, for a number of reasons, I didn’t push the doctors to do more, and I didn’t look for ways to get her to a different hospital or different set of doctors. Five weeks after she fell, while still in the hospital, she suffered a series of strokes and died while I held her hand. Everyone around me said the doctors had done all they could and that I had as well. But I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t blame the doctors, but I blamed myself for not pushing harder or doing more. Maybe the result would have been the same, but that’s just the point when it comes to sins of omission. You’ll never know if the outcome would have changed if you had acted. And that’s a haunting weight to bear — like a stone around your neck that makes it a bit harder to lift your head each day to see the light of the sun.

So that’s a bit of a downer, I realize, but here’s the good news: I promise that every time you choose to lend a hand, or to right a wrong, or to speak up, you will feel better — about the world and about yourself. To be sure, when you act, you may make a mistake; when you speak, you may say the wrong thing. But it is much better to fail while daring greatly than to be a bystander, to borrow a line from Teddy Roosevelt. If you fail while trying, often the worst thing that can happen is that you will have a funny story to tell, perhaps years later — but still, it will be a good story. I have never heard a funny story about failing to try.

Now, you might be thinking that I’m describing an approach to life that is bound to make you feel unworthy or at least unfulfilled, as there will be always be more you could do to help. One more student to assist; another teacher to coach; another family to counsel; another school board meeting to attend. Not to mention the enduring issues like poverty, racial injustice, educational inequality, warfare, and discrimination.

But I actually think that taking the sin of omission seriously will bring you a certain amount of peace.

Most, if not all of us, are fallen, to continue the sin metaphor just a bit more. We all take breaks. We all indulge in one form of frivolous activity or another. And we all choose which of the unfortunately large number of injustices that exist in the world we will address — even though we might be able to address more than the ones we’ve chosen.

It’s hard not to be humble once you reach this level of self-awareness. If you recognize that you are always going to fall a little short when it comes to righting wrongs or helping those around you, my guess is that you are going to be inclined to be a bit more forgiving of others. And I promise that will bring you some measure of peace with the world around you, as you focus less on what others could or should be doing, which is often frustratingly beyond your control, and more on how you can help, which is almost always within your power.

So all well and good, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with education? Good question, and here’s my answer, and the conclusion of my talk.

As a society, we tend to focus so much attention on bad acts that we lose sight of what led to those acts in the first place. Possible sins of commission blind us to the preceding sins of omission.

To see what I mean, just think of the numerous tragedies this year involving police shootings of unarmed African-Americans in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, and South Carolina, as well as the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore at the hands of police there. We focused a lot of attention on the shootings or killings and the reaction by those who protested, sometimes violently, afterward. But much less attention was paid to all of the things we didn’t do up to that point that might have averted these tragedies. And one of the biggest things we haven’t done in this country is educate our kids in a way that enables them as adults to see similarities, rather than differences, across lines of race and class. That’s a pretty big sin of omission, when you think about it.

More generally, I would say that our single biggest national sin of omission is our continued failure to provide our most vulnerable children, often poor and students of color, truly equal educational opportunities. The central problem of education is not so much what we are doing, but what we have failed to do. In ignoring our obligations to those who are least advantaged, in ignoring the children who are drowning in puddles all around us, we have as a nation committed an enormous, century-long sin of omission.

And my guess is that, deep down, this is why you came to HGSE, even if you’ve never heard of the sin of omission. You understand that our collective aim, as educators, is not simply to atone for that sin, but to prevent it from happening in the future. That’s what it means to change the world, and my final charge to you is to get busy on that task, and to never settle.

So pay attention to the tug at your sleeve, lend a hand, right wrongs, speak up, and as you leave Appian Way today, see what needs doing and do it without being told.