President Brian Rosenberg delivered the following remarks to the members of the Class of 2015 at their May 16th Commencement

To the Class of 2015: your generation doesn’t yet have a name.

Before you, there were the Baby Boomers and the Post-Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials. Whoever decides these things seems to have concluded that you are no longer the Millennials, but has not yet settled on precisely who you are.

A term that seems to be gaining some popularity is the “Moat Generation,” which, I think you’ll agree, doesn’t sound very good— unless you’re an alternative rock band, in which case it’s a pretty cool name. The earliest reference to the term that I have been able to find is in an essay by an author named Donald Asher, though its use is becoming more widespread, and it is surely only a matter of time before it becomes a hand-wringing cover story in the Education Life section of The New York Times.

The logic goes like this: Thanks in part to having grown up in an era of intense partisanship, and thanks in part to having been immersed for years in the echo-chamber of social media, you have been able to live in, to create, a world in which you are surrounded only by the like-minded, and to lock out or silence voices and views that challenge your own. Thanks to having come of age in the years following the Great Recession, you are more worried about economic security and less concerned with service to others than was the previous generation. You aspire to create a barrier, a moat, behind which you can live in ideological purity and physical comfort.

I don’t accept this characterization, but neither do I think it should be casually dismissed. Social media in particular, in my admittedly old-fashioned view, have made it dangerously easy to find confirmation for any point of view, to create virtual communities that are frighteningly homogeneous, and to vilify, often anonymously, those with whom one disagrees. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has written that the Internet, rather counter-intuitively, “locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different. They [get] trapped in [a] system of feedback reinforcement. The idea that there is another world of other people who have other ideas is marginalized in our lives.” Blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds sometimes strike me as the contemporary equivalent of the castles that dotted the medieval European landscape, each perched on its own hill, battlements raised against any invasion by some alien army of dissenters.

Yet if you are in fact the Moat Generation, I choose to think of Macalester as the drawbridge. (I could carry this metaphor even further and declare myself PBR, the Lord of Winterfell, but I will resist.). Your Macalester years should have been the means through which you have crossed your moat and connected intellectually and emotionally with the rest of our diverse, vexed, and infinitely complex planet. They should have taught you the dangers of walling oneself off from perspectives unlike your own and the deep challenge, and rich joy, of seeing the world through the eyes of another. They should have taught you the stubborn pervasiveness of ambiguity and the wisdom that can be born out of the sharp, passionate clash of conflicting ideas.

I could say that I hope you carry these lessons with you for the rest of your lives, but that would be something of a mistatement. I am convinced that you will do so, not because I am an optimist, but because I have seen firsthand, through interaction with generation after generation of Macalester graduates, that this is the case. They live lives, you will live lives, of service and exploration, of curiosity and connection. They realize that individual success is most likely and most meaningful when communities are most equitable and caring. They don’t build moats. They build bridges. They tear down walls.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that you are a Millennial or a Post-Millennial or a Moat Person, disagree, politely, and tell them no, I am a graduate of Macalester College—I am a graduate of Macalester College—and that defines me more profoundly than any superficial generational
label.

Best wishes to you all, and thank you for the many ways in which you have contributed to this community during the past four years.

August 18 2015

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