Ah, the obligatory goodbye column — a graduating opinion writer’s last duty. The aim is to say something insightful about the future by reflecting on one’s time at the University. But when I sat down to write this column two night’s ago, nothing worthwhile sprung to mind. I tossed three terrible drafts in the trash before finally giving up and heading out for a walk.
I was hoping it would be one of those walks where I just let my feet carry me forward, randomly stumbling across people and places from the past, generating ideas for this column. After ten minutes, I had walked directly to the only place my feet were trained to take me — the front steps of The Michigan Daily.
This newspaper has been both the greatest challenge and deepest reward of my time at the University. I arrived in the fall of 2006 as a brash, naive conservative with a sincere desire to infiltrate and eliminate what was in my view the University’s ultimate arbiter of liberal propaganda, The Michigan Daily. Imagine my surprise when they actually hired me.
What followed was a long, demanding and enjoyable career as a columnist and, eventually, the editorial page editor. Expecting to make enemies with the rest of the writers, I instead gained life-long friends. And while some of my views certainly rubbed off on the Daily’s editorial perspective, having to defend arguments that I didn’t necessarily agree with influenced my opinions as well. The ideological exchange was well worth it, and my opinions became more sensible because of it.
Bidding farewell to the Daily the other night, I headed back toward my apartment. As I crossed the Diag, I inadvertently stepped on the block M for the very first time, having avoided it for years due to that silly superstition about failing blue book exams. Like most of you, I first heard that one at freshman orientation, when the entire campus seemed like a daunting maze of mythology, tradition and the unknown. I wondered how I was possibly going to survive the next four years. Meeting new people, getting good grades, successfully navigating LSA distribution requirements and finding adequate housing — all without going broke — seemed like it would be more than I could handle.
And you know what? Sometimes, it was more than I could handle. I’ve had more than my fair share of disappointing grades. I ran out of money. And I’m still expecting to discover some hidden LSA requirement that I missed, barring me from graduation. Still, the most important lessons weren’t discovered in classes. They were learned as a consequence of interacting with students who dressed differently than me, listened to different music, had different goals for their lives and had different beliefs about themselves and the world. Ann Arbor has imparted to us its lessons about tolerance, diversity, peace and personal freedom. It’s changed us — and mostly for the better.
But the world around has changed considerably, too. When we first arrived at the University, George W. Bush was still the president, and the nation was already tired of the wars in the Middle East. Four years later, we’re even more tired of them. In 2008, the United States elected its first black president, who will reward the many University students who worked tirelessly to elect him by speaking at commencement. And after graduation, we will be thrust into a national economy so abysmal that it in many ways, it might not be ready for our entry into the workforce. Ready or not, here we come.
With that in mind, I made my third and final stop on my walk — the Arb. It’s both prohibited and slightly terrifying to enter the Arb at night, but I needed to say goodbye to my favorite place at a time when no one else could interrupt me. And surrounded by the dark woods, the one piece of advice I had to offer finally came to me: Do something that you’re not supposed to do.
2010 graduates face a future that is just as grim yet as wondrously mysterious as the Arb at night. We won’t fix this troubled world of ours by following all the rules. We go forward as people with the right and the responsibility to question the presumptions of all forms of authority to create a more freethinking and critical-minded society.
And undergraduates, that goes for you too. Start a provocative group. Protest a policy you disagree with. Tell your professors and classmates that they’re wrong. Take a walk through the Arb at night. But whatever you do, love every minute of it.
To my readers: Thank you for hearing me out all these years. It’s been a pleasure and an honor.
Robert Soave was the Daily’s 2009 editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.