National School Boards Association head gives 2017 spring commencement address

November 06, 2017

Editor's Note: On May 7, 2017, National School Boards Association Executive Director and CEO Thomas J. Gentzel delivered the following commencement address to the College of Education:

So, What?

Good afternoon! WE ARE!!

President Barron; Dean Monk; honorable colleagues on the platform; faculty and staff; parents, families and friends; and, most importantly, our graduates: Thank you for the invitation to speak today. I am deeply honored to be part of this special occasion.

And this is, truly, a very special day — the big reward for years of determined effort. Congratulations on this wonderful accomplishment!

Now, before we go any further, I need to share something with you — frankly, it’s a burden that I am carrying this afternoon. As I prepared these remarks, I realized that no matter what I might say, no matter how eloquent I may be, many of you are not likely to remember this speech. In fact, let’s be honest: some of you may forget it before you leave the building!

But, I want you to know I’m OK with that. I’ve come to terms with it. So, I’m taking a different tack. Instead of soaring rhetoric, tear-jerking messages or career advice, I have come to pose just one, little, two-word question:

So, what?

That’s it; the message for today: “So, what?”

If you remember nothing else about this speech, I hope you at least will hold onto this elegantly simple question. It is my favorite one, and I ask it all the time of myself and others.

Now, to be clear, this phrase has a dark side that I am not advocating. For instance, if you told me your dog died, and I said “so what?” you probably would be insulted. The question can be used dismissively or rudely, which of course I don’t think is a good idea.

No, I like the question when it is used for a purpose — to gain understanding or to seek clarity. Often, when used this way, it contains a few more words, depending on the situation.

For instance, when we try to comprehend the significance of an event, or of a proposal that is being presented, we might ask: “So, what does that mean?”

Or, if we’re convinced we need to take action, we might ask: “So, what should we do now?”

The real power of this question (“so what?”) is linked directly to what I consider to be the most important attributes of a successful person in today’s society — namely, pondering, questioning and learning.

To ask “so, what?” is to not accept things at face value, but to drill down to the core of an issue. Ironically, as I have come to appreciate, we can be most confident in ourselves when we acknowledge we don’t know everything about a topic and want to learn more.

This is the same curiosity that leads a two-year-old to ask “why?” incessantly — but curiosity that often fades as we go through adulthood and are consumed with being successful and focus on our own lives and careers.

Now, when urgent needs get in the way, not seeking information is understandable. But not wanting to know more because we don’t care is another matter altogether. We can’t complain about being clueless if we don’t bother to look for clues. We have the tools to understand, but we too often fail to use them.

So, I wonder: Is our society destined to just being satisfied with knowing only as much as we need to know to get through the day, not bothering to ask questions or to really understand what’s happening around us? How can we make certain that doesn’t happen?

I suggest we start right where many of you are headed after today: in America’s schools, the place where our next generation of leaders and decision-makers already is being prepared.

From your own school experiences, you know that students are more likely to be successful, and to be engaged and interested in their education, when they are active participants in instruction and not simply recipients of it. Hands-on learning, inquiry, and seeking to understand something deeply — and not simply to be able to answer questions on a standardized test — are skills that are valued now more than ever. And that’s as it should be.

I can memorize a formula, a date in history or the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and then repeat it on an exam. The question is: Do I understand why it’s important to know in the first place? And, can I apply this information when necessary? Underlying this is the same question we have been asking: So, what? Why does it matter, and why should I care?

Helping students appreciate those questions is to help ensure they keep asking them long after they leave school. It is the essence of learning. Curiosity should be a perpetual itch, and we should feel a great sense of satisfaction as we scratch it.

The employees who tend to be most successful, the friends we value the most, and the relationships that last longest are those where people genuinely are interested in what others have to say, and why they are saying it.

Unfortunately, though, in conversations people too often spend the time when someone else is talking, just thinking about what they are going to say next, rather than paying attention to what actually is being told to them. They are not truly “present”; they may hear, but they do not listen.

I wonder how different this world would be if we were required to wait five seconds — just five seconds! — from the end of one sentence to the start of the next. What if we were forced to pause and consider what we have heard and to weigh its implications before responding? In other words, to ask ourselves: “So what?” — and to really mean it.

Of course, this would require people to think before they speak!

Let’s face it, we all know folks who not only don’t listen carefully, they don’t even bother to talk with those who disagree with them. Their views are fixed and their minds are closed. Having opinions is a healthy thing; refusing to consider those of others is not.  To quote Billy Joel: “You may be right; I may be crazy.” Hard to know, though, if we never question ourselves or others.

So, today may be the end of your formal education — or perhaps that will come in a few more years — but the learning should go on as long as you do. We should always be intrigued and eager to know more.

This is my wish for you: Success in whatever way you define it, good health and happiness, of course. But I hope that you never stop wanting to learn. That you feel a constant desire to hold ideas up to the light, turn them around and examine them. That you pay attention to what others think, and take time to figure out why. That you are confident enough in yourself that you’re willing to challenge your views — and even to be persuaded to change them.

As the old saying goes, when you change the way you look at things, things change the way they look.

So, celebrate curiosity! Always provoke yourself to learn.

Well, my friends, as I close these comments, I suspect two entirely different reactions are occurring in this audience right now.

Some of you, hopefully, are thinking: “That was really interesting. Those were good words to ponder.”

But others, after hearing all this, may just be asking: “So what?” And, if so, you’ve just made my day. Good luck, and thank you!

Follow @Tom_NSBA on Twitter.

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Last Updated November 06, 2017