Not Your Typical Convocation Speech

“Depression and despair” are not words that you expect to hear repeated by a typical rose-colored glasses wearing speaker at a Convocation address. But last Friday, Professor Shamus Khan of Columbia University greeted the Williston community with just those words as spoke about inequality in America and what that means for the teenagers who were assembled before him. 

A prominent sociologist whose book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite garnered national attention, Khan said that he would not be giving a typical convocation address, and he certainly did not disappoint. Asking students to confront the realities of an economic system in which there are growing disparities between groups of wage earners, Khan urged students to “stay in school” since education level has been shown to predict later economic success. He also encouraged students to maintain a degree of humility towards those who don’t enjoy the same privileges.

Williston graduates have a long tradition of “doing good well,” and it may be that some of our students will be inspired to explore questions similar to those Khan raised in his speech (watch it here). He did say, though, he can’t help them get into college when he self-deprecatingly warned, “Don’t ask me for a letter of recommendation to Columbia, because it won’t help you.” The passion he brings to dry and depressing census data clearly serves a greater purpose to society. Khan’s speech drew laughs, but judging by the number of students who sought him out during the dinner and reception that followed, he also added significantly to his fan base from Williston.

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