Journalism teacher Paul Kandell delivers rousing baccalaureate speech


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Kandell stressed the importance of seeking out opposing viewpoints in news and media consumption. “Everyone has the news in his or her pocket, but you are entering a world that is potentially the most misinformed it’s ever been,” he said. – http://vimeo.com/12406948Palo Alto High School journalism teacher Paul Kandell, who was named the 2009 National Journalism Teacher of the Year by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, received a standing ovation for his baccalaureate address focused on truth in society on Sunday at Stanford University’s Memorial Auditorium.

Kandell, who integrated a slideshow full of photos of Paly students, faculty and celebrities, started off by acknowledging the controversy over his selection as baccalaureate speaker.

“I know some of you were wishing the person giving this baccalaureate address looked a little more like this guy,” he said, while a picture of James Franco popped up on the screen. The audience burst into laughter and applause. “Believe me, I’ve often wished the same thing.”

Kandell continued with frequent humorous references to well-known Paly personas, including biology teacher Ron Pruzan, math teachers Arne Lim and Suzanne Antink, math teacher and instructional supervisor Radu Toma, English teachers Kevin Sharp and Kaye Paugh and social studies teacher and instructional supervisor Eric Bloom.

Cheers went up each time students recognized themselves or one of their teachers, with former Paly social studies teacher Mike McGovern receiving especially loud applause.

Kandell, who is an adviser to Verde magazine and the Paly Voice and therefore also to this reporter, gave numerous examples from the world of journalism to illustrate the importance of seeking out the truth in the media and cited student publications as integral to chronicling the story of the graduating class of 2010.

“Dig into the archives of your campus publications, and you will find yourself, your stories, your truths.” Kandell said. “On your behalf, they witnessed history first-hand and reported back to you. They helped you participate in that history and make your own.”

Kandell gave soon-to-be graduates six ways to navigate the vast amounts of information they will confront as they enter colleges, universities and, eventually, their chosen career paths.

“First, participate,” Kandell said. “If you can manage a Facebook status update and a cell phone camera, you can be a citizen journalist – a truth-teller.

“Second, subscribe. You have to choose to be informed.

“Third, media can create intense pressures to conform. You must resist. Now is the time to figure out your true self. You can’t do that if you’re letting yourself be like everyone else.

“And, fourth, you also can’t do that if you’re strung out. So relax.”

Kandell also quoted communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who said “The medium is the message.”

“You are what you eat,” Kandell said. “In terms of your media consumption today, this means, among other things, that if you find yourself listening to someone who gets paid to make you angry, and who gets paid more the angrier you get, that you shouldn’t be surprised if you wake up some day and find that you, too, are angry.”

“Finally,” Kandell said, “As you move on with the next stage of your lives, don’t just choose your media wisely; choose your friends wisely. If you surround yourself with jerks, you likely will become a jerk. If you surround yourself with smart, warm-hearted, loyal people, chance are that’s what you’ll become, too.”

True Life: A message for 2010 Paly Graduates from The Paly Voice on Vimeo.

Below is the complete transcript of Kandell’s speech:

Good afternoon and welcome, faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

I know it’s a little unconventional to have a local teacher give this address, and I’m humbled by the honor.

I also know some of you were WISHING the person giving this baccalaureate address looked a little more like this guy. [Picture of James Franco.] Believe me, I’ve often wished the same thing.

The last time someone in journalism gave the baccalaureate address for Paly was in 2001, when Time magazine columnist Joel Stein gave a speech that students enjoyed but that adults generally condemned. He mentioned cocaine, not studying hard and having sex on the third date, and someone wrote in the Palo Alto Weekly that “Any mature adult, chosen at random and speaking extemporaneously … would have likely had a more positive effect.” I hope I can at least live up to the “mature adult” standard.

When you hire a journalism teacher — which is what the district did with me this time 10 years ago — what you’re doing, in essence, is hiring someone to teach students how to be truth-tellers.

So today I wanted to talk about truth, truth-telling, and how it connects to your past and your future.

And just to be clear, I’m not talking about big-T Truth, religious Truth. According to a recent campus newsmagazine poll, religiously, you’re a pretty diverse group. I’m not sure where I’d start.

I’d like to focus on humbler, simpler truths — like the fact that the completion of 12 years of Palo Alto education is an achievement meriting a major party.

As a teacher-adviser, I’ve watched as you experienced the challenges, joys and sometimes tragedies of adolescent life, of beginning to find your true self. I’ve seen your struggles to balance teachers, homework, extracurriculars, friend, family — and a social calendar that can’t seem to decide when or where the dances will be.

The most painfully accurate analogy I’ve ever heard for what education can feel like compares schools to airports. Every day, students do the equivalent of getting onto a plane, sit there — trapped in a chair for an hour — and then deplane. Then they get on another plane, sit for an hour and get off. Seven times they do this every day. Five days a week. The toll on the body and the mind is immense. I am glad to say to you today that you never need to go back to that airport again. From this moment on, you are free. Until you get a job. So take this advice: Stay in college — while someone else is paying the tab — as long as you can.

Of course, the truth about the Palo Alto experience is a more complicated — and better — than that. Because my own home simultaneously is living the whole PAUSD experience — I have a 2nd grader, a sixth-grader and a wife who teaches middle school French — I’m now seeing how a Palo Alto student gets formed from early on. You come from a caring, superb school system — a truth I think you will realize more and more as you move through college and career.

There are also great secular truths you’ve been taught in your classes.
The truths of science — of the scientific method — that whatever is in [biology teacher] Mr. [Ronald] Pruzan’s test tube probably is not good to drink; that building a Rube Goldberg machine is the coolest assignment a high school can offer; that a few of you graduates may already be on your way to winning a Nobel Prize.

The truths of math — that Pythagoras and his protractor would be no match for [math teacher and teacher-adviser] Mr. [Arne] Lim and his document camera; that the quickest route from point A to point B might be on your math teacher’s motorcycle; and that as hard as you think your calculus homework might be, this guy [picture of math teacher, instructional supervisor and teacher-adviser Radu Toma] will tell you about a place where life was a lot harder.

The truths of English — that every persuasive essay needs a good thesis; that some of you will never read another play by Shakespeare — and be darned happy about it; that [Humanities teacher] Mr. [Kevin] Sharp may not always like what’s in his coffee, but he runs a great class discussion. And that [English teacher] Ms. [Kaye] Paugh is the nicest teacher-adviser the school is likely to ever know … 25 years! Give it up for Ms. Paugh! 25 years!

The truths of Social Sciences — oh, wait a second — [Social Sciences instructional supervisor] Mr. [Eric] Bloom is always telling me how this department offers no hard truths.

The truths in my class, as you might suspect, are journalistic: that putting quotation marks around someone’s words is a sacred act; that white space is a good thing but should never be trapped; that a good photo is worth a thousand words.

Journalists operate under the assumption that they are writing the first rough draft of history. And you’d think that if they were expecting it to be rough that we could just relax and do a sloppy job.

Not so. We are truth-seekers. Idealistic. Uncompromising; we are downright militant about plagiarism, the one-pica buffer, the First Amendment; and we take our own photos, thank you, and we don’t manipulate them in Photoshop unless we tell you about it in an explanatory caption.

In short, we take ourselves very, very seriously. And I’m afraid we take our truth-seeking as its own kind of religion.

One byproduct of this is that we end up telling some pretty darn good stories.

And, that’s just what journalism students at Paly have done on the watch for you for these past four years.

They have collectively told the story of your class in perhaps greater detail than that of any class ever in history, at any school.

No joke. In this room right now there are more student reporters than the number of journalists on the staff of the San Jose Mercury News.

Your student press captured your moments of victory, the dignity with which you handled defeat, and all the noble battles in between, on the track, on the court, on the mat, on the field, and in the pool.

They were there when you were kids being kids; when you were kids being adults; when you got busted.

They asked questions on your behalf, often 10 at a time, and in your name, they complained, and they fought for your causes.

They were there when you defied human opponents and robotic ones; when you defied the odds; and gravity itself.

They captured you at your most dramatic, your most suave, your most spirited, your most joyful, your most rambunctious, your silliest; your moments of quiet contemplation and creation; your balancing act.

Dig into the archives of your campus publications and you will find yourself, your stories, your truths.

On your behalf, they witnessed history first-hand and reported back to you. They helped you participate in that history. And make your own.

Your journalists were with you as you faced down crises; they warned you of pending disaster; and laughed about it with you when it didn’t materialize.

They marked your milestones, moment by moment.

And once a year, they’ve wrapped them all up in an increasingly cool yearbook – Thank you, yearbook staff – you have outdone yourselves!

They’ve been there with you covering tragedies small and great — and the giving Paly spirit with which you responded to them.

They captured the expressions, the faces you’ll remember forever, of those who infused your classes with energy, imagination and a passion for learning.

There were those who moved on in a different sense, and your student press marked their passing as well, honoring their memory.

Your student media told the story of the volunteers, the endless stream of volunteers who worked in the shadows for your benefit.

And how — in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — your parents, your community have tirelessly fought for your school. How about a round of applause to thank the families?

Paly reporters have exposed your dark side and explored your secrets, your hardships, your pain.

How about a round of applause for the reporters, photographers, page designers and others who made these images possible!

And then there was this: Egg wars was the quintessential high school conflict, with the stakes being high enough to arouse passions, serious passions, fear, but never being a matter of life or death.

We were talking about suspensions— not prison, not hunger, not deportation, not assassination, not war. That’s not necessarily the case outside of high school.

You soon-to-be-graduates are entering an adult world where you will be asked to struggle with the great issues of your time. Your teachers have labored mightily to give you the skills to solve the problems of your generation, and, my, these are some doozys.

It is worth saying. It is important to say. That the ability to tell truths — as these your young Paly reporters have done with your stories —is not something we should take for granted.

You will go places in your lives where people lose their jobs, where people die, for telling truths.

You have been sheltered, pampered by a student press that — for all its failings — still operates according to old-fashioned ethics of right and wrong. But the old professional truth-tellers are strained.

Everyone has the news in his or her pocket, but you are entering a world that is potentially the most misinformed it’s ever been.

Your new information environment may operate on different assumptions. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, to fight back against Orwellian efforts to bend the truth. Everywhere you look it seems there’s somebody looking to take advantage.

What does any of this have to do with graduation? Why am I telling you all this, talking so much about journalism? Because like it or not, how your generation manages its information environment will dictate much of your future.

And as I move to close here, and without getting too professorial, I want to suggest how to navigate that future.

First, participate. We talk a lot in my classes about citizen journalism, what happens when regular citizens take up the task of truth-telling. If you can manage a Facebook status update and a cell phone camera, you can be a citizen journalist – a truth-teller.

Second, subscribe. You need to make an effort to be informed. If you move to a new city, start by adding the widget or the app for your local news publication, set up some Google News Alerts. It will take effort. It won’t just happen magically. You have to choose to be informed.

Third, media can create intense pressures to conform. You must resist. Now is the time to figure out your true self. You can’t do that if you’re letting yourself be like everyone else.

And, fourth, you also can’t do that if you’re strung out. So relax. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Listen to good music. Go dancing often. And laugh a lot. Watch the “news” that comes from these guys (picture of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) if it helps. And by the way, they both got honorary degrees when they spoke recent graduation events. I’d like one too. And technically, I’m on Stanford soil here, right? That’s gotta be worth something.

The great communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan said “The medium is the message. In other words, No. 5 is “You are what you eat.” If you go to law school, you learn to think like a lawyer and rumor has it lose your sense of empathy. If you go to journalism school, you learn to think like a journalist — and lose the ability to read or write poetry. Or maybe that was just me. Actually, I don’t think I ever could read or write poetry.

In terms of your media consumption today, this means, among other things, that if you find yourself listening to someone who gets paid to make you angry, and who gets paid more the angrier you get, that you shouldn’t be surprised if you wake up some day and find that you, too, are angry.

If you expose yourself to a broad range of intelligent media, a healthy diet of sensible, smart people, paid to inform you — You should come out sensible, smart, and informed.

And if you listen to a lot of this (picture of Lady Gaga), well … I’m not sure what you’ll become — because I don’t know what this is.

In short, be willing to listen to people who claim to have found the truth, but, for goodness sakes, don’t listen to them exclusively. Seek out opposition. Be skeptical. Demand from others and yourselves an unflinching honesty, the kind that propels great journalism, great politics, great art, great societies.

Finally, I take that old Marshall McLuhan axiom — the medium is the message — one step further: to the human realm. As you move on with the next stage of your lives, don’t just choose your media wisely; choose your friends wisely. If you surround yourself with jerks, you likely will become a jerk. If you surround yourself with smart, warm-hearted, loyal people, chance are that’s what you’ll become, too.

Of course, many of the people you can truly count on you already know. They’re sitting all around you. You are the children of Palo Alto. If I have one over-riding message for you it is that you have strong roots. Don’t forget that.

The truth is that you are knitted together forever by your Palo Alto truths. These images – these memories – these stories — they are all woven together into your collective, your shared truth. They are in you.

So, absolutely, go out and have the greatest adventures of your lives in the coming year. But also know that next month, next year, if you find yourself alone in a crowd, you need to know that you are never going to really be alone in a crowd.

Pick up the phone. Log on. Skype. Tweet. Stop by. Snail mail. Whatever. We’ll be there with you. I’m afraid you’re stuck with us. And that’s the truth, Class of 2010.

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