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The Promise of Youth: My evening with the National Honor Society inductees

In these turbulent times, if you are like me, it’s a daily question of whether one will get a bit bleak about things as the morning “news” presents us with a litany of daunting problems, both recurring and new.  Yes, coffee helps.  But this last Thursday evening I was reminded of the best antidote to a wearied outlook: the inherent optimism and energy of Youth.

I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to speak before this year’s Thomas Worthington inductees into the National Honor Society.  As I watched, from just a few feet away, the 113 students file by as they made their way up on to the stage to receive their membership document, I felt a fount of optimism arise from within.  I was reminded, as in a flashback.  I was happy.  I glimpsed in their expressions, their quiet banter with one another, their body language, an overall wide-eyed embrace of the world and the life before them.  Retreat or resignation seemed most unlikely and unthinkable.  Ever onward.  Youth—a time of life, yes, but also a quality of one’s spirit and, as RFK put it, “an appetite for adventure over a life of ease.”

Here are the notes for my remarks.  And below the text are a few photos from the event, and a snapshot of the program.

Good evening. I want to thank Principal Scully, who I admire greatly as a devoted professional educator, and Ms. Tecklenburg, who was generous in inviting me to speak this evening at this important event.

I say this event is important, specifically for you students in the audience, because this ceremony serves both as a public affirmation of your current activities, and as a vote of confidence in your future contributions—as leaders of good character, committed to a life of service, informed by the habit of life-long learning.  Hopefully, tonight’s recognition and resulting membership in the National Honor Society will help you to achieve your personal, academic, and professional goals.

But this event tonight is important not only for you, individually, but for all of us—here in Worthington, across our state and nation—and even around the world.  I make this grandiose claim about the significance of tonight’s event because you, and all those in your generation, are entering into your adulthood in momentous times. This is an era with so much at stake—in our culture, our politics, with the natural environment—wherever you look. And to change and steer the future of our world in a better direction, successfully meeting the challenges before us, will not be easy.  It never has been.

But that in fact is the task before you, and this is why now, more than ever, we need men and women of strong character, committed to serving the common good, and doing so with sound and mature judgment born from much study, self-reflection, and lived experience.  In short, we need the National Honor Society’s four pillars to be writ large and spread far. And so it is my hope, that each, and all of you, will be the ones to help do so.

I say these affirming things about the four pillars—scholarship, service, leadership, and character—because I see them as providing the cornerstones, the guideposts, to a life lived well, vigorously and virtuously—where one’s life becomes not a dull routine but instead a noble and exciting adventure, inspired by devotion to something bigger than oneself alone.

So let me say just a few things about these pillars.  Scholarship, the first pillar, I think of as most specifically referring to learning from books, conducting research, engaging in reflection and exposition (writing), typically from within an academic institution.  I would note in this regard that you are fortunate that the Worthington schools facilitate very well this form of scholarship, and that they prepare you well for more of this through advanced degrees—if you so choose.

Now, before saying a bit more about scholarship itself, I feel compelled to say something to you—as future leaders—about the issue of how and whether our society values the intellectual life in general, whether it esteems knowledge and recognizes the difference between truth and error, and prizes learning in all of its forms, for each of us and all of us.  I believe that being a scholar today means recognizing (in a spirit of gratitude), that in our modern world—certainly here in the United States—that all of our freedoms, our opportunities, our material abundance, our technological wonders, all of this and more, are a result of centuries of scholarship, of intellectual toil combined with external struggle—often at a great cost to those engaged in free inquiry and who sought to then bring their findings into the world.

I believe we should not take for granted a climate of free inquiry, for it is not always welcomed by those who are threatened by the new knowledge it reveals.  And so, if you are to be a scholar—whether in school or simply in life, be prepared to defend and champion it.  If you do so, you may find consolation in that you join a proud pedigree of predecessors, from Giordano Bruno, to Galileo, to Roger Williams, Ann Hutchinson, John Scopes, to name but a few.

Now, back to scholarship itself, in addition to formal education, we also learn through the ever-present school of life, where we test, and are ourselves tested, perhaps repeating, observing, until finally learning.  And this is how it should be, for education is not about filling a pail, but of lighting a fire, within (that’s Yeats, or Socrates, depending on who you ask—but great minds think alike, right?. Sometimes.)  Find your fire, and you have found your mission.

Exemplifying this learning through life, learning by doing, we may think of Thoreau’s experiment of living simply, in a cabin that he built, in the woods by Walden Pond. He says he went there “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”… to see if he could “learn what it had to teach” through direct experience.

And the result of this deliberate living?  “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of their dreams, and endeavors to live the life which they have imagined, they will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” May we all learn so much from our own experiment in living, however we choose to do so.

Perhaps the greatest fruit of scholarship is the development of character in terms of strengthening one’s self-confidence, or put differently, of overcoming doubt, for, as Melville put it, “Ignorance is the parent of fear.” By fully exploring, to your satisfaction, the questions that arise in your mind and perhaps burn in your heart, you may then with confidence stand up to the bully who claims to know more.

And that is a superpower—the dispelling of intimidation and fears—for it enables you to take bold, original steps into a life of service and leadership.  For service and leadership often, perhaps always, require moral courage, a quality, according to some, rarer than courage on the battlefield.  This is because leadership and service will mean leaving your comfort zones, of risking many things, including the criticisms of your peers, a painful experience not to be underestimated.

Lastly, a brief word about character.  It could be argued that this pillar should be given first place among equals of the four pillars.  For it is from your character that your decisions emerge, big and small, about what you value, what you serve, what you say and do, what you live for and, maybe, what you would die for.  With such profound and pervasive effect, it may be said that character is destiny. But character may also be considered the culmination, the outcome of scholarship, service, and leadership, all of which build strong character, which them in turn, full circle, may inspire and impel further learning, a passion for service, and a gift for leadership.  In this way the four pillars spiral in a virtuous circle.

And so I congratulate you on your induction into the National Honor Society, for what you have done so far, and for what you will do, not only for yourself but for the world that needs you and your gifts.  The four pillars provide a solid foundation, the cornerstones of a life of devotion to something big and great, rewarding you with a clear conscience, knowing you have played your vital part in creating what Tennyson’s Ulysses called a “Newer World.”  ’Tis not too late.

Best to you in your journey. Thank you.


The audience:


The lighting of the candles:


Speaking of scholarship:


Ms. Tecklenburg, faculty adviser, discussing the NHS Pledge:


The program:


David Robinson

David Robinson lives in Worthington with his wife, Lorraine, and their three children—one who attends Kilbourne Middle School, one who attends Phoenix Middle School, and one who is a graduate of the Linworth High School Program and Otterbein University. David is President and co-owner of Marcy Adhesives, Inc., a local manufacturing company. David has served on Worthington City Council since January, 2018, and is deeply committed to 1) advancing resident-centered policies, 2) supporting responsible development that enhances our unique historic character, 3) endorsing environmentally sustainable practices for both residents and city operations, 4) promoting the safety and well-being of all residents, and 5) preserving the walkable, tree-filled, distinctive, friendly nature of our neighborhoods.