A couple former students were noting with excitement that President Obama was going to be speaking at their own graduation ceremony, and it struck my that this current cohort of college grads, taken as a whole, is the one I’ve taught the most: as 7th graders in New York, as 9th graders in the suburbs, and then as college juniors last year. What would I say to them, if I had to give a commencement address?
I’ve heard two effective graduation speeches: one was a clever spin on a conventional college lecture, talking about why lectures work as an information transmission medium, to the limited extent they do, in the context of psychological research on shared attention. The other was a rather non-linear memoir of experiences making art as a dancer and choreographer. Most graduation speeches are just plain bad, because what can you say to a large group of people you’ve never met and with whom (by virtue of difference in age and experience) you have little in common, that is both correct and celebrates a moment that matters to them, but not to you? (Scott Alexander’s graduation speech is pretty good as a nose-thumbing at the silliness of education in general, which is a different kind of celebration.)
But enough throat clearing:
“Hi, class of 2016. Good work! You made it. If you entered high school in 2008, when I was teaching freshman biology, 81 percent of you graduated on time. Of those who graduated, about 2/3 went straight to college. And of those, somewhere between 19 and 36 percent graduated in four years. So even if it feels like everyone goes to college these days, that’s only true for the half of the kids that you were paying attention to, and of those who did go to college, an awful lot don’t finish. So you’re hardly unique just because you have a college degree, but you’re not like everybody else, just like a million or so other American kids your same rough age.
The 300 or so people I’ve known who were born in 1994 or 1995 were a nice bunch, so I’ll assume that you are, too. If civilization is doomed, it’s not because you’re a bunch of jerks.
Is civilization doomed? Well, “in about 5 to 6 billion years, the Sun will have depleted the hydrogen fuel in its core and will begin to expand. At its largest, its surface (photosphere) will approximately reach the current orbit of Earth.” I know that because Google told me it just now. So I think it’s safe to say that while these hallowed halls shall stand for many a spring morning yet, they shall not stand forever.
In the meantime, I’m supposed to give you some summing up of what these hallowed halls stand for.
I have no idea. I have things that I would like it to stand for: great books and all-night conversations and four-hour organic chemistry labs, because I’m a sadist.
But the problem is that this is a topic on which pretty much everybody in society has an opinion, and as the great jazz drummer Art Blakey used to say, “opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one.”
We’ve turned our society into one with school, and especially the aspiration to college, at the absolute center. 8 year olds in Louisiana and Ohio and New Mexico are right now being quizzed on the basics of multi-variable calculus because it’s assumed that someday they’ll need to go to college and learn multi-variable calculus and it’s best they get started now. This is true even for kids who will never graduate high school, or never go to college, or never finish, the other 50 or 60 percent or so of your cohort, as well as all the people who will finish college but never take a class that uses college level math.
This is crazy, and not just because we’ve already got computers that will do multi-variable calculus problems better than I ever will, and I’ve taught the stuff to a few of you. Badly.
It’s not just that we’ve turned childhood into a bizarre dress rehearsal for college. We’ve turned adulthood into a slightly hungover and chastened college after-party.
This isn’t because your generation is dumb or lazy: from those of you I’ve met, I think you’re smarter and harder working than my generation by a big margin.
It’s because we don’t have any idea what adulthood is for. Not for marriage or raising children; not for neighborhood or God or country; not even for working or making money, now that you can entertain yourself pretty well without making that much dough. So we’ve decided that adulthood is for pretending you’re in college.
I’m reminded of the world in the Harry Potter books: except for Voldemort, who at least wants to kill people and rule the world, the only thing that any of the grown-up witches and wizards seem to care about is the boarding school their kid attends. Even Voldemort is really just pissed that he didn’t get the Defense Against the Dark Arts job. Apparently, even if you have near-infinite magic powers, all you want to do with them is complain about the state of the academic labor market.
If you ask me, that’s a crying shame. (If you ask me, also, Lily Potter’s ghost is the secret narrator of all the Harry Potter books. But that’s another story.) College is great; everyone’s young and smart and the trees, like Mitt Romney said, are just the right height. But it shouldn’t be what the rest of life is about. It shouldn’t be what raising kids or teaching school is about. It shouldn’t even be what multi-variable calculus is about.
Sooner or later, that sun’s gonna blow up and fry all the trees and multi-variable calculus to a crisp.
In the meantime, yeah, sure, hold onto your idealism and your memories of 4-hour-orgo labs and your current BMI. But forget this place, or find places that matter to you much, much more.
Because now you’ve got your broomstick, and it’s time to get the hell out of Hogwarts.”