A reader of mine emailed me, informing me that she had been asked to do the commencement address at the college where she is employed, and then asked me what I would say, given the opportunity to address a graduating class. She also asked me to ask my readers what they would advise someone to tell a graduating class, and so, I have written my own commencement address here, and I invite you to either write one yourself and link to it, or offer suggestions in comments on the salient points to raise.
I admit, I feel particularly unqualified to do so, since not only have I never delivered a commencement address, but I’ve never actually listened carefully to one. I skipped both my college and Masters commencements, attending only the departmental degree ceremonies. I did sit through my husband’s Doctoral graduation, but I was mostly involved in attending to 3 month old Eli at the time, and remember little of it, although I did enjoy and at least partly understand the Latin address. I attended my high school graduation, but have no memory whatsoever of anything that was said. So I am perhaps the last person in the world who should give one. Perhaps it is just me, but my first reaction to this request was ”does anyone actually listen to these things?” And yet, the thought that I might be ignored has never stopped me yet. So here goes.
It is, I believe, conventional at college graduations to begin from the premise that those graduating are about to embark upon life in the “real” world - a venture that is supposed to be radically different than their carefree college years. The assumption is that the institution in question has given you what you need to embark upon a meaningful and productive future - you are wiser than when you came in, and perhaps more ethical, certainly fitted to the world of work. Now, I have been chosen to give you your very last bit of wisdom, something to carry with you into the future. So here is the sum total of that wisdom
“Everything you have been taught to expect is wrong.”
Unfortunately, that isn’t a joke. You have been taken in by a host of assumptions that are not true, and if you walk out of here believing what you have been told and taught over the last four years, you will leave woefully unprepared for you. The consolation, I can offer you, however, is that while what you have been taught to expect is wrong, the things you have actually learned may be of more use than you think.
The first bad assumption here is that is that college is not the real world of work - it is true that those of you supported in totality by your parents are perhaps living a dream you will never experience again. But how many of you fall in that category? Most of you will have taken out substantial student loans, and worked many hours during summers and school years supporting your educational dream, in addition to whatever attention you gave your school work. For most of you, the real world will not be new because it involves hard work. In fact, what may be newest about it is the absence of such work.
In fact, even those who were lucky enough to have their way paid by others have probably worked hard all their lives. During your childhood, you were told to work hard at school, so you could go to a good college. And you did. You were told to work hard at your extra-curricular activities - soccer and violin, newspaper writing and dance are no longer pleasures, they are jobs for children. After school and during summers in your teenage years, you were told to work hard to save for college, ensure the right appearance, or make sure you had a car to transport you to your job.
In college, you were told to work hard to get a good job. Moreover, many of you were on workstudy or required to support your hobbies, or simply seeking betterment through internships and other unpaid work, so you worked even harder. Now, you have been told you will have the opportunity to get a starter job, which, if you work hard, will lead to another job, which, with luck will eventually lead to 45 years of employment and hard work, after which you can retire.
The problem with this model, of course, is that there is no job waiting for you. You probably know this already, and have already been making the rounds of job fairs and sending out resumes. But there are 2.1 million of you, and unless you’ve come out with a nursing or mining degree, odds are your contribution is not much needed. Some of you will take from this the lesson that you should go to graduate school, take out more loans and work harder to get a still better job.
Now I came out of college into a recession in 1994 as well, and going to graduate school was a time honored method of avoiding the “real world” for a while, one I chose myself. But what is different about this economic crisis is that it is an expression of a larger change - that is, the shift away from the global economy and affluent society that you were trained for. The economy you were trained to serve (and you were trained to serve it, the economy was not designed to serve you) does not really exist - even before the economic collapse of global trade, high energy prices were ending globalization. Even before the current crisis, it was not clear how a ”service economy” could exist in perpetuity without creating anything, or how indebted a nation could become before a crisis emerged.. The job you have trained for is very likely not to exist fairly soon into your career as a working person, while the retirement dangled at the end is almost certainly not going to exist.
In some ways, eventually, I think you may find this to be a blessing. Even were the retirement you were promised likely to come, subsidized by the government (and I suspect it is quite unlikely, actually), is it really worth it to have worked so very hard for 60+ years, only to be promised a fixed income, golf and the exclusive company of your now aged peers? That is, what you are being offered right now - a period of impoverished leisure, may be a better deal - but we will come back to that. The problem, of course, is that you may feel you have no option of indulging that leisure.
Most of you have entered into an economic contract for this education you recieved that amounts to debt slavery - you must work to pay it off. In many cases, the payment period covers the period in which you hoped to make some money, buy a house, find a mate and settle down into what leisure and pleasure your working life permitted. This was possible, despite heavy debts, in an era where credit was freely given - unfortunately, you do not come of age in that era. It will be difficult for you to pay your student loans, more difficult still to get a house, even if you credit rating isn’t trashed by said loans, and more difficult still to establish a household and family with two of you working to pay down your respective and collective debts.
I hope someone did explain to you before you took out your loans that student loans were the one form of debt that cannot be vacated by bankruptcy, and to which you can be perpetually enchained - they can and will garnish your wages, they can and will double, triple or quadruple your debt due to periods of personal insolvency. I do hope that someone told you how high a price you are paying for your education.
That is not to say that you have learned nothing of value - on the contrary, while college is an extremely expensive way of learning these things, you may well have learned some extremely useful things. It would be a mistake, seeing the high price, to imagine you got nothing for it.
Most obviously, I would hope that you have learned something that gave you pleasure, excited your mind, made you think critically or argue. The poetry and art, the music and mathematics, the history and ethics that you may have derived now and again from your classes remain in your head as long as you choose to keep them there. The odds are good that much of your working life will involve doing very dull things - having something to think about while you are doing them is enormously valuable.
But most of the lessons that you probably learned in college aren’t ones taught by your Professors. For example, you learned how to live closely with others, and share resources with them. This is an important lesson, since odds are very good that you will either share a small space with several housemates as you eke out your living, or that you will move back in with parents or other family in order to make ends meet. The skill of living closely with others, of deriving happiness from late night conversation and shared work in the kitchen, of taking turns to use the bathroom will stand you in excellent stead.
So too will making the food last, or finding more food when the meal points don’t meet the end of the month. Tasty things to do with ramen noodles, the making of a pot of soup to feed 15 hungry people, and the ability to scavenge will be of the utmost use. So will a willingness to drink cheap beer and to laugh about one’s circumstances.
So too will be contentment with the lot of a college student - building cinderblock bookcases, and picking furniture out of dumpsters is a useful skill. Insulating windows with old bits of bubble wrap, busking, intermittent work and sharing resources are useful skills. These are real, “real world” skills. It is a pity that 20, 50, 80K in debt was required for you to master them, but there is no point understating one’s gains.
If these constitute the beginnings of your skill set, it must be admitted - and perhaps best we admit it here, while your deans and college presidents, professors and administrators are present to answer your queries on this subject - much of what you need to know no one has taught you at all.
For example, the odds are good that your education has been for a globalized and parochial world, rather than a local and international one. By this I mean that you have been taught that America is unique and special - even if you have received critiques of this worldview, you have most likely been taught that it is specially invulnerable to hardship. You have also been taught that your work will enable the cause of a globalization that has already failed, a globalization that has also done enormous harm. Unfortunately, unless you are lucky, you have also never been taught to understand the world order without America fully at its center. You are not prepared for the international realities of energy depletion and climate change, and the language of the last two decades, in which you have been immersed, has placed America in the position of the sun, with the rest of the nations revolving around it. While some of you have managed to see more than this, many have not, and thus the implications of our global predicament are likely to be startling and painful.
You have been unfitted for a local future. The assumption has been from the moment of your birth that you will grow up and go away - away from your parents, away from your hometown, towards those globalized jobs, towards affluence. Sense of place, family ties - these are all assumed to be transient, and a good future is one in which you do not return home in any sense. Growing up, you have been taught, is about going out and away, about abjuring family ties, rather than supporting them. To go home, to support ties is to be perpetually adolescent, rather than mature, to be the butt of jokes about still living in your parents’ basement. Contempt for the local and familial has pushed you to disregard the real possibilities of returning to places where you in some measure belong, and where there are people you can throw your lot in with. At a minimum, you should decline to be ashamed to do so.
Even more derided is the idea of producing something useful - the thought that your work should be good and useful. Instead, you’ve grown up in the most affluent, and money-centered society in human history, where no other value system has had a hope of penetrating. You grew up in a world where shopping and wealth were everything, and now, that cannot be any more, and you would be less than human if you were not frustrated. But consider the merits of replacing consumption with production, bad work with good, an economy that serves your interests rather than an economy that does not. Consider the pleasures of actually making and doing something that matters in the world.
You may not know how to go about this. Few of you will have had Professors who spoke of practical applications for your knowlege. Few of you will have learned manual skills of any kind, except by accident. Even fewer will have learned the uses of unmediated experience. Few of you when you learned of Shakespeare’s eglantine will have wondered what it smelled like, or sought to see and touch an Eglantine rose. Few of you will have learned to identify the stars, not through a telescope, but through the naked eye, for pleasure or knowledge. Mediated experience is the norm - mediated through electronics, through books, through teachers, through drugs. Because you have only rarely known real leisure - even your play was work, because you have rarely known unstructured time, this transition to unmediated experience is likely to be shocking, scary, and painful.
The world is about to become radically less mediated. The lures of hard work in the interest of a good job and a someday leisure are likely to become less attractive, when the work is dull, the respite never comes and the dream of affluence is lost. The world is likely to require more people who can produce things, grow them, tend them, repair them. The world is likely to require more community, more extended family, more going home and more staying there.
My suggestion, then, would be to seek out unmediated experiences. Put a seed in some dirt, and watch it grow. Harvest something and eat it. Take a hammer and a nail and make something you need. Ask a friend to help you, rather than hiring someone. Share resources rather than purchasing anything. Talk to someone rather than texting them. Sit down with those you love - family or friends, and talk about how you can make use of your new time, your new delight in life unmediated, your hopes for the future in ways that are imaginative and human - how could you work together.
You began your lives with a set of promises that are likely to be unfulfilled. First, you were told to work hard, for an end that will not come. Then you were told your future would operate through devices, that direct contact was not needed. You were told that America was immune from dangers it now faces. You were told that the skills you picked up by accident were less valuable than the ones that you paid dearly for. All these things were wrong. I wish I could offer you better than this, but better the truth today than later.
But here is the reward. Instead of dreaming of someday leisure, you will be poorer longer, but you will have leisure sooner - enjoy it, use it, do good things with it. Instead of dreaming of serving the global economy, you have a chance to serve you friends and neighbors and people you love in communities. Instead of further and deeper levels of mediation, if you can get past the scariness of it, you have a chance the deep pleasures of unmediated contact with the world - with other people, with dirt, with tools, with animals, with life itself. You may yet have a chance to free yourself from your wage slavery - as more and more people struggle with debts that they cannot pay, solutions must be found, and combining your energies with others in the same boat gives you the power to negotiate a decent future for yourself.
Most of all, the pleasure that comes with pain of this shift is this - you have now the chance to ask, for perhaps the first time in your whole history “what do I actually care about” and do it. That is, it is very, very hard to live in the world and sort out one’s idealism from the place that the whole larger world has made for you. It was given to you to be a cog in a larger economic machine. But perhaps fortunately, the machine has broken, for most of you, your spot is no longer available. And this is a kind of freedom that few older adults have ever had - yes, we came of age in a world of growth and affluence, but ask your baby boomer parents whether even their attempts to say no were ever fully heeded - they may have dropped out for a short while, but they were drawn back, the economy could not spare them.
The world, the economy, the government, our industry, corporations, all of them are quite insistent that you are here for them. But they have no place for you, no matter how loudly they declare that it remains true. And in that is a kind of release - because if there is no place, you might begin to realize that you were never here for them, that you are not here to serve the economy, but perhaps your people, or your chosen place, or your chosen G-d, if you have one.
And in the best sense, you are here to serve yourself. By this I do not mean the endless chasing of pleasure, or living outside ethical guidelines. I simply mean that you now have a small measure of choice - not the choice of whether you will be affluent or not, not whether you will live in a world of declining resources - but you can choose how you view the world you walk into. You can choose what it means that you have this time, this chance, these seeds, this hope. You can choose who and what you will serve and support. It is not what you were promised, and for that, I am sorry - or maybe I’m not, because what you were promised wasn’t what it seemed. But it is what you have, and you have it right now, with both hands, and that is something. I wish for you that you hold on tight and go forward, in this new, this real world.