Sunday, May 26, 2013

What to tell graduates

Probably not that.
On Sunday, May 5, President Obama joined the squadron of elites that descends upon institutions of higher education each year to inspire our graduates in commencement speeches—many of them more from their mere presence and status than what they actually say. 

Speaking at the Ohio State University, the president extolled the virtues of “citizenship…the idea at the heart of our founding – that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities – to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.”

So far, so good. But not far beneath Obama’s shallow pieties about the virtues of citizenship and democracy lies a vision that sees little to life outside of politics or government. Warning against “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner,” he stressed that we must work together to accomplish great things—going to the Moon, building railroads, etc—“because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.”

What President Obama asked of his audience, in short, is the fullest possible dedication to ‘progress’ using politics and government as a means. To some extent, this sentiment holds true; our republic requires both responsible voters and representative to fulfill its guiding aims. But despite the efforts of the Obama Administration, most of the meaningful aspects of life still lie beyond the reach of politics. Most graduates of OSU will—hopefully—locate their futures in mostly apolitical spheres. As the Cato Institute’s Roger Pilon replied to Obama in the Wall Street Journal:
"From George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, presidents sought mostly to administer the laws that enabled citizens to live their own lives, ambitiously or not. It would have been thought impertinent for a president to tell a graduating class that what the country needs is the political will ‘to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens . . . to repair the middle class; to give more families a fair shake; to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper.'"
Oh, and what about the future of the graduates themselves? Aside from vague appeals to political progress and a brief reminder that graduates will fail (in their efforts to facilitate progress, of course), President Obama’s speech said little about the bleak prospects of the modern college graduate: i.e., lots of debt, high unemployment. Perhaps he did not wish to intrude on the special occasion, even though he blatantly used the speech to advance his governing vision (but never mind). For blunt advice like that, try Kirk McDonald:
Dear college graduates:
The next month is going to be thrilling as you cross this major milestone in your education. Enjoy the pomp and circumstance, the congratulations, and the parties. But when it's all over and you're ready to go out into the world, you'd probably like to meet me, or others like me—I'm your next potential dream boss. I run a cool, rapidly growing company in the digital field, where the work is interesting and rewarding. But I've got to be honest about some unfortunate news: I'm probably not going to hire you.
This isn't because I don't have positions that need filling. On the contrary, I'm constantly searching for talented new employees, and if someone with the right skills walked into my office, he or she would likely leave it with a very compelling offer. The problem is that the right skills are very hard to find. And I'm sorry to say it, dear graduates, but you probably don't have them…”
Mr. McDonald took the bold step of acknowledging reality, urging graduates to become mildly adept at computer programming—an actual, marketable skill that removes one from the airy idealistic world of progress and change and forces dedication, persistence, and a new way of thinking. He had the courage to tell today’s college graduates that their education has failed them, and that they are not special. Both stand as useful reminders as the madness fostered by excessive self-esteem and the college-for-all crusade collides with reality. 

Interestingly enough, First Lady Michelle Obama provided better advice than her husband in this regard. Speaking at Eastern Kentucky University’s commencement, she asked her audience “How are you going to respond when you don’t get that job you had your heart set on?”

Still, the best message to graduates—and the one least likely to penetrate the gaudy atmosphere of today’s college graduations—came from Wellesly High School English teacher David McCullogh, Jr. last June. Citing statistics concerning the vast numbers of valedictorians and class presidents, McCullogh asserted to his audience that “[e]ven if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”

It’s certainly a countercultural message. But we’d definitely be better off hearing it more often.

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