Monday, June 3, 2013

The Commencement Speech I'd Give...Except That No College Would Dare Let Me

Four years ago, I gave the commencement speech at Columbia College (MO.) No one has asked me to give one since. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I've spent a lot of the last decade calling a college education America's most overrated product.

So next best thing, here's the commencement speech I'd give if someone would dare let me.

Dear Graduates,

You've probably come here expecting a pat on the back for a job well done, encouragement that the world is your oyster, and an exhortation to follow your passion. But if I am to have integrity, I cannot give that speech.

What I'm about to say is not applicable to those of you who worked hard to learn enough of value in college to justify all that money and time. To you, I'll simply say congratulations on a job well done.

This speech is for the others among you who spent your parents' money doing a lot less, maybe even doing the least you could--honestly or less so--to get that piece of imitation sheepskin, spending less time on studying or even on useful extracurriculars like working for student government or the student newspaper than you did on playing videogames, watching steroided Neanderthals throw a ball and each other around, and, ahem, hooking up. 

You in the bonk-bottle-and-bong crowd have been singing "la la la la la la la" to drown out the warnings that you're at risk of joining the 54% of college graduates under 25 who are unemployed or doing work you could have done even if your parents hadn't spent a crazy amount of money for you to extend your childhood in that four-to-six-year summer camp they call college. And lest you think I'm the only one saying that, check out Message to the 2013 Graduates in this recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. 

Perhaps it's not surprising to hear, but unless you change your attitude toward time and how you spend it big-time, you'll have a helluva time supporting yourself because, unlike colleges that inflate grades and take your money and then come back at you for yet more money in donations, employers won't be eager to pay you thousands of dollars every month plus benefits to continue your summer-camp ways. They'll want you to grow up. 

They'll be additional dubious about many of you because you may, overtly or covertly, show your disdain of business, of profit--That, you learned well in college. 

And employers won't exactly be orgasmic over your weak writing and critical thinking skills. Colleges may not have had time to teach you those because they were too busy radicalizing you and teaching you the esoterica that only ivory tower professors could care about. And lest that self-esteem program made you too confident that you were the exception, that you did improve your writing and critical thinking skills significantly, you may well be wrong. The definitive nationwide study, Academically Adrift, published by University of Chicago Press, found that 36% of college graduates grew not at all in critical thinking and writing. I'll repeat that again because it's so shocking and so important: The definitive nationwide study, Academically Adrift, published by University of Chicago Press, found that 36% of college graduates grew not at all in critical thinking and writing. Follow-up reports have been even more frightening.

Only two things can save you:

1. Append yourself to the smartest, most successful, most ethical human being you can dig up. It will be worth even a lot of effort to hook up with that person. You want to be closer than a Siamese twin. Get his coffee, do her laundry, do nearly anything in exchange for being at a master's elbow so you can learn something of value that could turn you into a person who can contribute to the world you claim to care so much about. You will likely learn far more of value about how to succeed in business or in the nonprofit world than from those ideologically truncated, arcana-focused, practicality-light professors. You'll also learn how to deal professionally with people, including resolving conflicts more challenging than who gets to hold the video controller. And most important, you'll get to see a real work-ethic. Most people who are not limited to barista-level work prioritize being as productive as possible over the vaunted work-life balance, even if it means they never get to watch Arrested Development, learn more yoga poses, or hike into environmental blitzedness. 

2. Please, take the time to become expert at something. Dabbling is risky. Yes, if you're a polymath, brilliant at many things, you may achieve loftily in multiple areas. But most dabblers risk becoming unable to maintain an income that's--to use your word--sustainable. Pick something--It can even be that recycling of algae into sustainably harvested, biodegradable soy-ink paper that your professor has milked into four articles in the Journal of Esoterica. But laser-focus on getting to be an expert at something. As Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers found, you have to stay with something for 10 to 20,000 hours to get good enough at it. 

Don't think I'm just pontificating, unwilling to walk the talk. I've stayed with being a career counselor for 29 years and even now after 4,500 clients, I still spend considerable time at night and on weekends reading how to get better. I believe that is time well spent, key to being successful and to a life of integrity. I ask you to consider doing not only what I, but the hundreds of experts Malcolm Gladwell researched, say you must do to develop real expertise. 

I am not, however, telling you to run back to school---You already saw how much good that did for your four to six years and mountain of money. What I'm saying is to keep working to become an expert in your chosen area, reading, attending workshops, volunteering, maybe even getting paid, ideally at the elbow of the aforementioned mentor. But I do ask you to consider stopping the dabbling.

Okay, enough. Most people don't remember anything from their commencement speech so I might as well stop here. I certainly do wish you all the best.


Maria Lopez said...

Even non top publications won't take things that have been on the internet already. I have written as a hobby, aiming for token payments and I have received E-mal back from a market complaining that since my story contained HTML markup, it looked like it had been on the internet.

When I explained that it had been up for critique at a private, password protected site, they were able to process the submission. I don't remember if it was accepted or not.

Maria Lopez said...

A couple of suggested edits:

One, take out the part about sex. Older people have always complained that young people have too much sex. I believe there is a line to this effect in Shakespeare.

Sex and drinking will occur, college or no college. Mentioning sex specifically makes you seem fuddy-duddy even though it is true that too much pursuit of pleasure doesn't help you get on in life. The real point here is the more abstract one that the pursuit of momentary pleasure becomes empty after a while.

Two, students are well aware that professors work can be very esoteric and that you won't use much of what you are taught in college. This is not something I needed to be told and I'm sure many other people didn't either. Also the world is built of esoterica. You may be able to answer all of these questions but most people can't:

1. In a sewage treatment plant, what eukaryotic organisms indicate optimum sludge age?

2. Why are there banks of large rectangular objects on top of some utility poles?

3. What are the symptoms of a faulty oxygen sensor in your car?

4. It takes two wires to make a circuit, so way are there three on top of many utility poles?

5. What is the ping program good for and what protocol does it use?

6. What do the Latin words tumor,rubor,calor, and dolor mean and why are they important?

Much of this stuff would be learned on the job or in a two-year college. However, despite the fact that certain workers need to know the answers to them everyday they are esoteric too most people. Though I don't think I am a Luddite it is a fact of technological society that much productive work deals in esoterica. Trumped up, phony, esoterica certainly exists but there is far more technological esoterica than Lacanian esoterica.

Also, I'm not sure that working in retail, the fate of many people who get jobs that don't need a college degree is such a bad thing. I certainly don't blame young people for going to college since that is what society tends to say you do. You can certainly say that if you didn't think about what happens after school you participated in your own screwing.

Really, if you want to change the system, you need to give people clearly visible meaningful alternatives to college. It would help if they involve little chance of dying young and allow young people to create families. Simply yelling at young folk for being hedonists won't do it.

After all many people get poor results from business or psychology majors, fields that don't have the same stigma as visual arts or gender studies. Even computer science degrees from a non-top tier school might not be great. The people who get degrees are thinking about their futures and not trying to slack, they just aren't aware of the market.

Marty Nemko said...

Hi Maria,

Yes, specialists need to know arcana but it is not good use of undergrads' time and money to learn esoterica when they graduate--if they graduate--without minimal thinking and writing skills. They can learn the needed arcana on the job. Professors teach that stuff because they like it and know about it so it's easy for them to teach, even if undergrads would benefit from more important teaching.

And while all work is worthy, for students to have endured 4-6 years of college and a fortune spent by their parents to have skills that only qualify them for retail work is an unjustice the colleges should be ashamed of.

The speech does give wise alternatives: appending one's self to a wise, ethical expert, and forging the joys of dabbling in favor of becoming expert at something.