Inspired by the example of Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, who wrote a devastating mock commencement address for graduates from an elite university, I intend to write my own along similar lines, followed by (in a subsequent post) a mock commencement address for graduates from J.H. Newman’s ideal university.
TO THE CLASS OF 2012 OF THE UNIVERSITY OF (insert name of top ranked institution here)
Your parents thought that their work was done when you were admitted to this prestigious university from which you are now being graduated. They viewed their work of raising you as fulfilled in your getting here. Therefore, since the point of everything that we do is to be happy, it is appropriate to ask whether the education you have received has made you happy or at least better capable of achieving happiness.
I will not flatter you by saying what you would be pleased to hear but rather speak as a friend who tells the one that he loves what it is best for him to hear, because it is true.
Understand that anything that I say is true only for the most part, as in human affairs our assertions can be no more accurate than that (as Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics — a reference which I must explain to you, because you do not know that work in the way that graduates from your institution 100 years ago would have known it). I will speak about the effect in general that your education has had upon you and how the typical student has been affected. What I say is not refuted by the occasional counter example you can think of.
The first thing I should say is that almost certainly your education has made you dangerously proud: proud, because you have acquired or grown in that vice, dangerously so, because you cannot recognize it. You cannot recognize it because you have not studied the virtues and vices. You have no idea what are the capital vices. And yet these things are real and continue to affect all of us. You lack self-knowledge and are incapable of accurate self-examination. That is the danger. But your pride has been deliberately fostered by your university. The seed of that pride was when you chose to attend because it was prestigious. Your university at every opportunity pressed home to you how prestigious that education was–how special and talented, how select and superior to others you were. (But do not fool yourself: in backroom conversations administrators calculate that if they foster such an attitude among you, the institution will not only grow in prestige–that is, power– but also gain monetarily through your financial gifts. Administrators euphemistically refer to this as fostering “class spirit.”) Then you were flattered by professors who treated you, or, rather, were compelled by circumstances to treat you, as “consumers,” and administrators who aimed to pander to even your most frivolous demands as legitimate.
Then because of grade inflation you missed out on opportunities to combat pride through humility. We can grow in humility only by being humiliated; there is no other way. If your instructors had reserved A’s for truly excellent work, then, after you had repeatedly failed to achieve that standard, you might have acquired a reservation about your own talents, and, even more importantly, your attention would have been thrown to the question of the quality of your work, and the greater importance of the excellence of your work over your own concerns. As it is, your instructors harmed you. They reasoned that because the students at your prestigious university were so much more talented than students who hadn’t been admitted, then you as a group deserved high grades in recognition of that fact. Thus they turned your education into one long affirmation of your talents and abilities–the attention, really, was all on you.
But as an initial choice not repented of only qualifies and further confirms that initial choice, you grew in that attitude with which you resolved to attend this university in the first place. And that is why you are proud. But pride is the main obstacle to happiness. So you have been handicapped for happiness by your education.
Moreover, lamentably you have not acquired or fostered a love for knowledge for its own sake in your education. Again, the seed or germ was when you chose to attend this university because it was prestigious and, you reasoned, you would be helped thereby in getting a job. From the start, then, you bargained away your education and instrumentalized it.
The proof of my claim is that so few of you majored in a subject which is valuable for its own sake, such as pure mathematics, and that nearly all of you plan to go to business school, law school, or medical school, whereas only a handful want to pursue graduate studies. If you have been under the influence of professors for four years and have generally not been much persuaded that their way of life is worth pursuing, then, obviously, you have not come to love knowledge for its own sake.
But happiness is not possible without loving what is valuable for its own sake. And if when studying you have failed to love what is valuable for its own sake in that domain, then forgive me if I doubt that you are capable of doing so in any other domain. And so once again I say: your education has handicapped you for happiness.
Furthermore you are rootless and have not become part of your own community through your education. No one is a citizen of the world. Everyone lives in a particular culture and civilization. The culture it was necessary for you to have learned was American culture; the civilization, Western civilization. But you did not study the Federalist Papers or the Lincoln-Douglas debates; and, if you know anything of Gettysburg or Midway, that is despite of your university not because of it. Studies have repeatedly shown that you know less about American culture, and the basis for American exceptionalism, than when you entered college; in fact, you have been trained to despise your country’s traditions.
As for Western civilization — that remarkable confluence of Greek, Roman, Jewish, and distinctively Christian sources — you have studied none of its great works and could not even identify that civilization and its spirit, never mind defend it. Certainly you failed to study the languages which one would expect someone with your intelligence and opportunities to have mastered, and which have proved in the past to be a necessary gateway to classical civilization. Even if you know some history, you do not view yourself as part of that history and it is not part of you.
So you are rootless both in time and in place. You are incapable of viewing your life as contributing to some broader and grand narrative of history or civilization. But a rootless man must be either a god or a beast. (That remark also is from Aristotle, as, tediously, I must explain to you.) You are not gods, to be sure, and so you must be akin to beasts — (please do not become upset when I say this), because, truth be told, most of you have lived like beasts in the last four years. This is bad enough in itself but additionally, from your immersion in the hook up culture, the superabundance of food and food choices which you have demanded as by right, the cult of physical beauty which you affirm, the addictions to pornography that many or even most of you have been afflicted by, not to mention your drinking binges and drug use –all softly encouraged or not discouraged by your university– you have rendered yourselves nearly incapable of becoming stably and happily married. And yet for most of us a happy marriage and family life are essential to happiness.
But worse than the damage that has been done to you is the damage you are prepared to inflict on society, because great care has been taken to see that you continue to view violence against unborn children as the expression of a fundamental right, and you have been successfully trained to view marriage (which exists in reality only between a man and a woman) as an intolerable and insufferable discrimination. So you are about to go out into society thinking that you are doing good while you do everything in your power, in those domains closest to you, to tear down human dignity and the dignity of spousal love and the family — no doubt remaining fully convinced that you are a great champion of human rights and that you love humanity.
If I were Socrates I might speak even more bluntly and say: Refute me if you can: You are not merely hobbled for happiness as regards all the ordinary means of happiness, but, worse than that, because you are about to work in ignorance to promote injustice and to tear down that which is necessary for society, you are miserable–I say–and have been made even more miserable by this institution that is now graduating you.
So give them neither your money nor your allegiance. Do not be like those victims who perversely feel gratitude for those who victimized them.
But perhaps all is not lost and there is a glimmer of light. I close by posing a difficulty, by raising a question, the answer to which, if you find it, might salvage your happiness. Suppose that everything that I have said, and more, is true. (Refute me if it is not!) Then you may wish to ask yourselves: What does it mean that an education that is reputed to be the best, has so many and such grave deficiencies? How could everyone have been encouraging me to pursue what I have successfully pursued, and yet they are wrong?
There are two alternatives: either this education which you have received, which is reputed to be the best, actually is the best (notwithstanding those deficiencies); or, your education, although reputed to be the best, is actually not the best, but perhaps even one of the worst educations you could have received.
If you follow out the implications of either alternative, you might just find a remedy for the pride which is the root of all the other ills that I have mentioned.