The Commencement Address You’ll Never Hear

Four years ago–in the spring of 2005, when you were still in a state of euphoria about beginning your college studies in the fall–your world was one of vast possibilities and expectations.  George Bush had recently begun his second term as president, determined to use his political capital, as he referred to it, to shape the world in his vision.  People were closely divided about the war in Iraq, not as opposed to it as they would soon become.  The results of the dot.com collapse were beginning to recede; the stock market was chugging nicely along.  Seniors in the graduating class of 2005 were cautious about their employment prospects, which the job search firm Monster described as the best in five years.  Many graduates were hopeful they would be rewarded with high-paying jobs, especially if they had strong grade point averages and graduated from prestigious colleges or universities.  Those with lesser qualifications also anticipated better prospects than their peers had in the previous four years

What a difference four years can make.  Sadly, it didn’t take long for a downward spiral to begin that brought us to where we are today: a considerably different environment than the one facing your predecessors who graduated in the years beginning in 2005.

As you were moving in the your dormitories and getting ready for the fall 2005 semester, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and brought George Bush to his knees and catalyzed the eventual collapse of the neo-con philosophy that had guided his administration during its first term.  I’m certain that you remember the horrifying images of the victims of the hurricane late that summer.  Some of you were no doubt involved in the arrangements to make certain that university students in New Orleans were able to continue their studies at other institutions.

The United States has not fully recovered from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush’s popularity began to take a sudden nose-dive.  In late September of 2005, some of you may have participated along with several hundred thousand others in the anti-Iraq war protest in Washington, D.C. What has been particularly encouraging for me has been the slow but gradual awakening of your generation’s political consciousness, culminating with the election of Barack Obama.

This awakening has been impressive, particularly given the political situation in America for most of your lives.  Though you were only eleven or twelve years old at the time, you must have heard hush-hushed remarks from your parents about the way Bill Clinton disgraced himself in office and, in effect, made it impossible for Al Gore to win the 2000 presidential election.  But mostly, your political consciousness has been molded and shaped during George Bush’s eight years, most of them as a failed President.

At the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we had a balanced budget; we were not at war; people were beginning to pay attention to the environment and global warming seriously.  Moreover, American was highly regarded in the community of nations all around the world, not hated has we were soon to become once George Bush established his foreign policy that other countries were either with us or against us.  It is difficult to believe that so many things could go wrong for America so quickly.

Unfortunately, that is the world that you—as you graduate with your B.A. or B.S.—have inherited.  It is both your burden and your challenge.

It does not help that in the mad scramble for money pursued by so many people in the past few years (bankers, stock brokers, hedge fund managers, mortgage sellers, and house flippers) your university did not serve you well at the same time.  Tuition costs have grown disproportionately to the cost of living.  Many of you are saddled today with student loans that will take you years to pay off, especially given the collapsing job market.  Worse, many of your degrees are of questionable value, taught by professors who become as comfortable in their positions as the men and women in finance who were rewarded for losing billions of dollars for the corporations that employed them.

You may question what I mean.  If you have a newly-minted degree in economics, you may wonder why your professors appeared to have little or no awareness of the impending economic collapse.  Why did they fail to mention this possibility–the worst since the Great Depression–in the economics and business courses you took from them?  What sheltered academic economists so that they had no clue about the approaching mortgage collapse?  If you have just earned your degree in journalism, you might ask why your professors silently watched the American media enable the Bush administration’s policies on torture, or on financing and planning for the war, or Katrina, or on budget priorities in general.

It’s easy for me to make these remarks, you say, as someone who teaches English and not business or economics or journalism.  Well, I believe that the humanities have failed you also, especially in regards to ethics and morality.  More specifically, those of us who teach English have ignored your urgent needs to write better.  I have taught long enough (fifty years) to observe a steady decline in the writing skills of almost all students at virtually every level of the educational system—but especially during the past decade or so of grade inflation and feel-good philosophies promoted by educators to nurture students’ self-esteem.

Remarkably, almost all of you who are graduating today—no matter what your major—will complete your degree with a B+ grade point average or higher.  At some institutions, and in some disciplines, rarely is a grade below an A- given to any student who completes a course.  And yet surveys indicate that many of you do little or no work outside of the classroom, assuming that you do attend classes.

Were you truly challenged by your higher education?  Did you write papers that asked you to grapple with ideas and not simply borrow from the Internet?  Did your professors carefully read your papers and challenge you with their comments?

What I am suggesting is that your professors rarely gave you the grades you deserved but, instead, enabled most of you to assume that you are hard-working original thinkers, brilliant students who were deeply immersed in the disciplines they supposedly taught you.

So this is where you find yourself today: with a stunning grade point average from a first-rate institution, an impressive résumé (because of all your carefully chosen extra-curricular activities and internships), heavily in debt, and with few prospects for a high-paying job.

What can you do?  What must you do?

The generation before you—yes, your parents’ generation—because of its complacency, its self-serving interests, its inability to mind the ship, has created a perfect storm that you must now weather.  The national debt alone is so large that I fully understand why you might want to bury your head in the sand, as your elders have mostly done, and hope that we will somehow muddle through.

But these are not typical times that you have inherited.  You questioned your professors little during the last four years, but that policy can no longer continue for the freshmen who will enter universities this coming fall.  As for you, you are going to have to keep the heat on our newly-elected popular president, and on every other elected leader in the United States.  America is going to have to become accountable for all of its policies–especially economic ones–or we are doomed to a horrendous national decline.

And you are going to have to get involved in a way you probably never considered when you began to pursue your undergraduate degree four years.  Fortunately, there is a new mood of optimism in the country and there are still safe harbors where you can begin: Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and any number of non-profits (including many international ones) that are crying out for your assistance.  You might also consider teaching English overseas in one of the countries where English is rapidly becoming the preferred second language: Japan, China, or Korea.  If your interests are international, consider taking the exam for the Department of State or other government agencies that place people overseas.

In your personal life, no matter what you do, you are going to have to scale down your expectations and learn how to live frugally, while at the same time connecting to other people and their needs which may be much worse than yours.

Americans have always prided themselves on helping others—not just other Americans but people around the world who, historically, have not been as fortunate as most of us in the United States.  As an old African adage goes, a human being is only human because of other people.  The same is true of countries: a nation is only a nation because of other countries.

The world urgently needs you.  Fortunately, you can make a difference.

CHARLES R. LARSON is a Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.



More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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