Over the course of the next month many commencement speeches will be delivered across North America, and almost all of them will sanction an insidious charade. There will be an inspirational message, urging young people to become themselves, to blaze an authentic trail in their lives, and to have courage and take risks. Why is this a charade? Because it has little or nothing to do with the education just completed. To the contrary, the educational path followed by most is one of conformity, subordination of self-hood, and hours spent puzzling over abstractions.
The commencement speech sets up a weird juxtaposition between what we collectively idealize, and what we collectively enforce. It’s as though, after we have succumbed to all our greatest fears and insecurities, we are finally ready to invite freedom and inspiration into our thinking. The juxtaposition is striking, and speaks to the paradox of America. We like our ideals and pragmatism to coexist. Yet they have the effect of negating each other – not unlike the way opposing political parties undo each other in government. Commencement seems to be the approved time to verbalize support for hopes and dreams, but the daily routine of school makes little allowance for this sort of intention or plan.
To me, this seems a little bit like passing the buck. Let it be in the next school for authenticity, self-hood, and personal freedom to emerge. And you know what? There’s hardly a soul in education who doesn’t see the disconnect, and despair about the situation. I know this because educators often communicate this sentiment to me – lately, in large numbers. We are all held hostage by systems of teaching and learning that disenfranchise many learners, and undermine the natural motivation of others. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that some schools are guided more by tradition than the evolving needs and interests of youth.
This is a bigger crisis of adolescence than bullying, substance abuse, or electronica.
In fact, I would argue that it contributes to substance abuse. The conformity march that shapes education for the great majority is of marginal relevance for most – unless it is your position that the sequential attainment of credentials is the purpose of education and adolescence. In the United States, most educational curricula are shaped by fear rather than courage. I fully understand the necessity of basic skills, but come on, what about all the time spent on abstractions for which there is no life corollary? Please consult the intensely interesting and overdue new title: The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker.
(We are led to believe that wonderful jobs in science await diligent students. But talking with PhD’s in the sciences tells another story. Hundreds of applicants for a single job. Few opportunities in academia. It turns out the STEM-related jobs are mostly lower level technician positions. The country wants worker bees more than innovators and researchers. I wish the plain truth about STEM was spoken at commencement. And in fact it was some years ago, by the prescient and wonderful Wendell Berry.)
A key reason for our current state of affairs is an unarticulated, but shared belief that secondary school has little to do with self-hood. Instead, it focuses largely on “preparation.” But preparation for what? It seems mostly like preparation for the next level of schooling. What about preparation for living? What about preparation for actually going out and blazing your own trail? How are we preparing students to lead by requiring years of following?
An upper school student at a prominent U.S. school recently said to me, “They always tell us to lead, but they never give us any opportunities.” You know why? Because the subtext of “leadership” is maintain self-control, not decision-making, creativity, or assertiveness.
Doesn’t leadership require a guided examination of one’s self? Why must this process wait until school is over! There are always a few elites, graduating from every secondary school who have the courage and tenacity to follow their own path. Great! But I’m worried about those who feel they are not one of the chosen few; young people who have a strong appetite for purpose and a life of fulfillment, but who lack mentors and opportunity.
In every cell of my body, I believe this is the frontline in the battle for personal liberty. Working to expand possibilities is a fusion of humanism and patriotism. As goes the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our fellow, younger citizens, so goes the future of the nation.
Do you get the picture? I’m talking about way more than expanded extra-curriculars, or longer-acting Ritalin.
Malia Obama has decided to take a gap year before beginning her studies at Harvard. News of this decision has caused a stir, exciting interest in what gap years are all about. Many think of a gap year as a time to find oneself, perhaps to become more clear about what to study at a university.
I’m all for this type of experience, but why must it happen during a gap year? If it happened earlier, students would still be in the company of a wisdom community: friends and peers, as well as adults who have known and guided them over the course of years. Self-discovery is not linear, it’s happening all the time – even when we silently conspire to avoid the topic.
Newsflash: At this moment, many students are contemplating a gap year in Colorado where they can smoke marijuana to their heart’s content. They are busily trying to sell parents on the idea of Colorado by extolling its fresh air, mountains, and university programs. And they will happily enjoy these resources while munching on “special” brownies.
Anyone in my profession knows that the use of marijuana has changed markedly over the past 10 years. Many students have developed a psychological dependence on this drug. Although it may become legalized, like other legalized substances, it can potentially unravel lives. Among the most forceful alarmists are those that previously used marijuana multiple times per day, but who have managed to regain control.
(By the way, the worst situation is the moment when a parent, who also uses marijuana, asks an eighteen or nineteen year-old to smoke with them. Kids might have envisioned such a scenario as a paradise a few years earlier. Once it happens, however, there is an unwanted feeling of emptiness or abandonment. Even rebellious young people need parents that hold the line, if only as a symbol of moral oversight. It might seem great to live in a world without limits, but once it happens, it feels like life has lost its ballast.)
I believe that marijuana use is largely a reaction to stress. And I believe the stress of going to school is largely related to a lack of ownership of one’s educational path. Many adolescents come to secondary school with an emergent sense of self-hood that needs recognition and validation. For this to have any credibility it must include practical consideration of how time, resources, and energy are allocated.
Young people who are raised in strong, well-structured families often suppress an instinct for self-hood for fear of missing out on “success.” The promise of success is partly what drives the mandate to conform. Yet the gap between the pursuit of vague success, and its alternative, a deeper sense of purpose and happiness, is one that’s hard to close. If you are admitted to an elite university, the excitement masks the gap – you feel as though you have been anointed. Everybody else is left to compromise and rationalize concessions.
It feels hypocritical to then have a commencement address that reassures everyone that we all know what’s really important in life. Precious few have been equipped to act on that inspiration.
Commencement speeches are a school function, but schools are social institutions, whether public or private, that reflect the larger mandate of society. It’s not that we aspire to conformity, it’s that the status quo is how we address anxiety about the unknown. In some cases, it may be fear of economic inadequacy, in other cases it’s a more existential anxiety about what the future might hold, and whether the young will be adequately prepared.
It seems to me that when we give in to fear, we stop betting on ourselves, and our kids. We agree to focus on making ideal candidates for corporations rather than life. I am not against doing good work as a part of a corporation, but the facts about such dwindling opportunities speak for themselves. At least in America, there is no corporate cavalry coming to save folks. Most who have earned college degrees in the past ten years are already keenly aware of this fact.
Now is the time for the emergence of a new type of self-reliance. This sort of revitalization is central to our mental and physical health, to reclaiming lives of purpose. It relocates authority for the future among a vast group of diverse individuals, willing to script a greater range of life plans.
I want schools to be a part of this momentum, rather than an obstruction. I want classrooms to be places of frank conversation, and of community that transcends subjects of study. I want young people to have access to lives that are congruent with their ideals, so that commencement speeches can affirm what is real, rather than profess a fantasy.
This brings me to the end of the final newsletter of the academic year (at least here in North America). I’ve had many great exchanges with readers this year, and I’m particularly pleased that the last newsletter elicited more comments than any that I’ve written in nearly 11 years. Thank you!
Your comments are always appreciated, and ever intelligent and insightful. I’m extremely fortunate to be connected with a growing community of kindred spirits.
**One reader has suggested that she would like to be able to share this newsletter more easily, and to that and I will post a link to the newsletter on the archive page of my website, as soon as possible. I’ll also try to figure out how to make it a practice to include that link here for those who would like to embed it in emails, texts, social media, etc.
I’m going to spend the summer trying to finish a book I’ve been writing for nearly two years. It’s a short book, but the demands of work have been consuming, and it’s taking me a while to say things just the right way. I’ll be talking to you again in September! Until then, all the best.