A Different Kind of Commencement

We’re now entering the time of year where the best of speakers brings out their greatest wisdom to share with graduates as they move on from high school or college into the oft-promised “real world.”  This is another thing bound to change  . . . at least this year . . .  in light of Our Current Moment.  Perhaps there will be live speakers.  Maybe there will be recorded messages sent from afar.  Of course, it will appear as the written word.

Oft-maligned New York Times columnist David Brooks did something of the sort recently for The Atlantic.  Titled “A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person,” the piece articulates Brooks’ thoughts he feels inappropriate to say in front of parents, faculty, and the graduates themselves.  In the piece, Brooks tries to present a kind of spin on Our Current Moment.  I suppose how you understand life, the universe, and everything will affect how you feel about his advice.  From things unable to said before parents:

You happened to have graduated into a global emergency that has interrupted everything. That whole career-track thing you’ve been worrying about? Fundamentally interrupted. Don’t see this as a void; see it as a permission slip.

See it as a permission slip to think differently about time. Usually, time flows continually, like a river, and one thing leads to another. But sometimes time comes in a discrete box. The next two years are going to be a discrete box. Think only about this unusual two-year box right now. You’ll probably have 60 more years after this box is over and they’ll probably be more normal. You can worry about them later.

Use this hiatus to do something you would never have done if this emergency hadn’t hit. When the lockdown lifts, move to another state or country. Take some job that never would have made sense if you were worrying about building a career—bartender, handyman, AmeriCorps volunteer.

From things he wouldn’t say live before faculty and administration:

The biggest way most colleges fail is this: They don’t plant the intellectual and moral seeds students are going to need later, when they get hit by the vicissitudes of life. If you didn’t study Jane Austen while you were here, you probably lack the capacity to think clearly about making a marriage decision. If you didn’t read George Eliot, then you missed a master class on how to judge people’s character. If you didn’t read Nietzsche, you are probably unprepared to handle the complexities of atheism—and if you didn’t read Augustine and Kierkegaard, you’re probably unprepared to handle the complexities of faith . . .

The wisdom of the ages is your inheritance; it can make your life easier. These resources often fail to get shared because universities are too careerist, or because faculty members are more interested in their academic specialties or politics than in teaching undergraduates, or because of a host of other reasons. But to get through life, you’re going to want to draw on that accumulated wisdom. Today is a good day to figure out where your college left gaps, and to start filling them.

And from what he could not say to the students themselves:

In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks. Have you ever noticed that 70 percent of the people you know are more boring at 30 than they were at 20?

But then a pandemic hits, and suddenly you have time to read Henry James and Marilynne Robinson, to really look at Rembrandt and Rothko. Suddenly you feel your consciousness expanding once again. The old intellectual muscles come back . . .

I wonder if you will sense what many of your elders do—that the whole culture is eroding the skill the UCLA scholar Maryanne Wolf calls “deep literacy,” the ability to deeply engage in a dialectical way with a text or piece of philosophy, literature, or art. Or as Adam Garfinkle put it in The American Interest, “To the extent that you cannot perceive the world in its fullness, to the same extent you will fall back into mindless, repetitive, self-reinforcing behavior, unable to escape.”

Like I said, your preconceptions and presuppositions will color how you understand what he says (or says he wouldn’t say).  But his point, I think, is clear.  We do live in a different moment and we do lack a certain kind of depth/perception.  And now, if we are wise, we can do something to correct it.

This entry was posted in Books, Notes for a World's End, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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