The president of your university tried to get Stephen Colbert as your commencement speaker, but he had a previous engagement. Same for Jimmy Kimmel. Billie Jean King wanted too large a fee. Too bad, for I understand that she makes some zinging if rather predictable remarks on the injustice of women’s wages and, with the aid of the graduating members of the tennis team, hits tennis balls out into the audience. A free tennis ball for an education that costs around a quarter of a million dollars may not seem much of a deal, but, I suppose, it’s better than going away empty-handed.
Instead you’ve got me. I work cheap and don’t even ask for an honorary degree, since, with such degrees now so often given to the very wealthy and to the politically correct, I don’t believe they are any longer all that honorable. I myself have no advanced degrees, but only a B.A. in absentia from the University of Chicago (While in the Army, I took my final exam on a pool table at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1959). While at the University of Chicago, you should know, I received no A’s and, best I can remember, more C’s than B’s. I was never much of a student, and no professor I had during my student days has remembered me on meeting later in life. So what, you may wonder, qualifies me to deliver your commencement address?
Nothing, really, but a willingness to avoid the sonorous platitudes usually hauled out on such occasions as college graduations and a readiness to tell the truth, as I see it, about the real value of a contemporary university education. My hope is that you will match up my observations with your own experience in college over the past four years and determine thereby whether you have got your time and money’s worth.
Some years ago, a man named Paul Goodman, a 1930s radical who became a guru of sorts for the rebellious students of the 1960s, claimed that what graduating college chiefly demonstrated was the ardor to be in the game. So great was this ardor that young men and women would do anything—write hopeless papers on the Reformation, memorize the irregular verbs of foreign languages they were unlikely ever to use, study subjects of no possible interest to anyone but their dry-as-dust professors—to be able to play. The main thing was to get that degree, that magical credential that would get them a job, allowing them to become cogs, however small and obscure, in the great relentlessly humming machine of capitalism.
Paul Goodman was never my guru. As Winston Churchill called “democracy the worst form of government that has ever been tried—except for all the others,” I believe the same can be said for capitalism: that it is the worst form of economy that has ever been tried—except for all the others. Still, yet, but, nevertheless, and however, Goodman had a point: Working four years at what may seem irrelevant subjects to get a respectable job does seem a bit much to ask.
Ah, but you may answer, college was great. “I made many new friends, I had many good times, I’ll draw for years off the many swell memories I acquired during my college years.” I wouldn’t argue with any of this. I would only ask, Was it worth it—worth the time, the money, the often useless effort.
Allow me to present you with my first bit of bad news. Your bachelor’s degrees, apart from those in engineering and possibly in accounting, or those you understood all along were mere hurdles you needed to jump to get you into medical or law or business school, may not be the permanent pass-go-and-collect-$200 card you imagined. A recent article in City Journal by Kay S. Hymowitz argues, alas all too persuasively, that a bachelor’s degree may not have the same value in the job market that it once did. Everyone has heard of grade inflation, but we now appear to be undergoing a phenomenon even more insidious—namely, degree inflation.
The college degree, Hymowitz writes, “is declining in status: postgraduate degrees are now where the real action is. The coveted B.A. from all but the most elite schools has become a yawn, a Honda Civic in a Tesla world.” She adds that “a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree” and that many “employers look at applicants with a bachelor’s degree as second class.” More depressing still, Hymowitz goes on to show the high expense (often charged off as student debt) of acquiring postgraduate degrees and how even many of those with such degrees wind up taking jobs as “parking-lot attendants, bartenders, salespeople.” She quotes an economist named Richard Vedder noting that we can look forward to the day when “a master’s degree in ‘janitorial studies’ will be needed to get a job as a custodian.”
So much, then, for the value of your college degree insuring your getting a good job. What your degree can do, I suppose, is shore up your sense of self-worth. I recall telling my oldest son that I hoped he could arrange to get himself into what the world considers one of the better colleges. He would likely find that it wasn’t all that good—what, after all, does the world know about higher education?—but at least he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life wondering how things might have turned out for him if only he had gone to a supposedly good school.
My son managed to get into Stanford, which, along with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and perhaps Chicago, passes the good-school test. Yet these schools, too, have in recent years lowered their standards, not their admission but their intellectual standards, by giving way to the cries for multiculturalism, political correctness, and artificially created diversity. The reputation of these schools now chiefly exists in the realm of snobbery. Unfortunately, the snobbery works—that is, a Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford graduate is likely to have an advantage in the job market over a possibly superior person from, say, the University of Southern Illinois. Owing to their snobbish cachet, these once elite universities have now become less schools than brands—designer schools, if you will (and why wouldn’t you?). A wag I know—me, actually—feels they should change their names, Harvard becoming Armani; Yale, Ralph Lauren; Princeton, Ferragamo; and Stanford, Gucci.
I hear rumblings in my audience. Was that a guffaw? Did someone call out nonsense? Perhaps it was a good student who did so. Which brings me to that curious figure, “the good student.” My own definition of the good student is someone who psyches out what the professor wants and then has the skill to give it to him. Some people are exceedingly good at school, but not all that good at anything else. A high IQ, I have come to believe, measures chiefly the ability to deal with matters—quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, analytical geometry—at a high level of abstraction, but often with little more. A few of the dopiest people I have known had through-the-roof IQs. I have also come to believe that the chief thing high scores on the SAT reveals is the ability to score high on the SAT, and not all that much more.
Most people work hard at school for one or another form of approval: when very young for the approval of their parents, later for the approval of teachers, then of admissions departments at universities, later still of future employers. Many exceedingly intelligent people, though, are bored royal blue by schoolwork. Consider these certifiable geniuses who, it turns out, were not all that good at school: Pascal, Tolstoy, Henry James, Paul Valéry. Add, closer to our own day, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: The former dropped out of Reed College his freshman year; the latter dropped out of Harvard, feeling, apparently, that it had little or nothing to offer him. Often people who are good at school never leave and themselves become professors. And so, as the disc jockeys say, the beat goes on.
I was a professor myself—a lecturer, actually—for 30 years at Northwestern University. As a university teacher, I found myself less than impressed with the good student. Some resembled well-trained dogs. Suggest a topic, “T. S. Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism”—go get it boy!—and they return with A papers in their mouths. Some among them had straightforward enough motives: All those A’s would get them into law or business schools, the next rung up on the ladder of their dreams, and that is fair enough. (At the beginning of a course I taught on Joseph Conrad, a student came up to ask whether I gave many A’s. The reason he asked, he said, is that he hoped to go to med school and couldn’t afford many grades below A. I told him I gave “some A’s.” He never turned up for the second day of the course.) I frequently sensed something missing in the good student. What was often missing was true passion not alone for learning but for curiosity about the world and what is truly important in it. The good student just wanted to get on and up in the world.
I have been degrading much in contemporary undergraduate education, yet I must now report that my own college experience at the University of Chicago—which was more than 50 years ago, and thus not all that contemporary—was a turning point in my own life. I had spent the year before attending Chicago at the University of Illinois, where much of my classwork seemed to consist of memorization of the biological phyla, of French vocabulary, and more. Not wishing to fail, I did the work, though I sometimes thought a course in memorizing the telephone book would have been just as valuable as some of my courses at Illinois.
At the University of Chicago, to which I transferred after my freshman year, all this changed. At the center of undergraduate education at the University of Chicago was The College. The College entailed a dozen or so yearlong courses with such bland titles as Humanities I, II, and III, Social Science I, II, and III, History, OMP (standing for Organization, Methods, and Principles), and others. For many years at Chicago, one didn’t major in any subject as an undergraduate, but instead took only the core courses. (Majors were added later, causing the New York Times columnist David Brooks to remark that at the University of Chicago he “majored in history and minored in celibacy.”) No textbooks were used in any of these core courses in The College. Instead of reading about what Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud wrote, one read Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud. Plato and Aristotle were two philosophers whose writings seemed to show up again and again in the various courses. The effect of this was to feel that one was going to the source and not reading another person’s (the textbook writer’s) interpretation of sources. Eschewing textbooks for original works also in time gave a student confidence in his or her ability to read difficult, sometime even abstruse, writers.
No attendance was ever taken at the University of Chicago. One might be assigned papers to write, but they didn’t count toward one’s final grade. Nor do I recall quizzes, sudden or other, of any kind. Everything hinged on one’s performance on the final exam, called the comp, or comprehensive. And this, the comp, was graded not by your teacher but by people from something called the Examiner’s Office, which removed a teacher’s liking or disliking you, or your sucking up to your teacher in the hope of getting a higher grade.
As for the readings, I can recall the intellectual excitement I felt arguing with Karl Marx, fighting to free myself from the persuasiveness of Sigmund Freud, being blown away by the intellectual connections made by Max Weber, admiring without reservation Thucydides. For someone whose most serious reading before the University of Chicago had been The Catcher in the Rye, this was heady stuff.
The reading at the University of Chicago caused a student—this student—to think on a grander scale than he might have done previously. This same reading was designed to force a student to confront the larger questions, among them, What is important in life? What is trivial and can be safely ignored? What is the good life? How, finally, ought I to spend my own life?
If you emerge from your college years with roughly the same point of view with which you began, I wonder if you haven’t missed out on a rewarding college education. I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life when I began at the University of Chicago, but when I emerged, I was fairly certain about what I didn’t want to do with it. To devote my life to money-making, comfort, security, though none of these was to be despised, was no longer good enough. A not-so-hidden agenda behind much that went on at Chicago posited that the great things to do with one’s life were to become an artist (painter, composer, writer), scientist (no mere physician but a research scientist), statesman (none of whom currently existed), and if none of these were possible to become a teacher of artists, scientists, statesmen. To become a billionaire was insufficient. One’s financial worth did not in any way match one’s true worth. What did was the quality of one’s mind and the way one lived one’s life.
I heard several brilliant lecturers at Chicago—and I recall attending poetry readings by T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore—but had no memorable classroom teachers. Rather it was the general atmosphere of the school that had the greatest effect on me. This atmosphere, one of the utmost seriousness—a T-shirt read “The University of Chicago, Where Fun Goes to Die”—featured models of what an educated person looked like. The school in those days also had an international air, owing to the brilliant German and Italian refugees among its faculty (Fascism’s gift to America). This intellectual style was one I wished to emulate, though I had to do so with care, lest I be labelled a “pseudo-intellectual,” which of course at the outset I suppose I was. But my larger point is that having a model or models of an educated person, which the University of Chicago supplied in abundance, is crucial to becoming one oneself. “Unless we have a right notion of what is valuable, of what we mean by success, and of what types of man we admire,” wrote T. S. Eliot in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, “our reforms of education may go little farther than a multiplication of sanitary school-buildings and a further proliferation of diplomas.”
The educated person is someone whose culture is wider, whose understanding is deeper than the ordinary person’s. He is likely to be disinterested, which is to say impartial, in many of his views, though never chary of taking controversial positions. He steers clear of what the art critic Harold Rosenberg called “the herd of independent minds.” That herd can usually be found in search of fashionable ideas; it tends to travel under the banner of political parties, seeking out the faddish in both art and ideas. The educated person sees through all that fiddle.
What he sees is nicely captured in a passage in an essay called “Faking It” by the late English philosopher Roger Scruton. In this essay, Scruton takes up the question of how we perceive beauty in art. “We reach beauty through setting our interests aside and letting the work dawn on us,” he writes. “There are many ways of doing this, but art is undeniably the most important, since it presents us with the image of human life—our own life and all it means to us—and asks us to look on it directly, not for what we can take from it but for what we can give to it. Through beauty, art cleans the world of our self-obsession.” Scruton holds that our need for art arises from our moral nature, and he adds: “We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves.”
The educated person, in other words, through art, through philosophy, through the contemplation of history, is able to step outside him- or herself and to see the world, unfogged by self-interest or personal obsession. Not always but more often than most, the educated person is able to see things as they truly are. He or she is, as Henry James advised we all try to be, a person “on whom nothing is lost.”
A serious education, then, ought to enable you to do more than get a decent job. Such an education should free you, allowing you to move about the world observing, comparing, understanding what passes before you. Serious education will not reveal life’s manifold mysteries to you but makes them more vivid and hence more worthy of contemplation. Education enlightens, which is to say lights up, the world like nothing else, making it simultaneously a richer, more amusing, and interesting place. Perhaps above all, it frees you from the narrow confines of your social class, your nationality, your ethnicity, rendering you a citizen of the world.
Finally, a good college education convinces anyone who has acquired one that he or she is far from educated at the end of college. A good college education reveals above all that education itself is a lifelong endeavor, one never entirely achieved, for there are always more books to read, art works to view, music to listen to, mysteries to consider. I hope this doesn’t depress you. No reason it should. What better way, after all, to spend one’s days than in the happy pursuit of the gloriously unattainable!
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