U.S. News

05.18.14

My Commencement Speech to Rutgers’ Geniuses: Go Forth and Fail

Greetings, Class of 2014. So Condoleezza Rice was too offensive for you. Just wait until Monday morning. Did you learn how to spell KFC?

Rutgers Did Not Invite Me to Give Its Commencement Speech Today

The university got pretty confused about who would, after Condoleezza Rice declined.

Rutgers invited, then disinvited, then re-invited Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a 2010 football game. LeGrand went on to write two books, become a motivational speaker, and finish his Rutgers degree via Skype.

Between inviting and re-inviting LeGrand, Rutgers invited and confirmed the invitation of former New Jersey governor and former head of the 9/11 Commission Tom Kean. So the university has two—and, for all I know, still counting—commencement speakers. But Rutgers never got confused enough to invite me.

Eric LeGrand and Tom Kean are uplifting figures.  LeGrand has raised hope. Kean has raised hell with the CIA and FBI. I am not uplifting.

Here Is What I Would Tell the Rutgers Graduating Class of 2014

I hear Condoleezza Rice stood you up. You may think it was because about 50 students—.09 percent of your student body—held a “sit-in” at the university president’s office to protest the selection of Secretary Rice as commencement speaker. You may think it was because a few of your faculty—stale flakes from the crust of the turkey pot pie that was the New Left—threatened a “teach-in” to protest the selection of Secretary Rice.

“Sit-in”? “Teach-in”? What century is this?

I think Secretary Rice forgot she had a yoga session scheduled for today.

It’s shame she was busy. You might have heard something useful from a person who grew up poor in Jim Crow Alabama. Who lost a friend and playmate in 1963 when white supremacists bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Who became an accomplished concert pianist before she tuned her ear to the more dissonant chords of international relations.

Secretary Rice was Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Denver and received a B.A. cum laude in political science—back before the worst grade a student had ever heard of was a B-.

The professor who influenced her most was Josef Korbel, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s father.

Secretary Albright and Secretary Rice don’t agree on much about international relations. But they don’t sit-in or teach-in at each other’s public appearances.

Secretary Rice got a master’s in political science from Notre Dame, a Ph.D. in political science from Denver and, in the meantime, was an intern at the Carter administration State Department and the Rand Corporation and studied Russian at Moscow State University.

Well, maybe nobody does need to be smart. But that’s your problem, sitting here thinking you’re so smart for graduating from Rutgers.

She rose from assistant professor to provost at Stanford. (Ranked fifth-best university in America by U.S. News & World Report. You’re ranked 69th.) While she was doing that, she also served, from 1989 to 1991, as the Soviet expert on the White House National Security Council under President George H. W. Bush.

1989 happens to be when the Berlin Wall fell. I know, I know, most of you weren’t born, and you get your news from TMZ. A wall falling over can’t be as interesting as Beyonce’s sister punching and kicking Jay Z in a New York hotel elevator. But that 1989 moment of “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (and I’ll bet you a personal karaoke performance of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” that you can’t name the poet who wrote it) had interesting consequences. Stop taking selfies and Google “Berlin Wall” on the iPhones you’re all fiddling with.

Condoleezza Rice was named National Security Adviser in December 2000, less than a year before some horrific events that you may know of. She became Secretary of State in 2005 during an intensely difficult period in American history (which your teach-in was not going to teach you much about).  And she saw the job through to the end of the fraught and divisive George W. Bush presidency, making moral and ethical decisions of such a complex and contradictory nature that they would have baffled Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (of whom I suppose, perhaps naively, you have heard) put together.

You’ve made complex and contradictory moral and ethical decisions about serving beer to freshmen during Greek Week and whether to stealthily Google “Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle” during your Philosophy 101 exam.

Some of your professors don’t believe that Secretary Rice would be worth listening to. Some believe you need to be taught to disapprove of her morals and ethics. I am quoting your state’s Star-Ledger newspaper: “‘Attending the teach-in will be a strong signal that we will not sit quietly while a small group of irresponsible people [although I’d thought we’d established who they were during the sit-in] dishonor our beloved university,’ said history professor Rudolph Bell.”

Rudolph “Jingle” Bell. It is to be hoped poor Rudolph doesn’t have a very shiny nose.

Anyway, you might have heard something good from Secretary Rice. You’ll hear nothing good from me.

Here you are graduating from Rutgers, which is, as I mentioned, the 69th-best university in America.  Maybe Rutgers should add more vegan selections to its cafeteria fare. U.S. News & World Report scorekeepers go for that kind of thing. Actually, you’re tied for 69th with Texas A&M, an NFL first-round draft with a small college attached.

Your most famous alumni are Garret A. Hobart, 24th vice president of the United States, Ozzie Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet, Mr. Magoo, and seven former governors of New Jersey. Given the recent history of that office, I promise not to tell anybody. (Gov. Kean went to Princeton.)

And you just wasted $100,308 on tuition, fees, and room and board, assuming you were able to zip through Rutgers in a mere four years. Although you only wasted $53,996 if you were living in your parents’ basement. But you wasted $156,404 if you’re one of those bridge and tunnel people from out of state. Let’s call it a hundred long. Approximately 14,000 of you are graduating this year. That’s $1.4 billion wasted.

Why do I say “wasted”? Those of you who are, know why. Those of you who, for reasons unfathomable, are sober on this occasion may need it explained.

I have done research. I used the same tools for deep and comprehensive understanding that you used for your essays and term papers—Wikipedia and random Internet searches.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (at least as reliable a source as the National Association of Cats and Dogs), the average starting salary for a newly graduated B.A. is $45,633.

Not bad, you say. There’s almost rent and a car payment in that, after taxes. But “average starting salary” assumes you’re salaried. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 75 percent of college graduates are in the labor force. Maybe the rest are on a grad-school full ride getting a Ph.D. in string theory.

There’s reason to doubt it. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows 44 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. A report in The Atlantic claims half of those recent graduates are working “in jobs that don’t require a degree.” And, in a National Center for Education Statistics survey, 48 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds with student-loan debt say they are unemployed or underemployed. Can you spell KFC?

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau puts the total U.S. student loan debt at $1 trillion. The average college student—look up here, that’s you—graduates owing $24,301 in student loans, never mind your credit-card balance and the second mortgage your parents took out on their house. Ten percent of graduates owe more than $54,000. Nearly 42 percent of graduates are still paying off college loans between the ages of 30 and 50.

Among the debtors, 14 percent are behind in student-loan payments, and 13.4 percent of all student loans are in default. Therefore you, if you’re lucky enough to become a future taxpayer, will be burdened with $134 billion of other people’s student loans as well as what you owe.

I have done research. And I have done mathematical analysis. College is, or once was, for smart people.  Less-than-smart people do most of the hard and dangerous work, raise families, show decency and fair play, and possess the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. But somebody needs to be smart or what would happen to predatory hedge funds, evil political machinations, the entertainment industry’s production of awful trash

Well, maybe nobody does need to be smart. But that’s your problem, sitting here thinking you’re so smart for graduating from Rutgers.

What intrigues me is that there are 31.1 million Americans between 18 and 24, and 21.8 million of you—70 percent—are going to college. It is not possible that 70 percent of you are among the 50 percent of you who are above-average in intelligence.

Granted, Rutgers’ acceptance rate is only 61 percent. This still leaves 1,260 Rutgers graduates who ought to be out providing the world with faith, hope, and charity, and not stuck in this place waiting to receive degrees in Park, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies. That, by the way, is the fastest growing college major in America, so says U.S. News & World Report.

Now let me address just the young men in the audience. Guys, of the 21.8 million college students, 12.5 million are women and 9.3 million are men. Guys? What? As someone who’s been married a couple of times, I can tell you your wife was always going to be smarter than you. But you’re letting her frame it and hang it on the wall.

I have done research. I have done mathematical analysis. I have also done fieldwork. That is, I’ve talked to people who went to college after the jingle bells of academia took over the institutions. Gosh.

What constitutes a “college education”?

You need to study history, so that it doesn’t come around again and, per Santayana, bite you in the Ukraine. You’re thinking, “Santayana—historically great guitar player.”

You need philosophy, not the modern bull session kind but the Socratic method of “What the hell am I thinking?” And what the hell were you thinking, majoring in History of Film? At least you got to see So-crates in action in Bill and Teds Excellent Adventure.

You need literature and the arts so you can read something longer than a Beyoncé tweet and throw Bartok into the iPod mix and hear what Jay Z is up against experimenting with music.

A general understanding of science is necessary. You don’t have to learn how to cure cancer. You just have to learn that the guy my age with what’s left of his hair tied in a ponytail who works at the organic locavore shop and talks about the healing properties of crystals and magnetic fields is crazy.

The same goes for mathematics and economics. You should be able to do the math—if you’re still repaying your student loans when you’re 50, college education probably wasn’t a good investment.

Do you know Milton Friedman graduated from Rutgers? Do you know who he is? Won the Nobel Prize for economics. I checked your Department of Economics website. Courses are offered in “Economics of Crime,” “Income Inequality,” “Women in the Economy” (Condoleezza Rice won’t be getting her honorarium for speaking at this ceremony), and “Game Theory.” (Useful on Xbox?  Or not so much?)  But I don’t see a course called “Capitalism and Freedom,” also the title of the book by Milton Friedman that has been shaping economic debate in this country for half a century.

A language or two is requisite. Preferably Latin and Greek to let you comprehend where our civilization came from. And to let you comprehend whether you are heir to that civilization or spouting hot air about it.

And there’s civics. Although I suppose living in New Jersey is civics lesson enough. An AP credit for civics, you got it.

Eight or so subjects to get a college education. Think you could find 100 wonderful experts in each of these, 800 professors, for $1.4 billion? That’s $1.75 million a year apiece. There would be applicants. You could hold classes in the Moose Lodge or at the Y. Classes would be large. So was the agora where Socrates taught. But there’s no free WiFi in the Moose Lodge.  And this kind of college education sounds like work.  Which is something you’ll be looking hard for, starting tomorrow.

Go Forth and Fail.