As I wrap up my graduation tour, I’ve had time to ponder the current state of affairs for those who are about to enter the job field. While I was listening to one commencement speech – which I was called upon to “script doctor” – my mind wandered away to my undergraduate commencement speech and speaker. It wasn’t that long ago, at least not by my reckoning, yet it seems that even in the last five to seven years “life” has changed drastically.
The speech I was not listening to, because I knew what was coming, was somewhat cliché and self-congratulatory. I did my best to eliminate the “reach-for-the-stars- follow-your-dreams-you-can-do-anything!” triteness, with marginal success. At the same time, it would not have worked if I turned my hand to it more, which would have resulted in the speech sounding like Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot ghostwrote it.
Back to my graduation speaker. In my case the speaker was an alum of distinction. She came from a prominent American family of long pedigree, but she did not rest on those laurels. She has written seminal and acclaimed books on politics and history and has ventured into dangerous war zones to do so. Her words to us were powerful – they were only slightly congratulatory. This was a college that actually required hard work. All the more reason, in this woman’s estimation, that the privilege we had just been afforded required a greater responsibly. It was a rousing exhortation to all gathered that we had social, moral and ethical obligations to try in our way, large or small, to contribute in a worthwhile manner to the betterment of humanity and the earth. It was and is a tall order – a life-long duty and I applaud it.
Back to the present day where every “accomplishment,” however inconsequential, is celebrated. To be sure, there were many grads who did extraordinary work and overcame truly horrendous obstacles. Most are “dreamers” which is the only new word in the American lexicon that I like – amid all the ugly horrid ones. I’d like to think we are all dreamers. The word makes me think of the John Lennon song “Imagine.”
Of this current group of grads, as well as the teens I spoke to, their preeminent concern is getting a job after graduation. Teens are worried and they haven’t gotten there yet. One reason, surely, is that college is so costly – even an organ donation won’t cover it – that the expectation must needs that employment immediately follow. This, sadly, turns college – in my view – into a technical school. Going to college to become educated, to have a “gentleman’s [or woman’s] education” is a luxury that is beyond most. When I talk about it people look at me like I’ve lost my mind.
Those grads who I know were fortunate to land jobs straightaway – all in STEM fields. Commendable to be sure, and I have no doubt they will do great things. But where, oh where, are our new crop of artists, poets, writers, dancers, musicians, sculptors, et al.? Will they be forced to forgo their creative bent and work for a Fortune 500 company that guarantees you some financial stability but kills your soul? Okay, that might be a bit much, but I’m campaigning for the “B-word” – Balance!!!
I had a professor, at this same college, who posited that the greatest ages were those where the sciences and the humanities were equal – e.g., the Renaissance, the 19th century. I suspect the 21st century will not be included on this list. The scale is tipped to science.
So, to recall a line from the enduring film The Graduate, plastics was the future. Fast forward 51(!) years, and we have this:
Now the wave of the future is: Science, Technology, Engineering Math – STEM: the siren’s call to lucre, upward mobility, keeping up with the Jones’s, mortgages, 401Ks, debt. The American way.
Welcome to the machine.