A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic.

You bastards stood me up!

You invited me to give this commencement months ago. You never told me it was cancelled. So I drove across the country, got up early this morning and put this scratchy graduation gown over my Ramones t-shirt, and now I find myself standing in an empty stadium with a Very Important Speech in my hands!

The speech I was going to give fully lives up to the extremely mediocre norms of this genre. You invited me because I’m a person who has achieved some career success and so you wanted me to give a speech on why career success doesn’t matter. You wanted me to open with some heart-warming jokes I stole from Ellen and to drop the names of some obscure bands to prove that I’m hip to youth culture. Then you wanted me to conclude with inspiring stories of how moments of failure taught me valuable life lessons—especially about the need to give generously to your college’s alumni association.

I was going to do all that—and in 10 minutes! There has never been a good 20 minute commencement and there’s never been a bad 10 minute one, and I had this one timed!

But since you didn’t show up I’m going to give a different talk. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that the parents aren’t here to say something I could never say in front of the parents. I’m going to take advantage of the fact the faculty and administrators aren’t here to say something I could never say in front of the faculty and administrators. And I’m going to take advantage of the fact that you students aren’t here to say something I could never say in front of you yourselves.

First, here’s what I can’t say to you in front of your parents.

Your parents are proud and a little surprised that you’ve made it to graduation. They are eager for you to launch yourself off into a successful life. Screw that. The next few years are going to be a terrible time to launch a career. So don’t do it. Put off launching your career until 2023.

[Bridget Phetasy: I didn’t get to graduate either]

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. Just think 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 unusual two-year 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 wouldn’t make sense if you were worrying about building a career—bartender, handyman, Americorps volunteer.

Don’t worry about where the job you take puts you on any status hierarchy. Our society’s career status hierarchy is in the midst of changing, anyway. Instead, try to do something that people will ask you about for the rest of your life. What was it like to work on a fishing boat off Maine?  What was it like to teach at a nursery school for the children of Mexican farm workers? You’re graduating into an extremely uncertain time. You might as well get a master’s degree in handling uncertainty. If you use the next two years as a random hiatus you may not wind up richer, but you’ll wind up more interesting.

Now let me tell you what I couldn’t tell you in front of the faculty and administrators.

Graduation day is a good day to step back and reflect on all the things you’ve learned during college. It’s also a good day to step back and reflect on all the ways your college failed you, on the pieces of your education this place should have given you but didn’t. Now you’re going to have to learn these things on your own.

[Caitlin Flanagan: You thought you were free, but history found you]

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 list goes on. If you didn’t read de Tocqueville you probably don’t understand your own country. If you didn’t study Gibbon, you probably lack a vocabulary to describe the rise and fall of cultures and nations.

The wisdom of the ages is your inheritance; it can make your life easier. These resources can fail to get shared because universities are too careerist, or because faculty members are more interested in their academic specialties or in politics than in teaching undergraduates, or for 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.

Finally, students, let me say the thing I can’t say to you in front of yourselves.

It’s about your diet. No, I don’t mean your physical diet. Our culture spends an awful lot of time talking about food, celebrity chefs, craft beers, and so on, so I suspect you’re covered when it comes to thinking about your physical diet. Gluttony is the shallowest of the vice and being a gourmet is the most bourgeois of the virtues and I’m just not that interested.

[Read: What if colleges don’t reopen until 2021?]

I’m talking about your mental diet. What are you putting into your mind? Our culture spends a lot less time worrying about this, and when it does it goes about it all wrong.

The normal thing to do on those rare occasions when people pause to worry about their mental diet is to worry about the junk people are pouring into their brains—the trashy videos coming over their phones, the cheap horror movies they use to divert themselves, the degrading reality TV shows they gaze at, and the hours they spent binge watching Tiger King and Love is Blind when this pandemic started.  

I’m not as worried about the dangers of mental junk food. That’s because often when I meet a true intellectual I find they take pleasure in mental junk food too. Somehow having a taste for trashy romcoms hasn’t rotted their brain or made them incapable of writing great history or doing deep physics.

My worry is that, especially after college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the Theory of Maximum Taste. This theory is based on the idea that genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, you will have a bigger and broader mind than if you spend your time with run of the mill stuff.    

The Theory of Maximum Taste is the idea that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

A few years ago, I was teaching at college students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for thirty and forty-somethings, many of whom who had gone to that highly competitive college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an Isaiah Berlin essay on Tolstoy. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard an essay. The forty-somethings really struggled. Many said they just couldn’t understand they. Their reading comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their minds was lower than it used to be.

In college you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings or think about science in hard ways. After college most of us may resolve to do this, 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 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 or Marilyn Robinson, really look at Rembrandt or Rothko. Suddenly you feel your consciousness expanding once again. The old muscles come back.

Here’s what I can’t say to you in front of your faces. I’m worried about the future of your Maximum Taste. People in my and earlier generations, at least those lucky enough to have had a decent education, got a training in the old classics, which gets rekindled every time we sit down to read something really excellent. I worry that it’s possible to grow up now not even aware that the upper registers of human feeling and thought even exist, not even missing their absence.

[Julian Zelizer: The next great generation]

I worry that we’re seeing greater inequality of sensibility—that there are many people in the internet generations who are wiser, deeper and more humane than any of us were when we left college decades ago. But there are also people who haven’t been exposed to any of that and find it very possible to live at the level of YouTube.

I wonder if you too will sense what many of your elders sense—that the whole culture is eroding the skill Maryanne Wolf calls “deep literacy”—the ability to deeply engage in a dialectical way with a text or piece of philosophy literature and art.  “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,” Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest.

I can’t say that to you because it sounds fussy, and elitist and OK Boomer. And if you were in front of me you’d roll your eyes.

But, hey! You’re not here to listen! I’m just alone here in this stadium, free to speak my piece.

And now I’m now going to run to the end zone and pretend to be Aaron Rodgers.