Graduation Advice For Troubled Times

Melanie SturmEducationLeave a Comment

It’s not a Mad Max world into which students are graduating, but it’s a Mad, Mad one, fraught with genocidal fanaticism, proliferating scandals, and morally deficient leadership.

As terrorists claimed swaths of Iraq and Syria for the Islamic State, and “death to America”-seeking Iran crept closer to nuclear weapons capability, recent headlines featured indictments of international soccer officials at FIFA and former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Distrust of civil institutions pervades society.

Meanwhile, the conflicts of interest surrounding Hillary Clinton prompted CNN’s John King to note “you can’t go 20 minutes…without some story…. that gives you a little bit of the creeps.” Will Americans ignore behavior in a presidential candidate that they’d normally deem reprehensible?

The question before graduates is whether they’ll “party on” – accepting a world of imperiled liberties and moral retreat – or whether they’ll Think Again and try to improve it.

Can a generation more informed about Bruce Jenner’s transformation than the Constitution adhere to a founding principle of our democracy, that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” as Benjamin Franklin insisted?

Will iPhone-era Americans raised in the freest, richest and most decent society the world has ever known demand the civic trust, honesty, and accountability on which America’s extraordinariness has depended?

Unfortunately, for over half a century, many institutions charged with cultivating civic virtue – family, faith and education – have failed to transmit the moral values vital to healthy societies. Skyrocketing numbers of single households, a struggling middle class and a crisis in higher education have combined to deprive us of citizens with the requisite moral character for self-government.

Author J.D. Salinger captured education’s problem in his 1961 book “Franny and Zooey:” His heroine grumbles, “You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”

Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago had a more scholarly take in his 1987 bestseller, “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Student.”

Bemoaning the demotion of the humanities’ “great books” and academia’s “openness” trend, Bloom argued that because education was no longer a quest for wisdom and “truth,” it was eroding the intellectual foundations of liberty and morality.  After all, 18-22 years olds don’t just self-actualize morally.

“Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason,” Bloom contended, lamenting, “It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power” to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and justice from injustice.

Safe from reflective thought, potential insult or conflicting ideas, and without the ennobling insights and discipline gleaned from studying Aristotle, Shakespeare or Twain, is it surprising that our “best and brightest” converted housing finance into a high-stakes casino, rendered our foreign policy incoherent, and encumbered generations of American taxpayers with more debt than the world has ever known?

Campus horribles reached a zenith with the lauding of Columbia University undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz – aka “Mattress Girl” – who  accused a friend of brutally raping her. Though the University and district attorney cleared him, Sulkowicz continued to tote a mattress — the scene of the alleged crime — on her back, garnering media plaudits, an invitation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to the State of the Union address, and a celebratory shout-out at commencement.

To Sulkowicz’s champions, it doesn’t matter that the truth interfered with their popular narrative about “campus rape culture,” or that their irresponsible statements increase the scrutiny given to rape victims and irreparably damage the reputations of the truly innocent. Those things are a trifle compared to their political agenda.

As if addressing Sulkowicz, actor Matthew McConaughey told University of Houston graduates “Life’s not fair. It never was, isn’t now and won’t ever be. Do not fall into the entitled trap of feeling like you’re a victim. You’re not.” McConaughey echoed Franklin’s maxim: “The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

Last year, Admiral William McRaven, who commanded the Osama bin Laden operation, mined his Navy SEAL training to offer University of Texas graduates tips on how to change “ourselves and the world around us.”

In his widely admired address, he counseled, “Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone…You will fail often, but if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up,” then subsequent generations will live in a better world.

In truth, our Mad, Mad world isn’t a safe place and our era’s existential and moral challenges aren’t unprecedented. If graduates haven’t yet grappled with mind-bending questions – what’s a good person, how to make ethical judgments, what are civic duties – they will.  As they struggle, may humanity’s wisdom guide them.

Think Again – “The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance,” Franklin said. To recall why, consider Adolf Hitler’s observation: “lucky for governments that people don’t think.”

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