The Best Commencement Address of 2014

Every year I surf around the internet for the best commencement address that go out to new graduates. Past winners have included Steve Jobs and David McCullough, Jr. It's a harder task than you think since most commencement addresses are pretty much the same. The best ones, at least in my opinion, are those that not only speak from experience but speak from the heart. It's hard to combine the two. This year the best commencement address of 2014 goes to Adm. William H. McRaven who delivered it to the graduates of the University of Texas at Austin. You can watch it below.

To the Class of 2013

Last Friday, my alma mater had Jon Huntsman, Jr. send 4,327 graduates into the real world. Most commencement speeches (if you've sat through enough of them) are more or less the same. If you've heard one, you've heard them all. But occasionally a person actually delivers a speech worth listening to. (Full disclosure, even though I remember who my commencement speaker was, I can't remember what he or anyone else said that day.) So, as usual this time of year, I post the two great commencement speeches of the last 10 years. The first was the one Steve Jobs gave to Stanford graduates in 2005 while the other was delivered by David McCullough, Jr. to Wellesley High School. They're good speeches because they're unconventional in their message but also because they deliver a message most graduates sorely need to hear. They can both be watched below. Enjoy! Steve Jobs commencement address to Standford 2005

David McCullough, Jr. commencement address to to Wellesley High School

The Best High School Commencement Speech

I've always thought that college dropout Steve Jobs has given the best college commencement address. However, David McCullough, Jr.  just delivered the best high school commencement speech. Had McCullough given it to a college crowd, it actually might beat it Jobs's speech. Like all great addresses, it the message McCullough delivers applies to more than just their target audience. Whether you're still in high school or long since put those days behind you, the message still applies.

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism.  Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue.  Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field.  That matters.  That says something.  And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.  Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special.  You are not exceptional.


 “But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.  It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.  And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.”  I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition.  But the phrase defies logic.  By definition there can be only one best.  You’re it or you’re not.

            If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.


The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.  You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube.  The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life.  Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil.  Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem.  The point is the same: get busy, have at it.  Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you.  Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.  (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life.  Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

Read the entire speech here or watch the video below.


College Graduates and Jobs

According to the New York Times, more and more college graduates are unable to find jobs after graduation; those who do are being paid less than graduates who got their degrees before the recession.

The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008, according to a study released on Wednesday by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. That is a decline of 10 percent, even before taking inflation into account.

Of course, these are the lucky ones — the graduates who found a job. Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007. (Some have gone for further education or opted out of the labor force, while many are still pounding the pavement.)

From the sad stories of unemployed or underemployed college graduates in the article, most of them seem shocked that college didn’t lead to the riches and careers they were told awaited them once they had a diploma in their hands.

The value of a college degree—or at least the perceived value—is part of the problem. When most kids graduate from high school they’ve had at least a decade about the importance of college being drilled into their heads. Most graduate believing that if they want to make anything of their lives, they need a college degree. Trade school, post secondary certifications, or other educational paths are often scoffed at by “educators” even when those may be a good solution for many high school students.

While it’s certainly true that college can lead to higher or better paying jobs than those who don’t pursue a college education, the number of college graduates waiting tables, working as telemarketers, or performing other jobs that don’t require any education or training except a high school diploma is rising. Part of this due to the recession and the fact there are fewer jobs awaiting graduates. However, a bigger problem is that the market is flooded with college graduates who have degrees that are absolutely useless when it comes to getting jobs in the real world. Rubbing salt in the wounds is that many of these students graduated with mountains of debt.

College isn’t for everyone; college degrees aren’t for everyone. Instead of telling students that college is the only path to success, we need to let students know that there are many ways to make it in the world and that college is just one of many choices. Since the real world is often a better teacher than any classroom, many students might even be better off not going to college and seeing what the real world is like before deciding whether or not to pursue a college degree or another path.

Unfortunately the education industrial complex gets a lot of money from the status quo and is unlikely to change anytime soon. It’s probably to take a generation of debt-laden, pissed off graduates before any meaningful education reform is even discussed.

Government Bureaucrats and For-Profit Schools

Driving home from work this week, I caught a story on NPR about government regulators and culinary schools. Apparently regulators are upset that students are graduating with loads of debt and entry-level jobs that can’t pay off their loans.

[Roger] Hollis says he has taken out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for an associate degree in cooking. Despite his work experience and his expensive degree, he'll still be starting at the bottom, as a line cook. "Twelve, 15 [dollars] maybe an hour, yeah."

Many former students say that with that income, it's virtually impossible to keep up with their student loan payments. Newbies may spend years as a line cook; the average salary, according to the online industry magazine Star Chefs, is less than $29,000 a year.

Attorney Michael Louis Kelly represents California students suing the parent company of Cordon Blue, Career Education Corp. His clients say the school promised something it cannot deliver.

"The model doesn't work," Kelly says. "You can't go to school, accumulate $30- or $40- or $50,000 in debt, and then go into an industry where you're going to have to start out at $8 or $12 an hour anyway."

Why are government regulators worried only about students who attend for-profit schools? There are plenty of public and private schools who churn out graduates with loads of debt and little or no job prospects. Last year The New York Times ran a story about Cortney Munna, a former New York University student who racked up $97,000 in student loan debt majoring in religious and women’s studies. After college she found herself making $22 an hour working for a photographer. Back in January the same paper ran a similar story about law school graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt who are unable to find work (or at least work as an attorney) and, as a result, can’t come close to paying back their loans. Shouldn’t government regulators be just as concerned about the cost and job prospects of private and state sponsored non-profit schools as they are about for profit schools?

The education industrial complex generally oversells the value of a degree. It’s something that public institutions do as much as for-profit universities. Kids go through the school system school hearing how a college degree will lead to great jobs and financial security. While this is statistically true in broad terms, rarely do you see these educators showing the market value of a science or engineering degree compared to, say, a liberal arts degree. I’m not saying that college degrees are worthless. It’s just that some have more market value than others.

Students looking to finance their education through student loans should be shown the cost of paying off the loan and realistic job prospects and pay upon graduation and be given some time to think about whether or not the cost is worth it. However, it’s hypocritical for Washington bureaucrats to zero in on just for-profit institutions when you have students graduating from state-sponsored institutions with loads of debt and job prospects that are no better than those who graduate from a for-profit culinary school.

Besides, a degree from any post-secondary education facility—public, private, trade, or for-profit—only goes so far toward financial or career success. In reality one’s work ethic, creativity, and ability to build relationships and adapt to a changing world are much better indicators whether or not you’re going to be successful—financially or otherwise. Instead of focusing on the value of a degree, students and post-secondary schools should teach the aforementioned concepts along with their degree-related material.  The schools and their graduates would be much better off as a result.

An English Degree and a Life of Uncertainty

Q: What’s the difference between an English major and a large pizza?

A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.

The above is a joke was one that was often shared among my friends during my last year of college. As our graduation date neared, all of us were nervous about graduating and entering the real world because, unlike those with degrees in accounting, business, or chemistry, we had no sure job prospects. Aside from teaching, no one really knew how to turn their English degree into a full-time job.

I was reminded of this after reading an article that Hit Coffee posted about English majors received advice on how to make the move from college to the real world.

English majors at the University [of Illinois] received real-world advice from an alumus and author about making the transition from college to career. On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Robert Prescott delivered a presentation to over 35 people called “Hiring Humanists: Strategies for Cooperation Between Humanities Departments and Career Services.”

To choose the English major is to embrace uncertainty,” Prescott said. “The humanities do not directly train you for one specific job. They are giving you a skill set and then you have to determine out of all of that forest which tree you’re going to climb.”

Though I think getting advice on how to make the transition from academia to the job market is helpful to those pursing English and other worthless* degrees, I think they’d be better served if you had someone with real world experience talking to them. According to the article, “64 percent of English graduates work in business, 10 percent work in the government and 27 percent work in education, with less than 1 percent holding Ph.D.’s.” Yet they two people they have talk to them is an author and someone with a PhD in English—statically the least two likely occupations for English majors. It would be much more useful to these students to have someone who works in business, education (not at the college level), and government tell them how they used their skills to get their current jobs.

I suggest this because it sounds like the advice students are getting isn’t very helpful.

According to Prescott, an English major teaches students analytical, oral communication, interpersonal, writing, research and computer skills. These skills help students grow as people and citizens by giving them the ability to project themselves into a situation, state opinions and argue and build empathy and collegiality.

Try telling an employer that you can protect yourself into situations, state opinions, argue and build empathy and collegiality and see how far it gets you.

Instead of spewing academic gobbledygook at them, get some real world professionals in front of these kids who can give some useful advice. I guarantee someone in the business world could tell them how to turn their skills into real experience than someone with a PhD who sounds like he has little, if any, experience outside the confines academia. It’s one thing to tell students that an English degree teaches certain skills, but it’s something else to hear about it from someone who’s actually turned those skills into something an employer will value.

For example, if I had to talk to a room full of anxious English majors, I’d could tell them how started out as a technical writer, made the transition to a marketing/copy writer, what employers look if they want to consider these options as a career path. And for all the wannabe authors, I could tell them that an English degree doesn’t matter that much when it comes to getting published or having a successful writing career. Some friends I graduated with could tell similar stories.

Of course any degree only goes so far. Your future is what YOU make it. And as you get along in your career, you’ll find that most people don’t care what your degree is in. Still, advice from real world professionals might make the transition easier as students with an English degree leave campus and step into real world.

* To be fair, a bachelor’s degree in English is worth more in the marketplace than a bachelor’s degree in sociology, women’s studies, art history, psychology, philosophy, music therapy, Star Wars studies, and religion.