Hard Truths for Grads

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Bret Stephens has an op ed in the Wall Street Journal of a graduation address that all graduates should hear but won’t:

Dear Class of 2012:

Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you. Through exertions that—let’s be honest—were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree. Now you’re entering a lousy economy, courtesy of the very president whom you, as freshmen, voted for with such enthusiasm. Please spare us the self-pity about how tough it is to look for a job while living with your parents. They’re the ones who spent a fortune on your education only to get you back— return-to-sender, forwarding address unknown.

No doubt some of you have overcome real hardships or taken real degrees. A couple of years ago I hired a summer intern from West Point. She came to the office directly from weeks of field exercises in which she kept a bulletproof vest on at all times, even while sleeping. She writes brilliantly and is as self-effacing as she is accomplished. Now she’s in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.

If you’re like that intern, please feel free to feel sorry for yourself. Just remember she doesn’t.

Unfortunately, dear graduates, chances are you’re nothing like her. And since you’re no longer children, at least officially, it’s time someone tells you the facts of life. The other facts.

Fact One is that, in our “knowledge-based” economy, knowledge counts. Yet here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history.

A few months ago, I interviewed a young man with an astonishingly high GPA from an Ivy League university and aspirations to write about Middle East politics. We got on the subject of the Suez Crisis of 1956. He was vaguely familiar with it. But he didn’t know who was president of the United States in 1956. And he didn’t know who succeeded that president.

Pop quiz, Class of ’12: Do you?

Many of you have been reared on the cliché that the purpose of education isn’t to stuff your head with facts but to teach you how to think. Wrong. I routinely interview college students, mostly from top schools, and I notice that their brains are like old maps, with lots of blank spaces for the uncharted terrain. It’s not that they lack for motivation or IQ. It’s that they can’t connect the dots when they don’t know where the dots are in the first place.

Go here to read the rest.    Hey, at least it would get their attention and keep them awake, which is more than I can say for the forgettable commencement speeches I suffered through.  It should be comforting to grads that oldsters criticizing youngsters is as old as Man.  Less comforting is the thought that for a fair amount of the youngsters the criticisms have always been directly on target.


More to explorer

Brightness to the Sun

  This is the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birth-day of Washington. We are met to celebrate this day. Washington

Hate Crime

News that I missed courtesy of The Babylon Bee:   WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a statement to D.C. police given Tuesday, senator and presidential

PopeWatch: Cardenal

  Hattip to commenter Greg Mockeridge.  Pope John Paul II shaking his finger at Ernesto Cardenal, Culture Minister for the Sandinista government


  1. Reminds me some of Dr Seuss’s graduation speech, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

    I’ve copied the text of this letter for future use. Thanks!

  2. I agree with most all of this article. But he’s wrong on one thing: college *is* where you learn how to think. You should be learning facts there, as Stephens points out, but you should also be learning how to think.

    If you want to learn to surf, you can watch others do it, and get advice from people who know what they’re doing, but you also need to get out there and try and fail and try some more. It’s the same thing with learning how to think. Everyone should come out of college knowing how to think as an adult, a citizen, and a graduate of whatever major. You do that by actually thinking thoughts over and over again until the process becomes habit. The facts are essential, but they’re not simply to be learned for their own sake.

    If I knew how to think better I could probably say something about facts being the material cause and thinking the final cause, and phrase it properly and coherently. Too bad I don’t.

  3. At law school we were told that the first year would teach us how to think like lawyers. (Shudder!) It didn’t happen in my case. I was bored silly reading hundreds of pages of case law each week, but that didn’t help me think like a lawyer. That feat was accomplished after several years of working as an attorney. I think education in general can help give us facts, but as far as teaching us how to think goes, I think the record is pretty poor, including Plato’s Socratic take-people-by-the-hand-and-lead-them-where-I-want-them-to-go “dialogues”. Education in this country has slacked on what it can do passably well historically, convey facts, and focused on “problem solving” that it does pretty poorly. It is not accidental that conveying facts requires some mastery of the material by the instructor while “teaching people how to think” usually requires mastery only of some of the current buzz words popular in educratese, at least from examples that I have witnessed.

  4. The record for “teaching people how to think” is poor because it can’t be taught. You either can or you can’t.

    The only method I think is viable for expanding the thought capacity of the average person is a musical education. There is a school I know of in which the students have half of the school day devoted to a traditional curriculum and the other half dedicated to musical training. They have a 100% graduation and college placement rate (it is K-12). I think musical education and even listening to classical music (particularly Bach) has an effect on the brain that makes it more conducive to learning and pondering.


    On the other hand, having sounds (I refuse to call it music) made by gangasta thugs and gyrating whores pumped into your brain for hours every day will likely have the opposite effect.

  5. “University of California researchers reported that college students temporarily raised their IQs while listening to a Mozart piano sonata before certain tasks. The music stimulated spatial intelligence prior to mathematical tasks, analysis, organizing, ”

    There you go. That’s why I have Mozart and Bach on continuously throughout the day, especially when I am working. I switch over to Beethoven when I want to feel something.

  6. I’m talking about teaching people the analytical methods used within a profession. I don’t think I’m being buzzwordy here either. An engineer, for example, learns how to approach an engineering problem in school. He also learns the facts of physics, and, yes, he learns a lot more at his first job. But he does (or should) develop a familiarity with the thinking that his profession requires.

    I also mentioned the thinking of a citizen and an adult. I’m not saying that a kid leaves college as an adult by any means. He should be exposed to the facts and develop the intellect sufficient for independent living in a modern society by the time he graduates college, though. He should have attained that level by the time he leaves high school, really, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before that’s true again. Does that make more sense?

  7. And Donald, from the way you describe it, there’s no way that ABBA could have done as much damage to your thinking as being a lawyer did!

  8. Many of you have been reared on the cliché that the purpose of education isn’t to stuff your head with facts but to teach you how to think.

    If only that were true. Sadly, aside from technical degrees (which would be better served in trade schools), modern university education doesn’t teach you how to think, but what to think.

  9. “And Donald, from the way you describe it, there’s no way that ABBA could have done as much damage to your thinking as being a lawyer did!”

    Res ipsa loquitur Pinky. 🙂

  10. following the pedagogy of Jesus (Rabbi) and God the Father I would say the bottom line is Love– love of teaching, love of the subject and love of the student.

    also our Catechism shows us a method for teaching and learning:
    look to the literal sense first– what are the facts.
    then what are the other senses of what we are trying to learn– other applications and meaning through allegory, in whole context, and with consideration of long term, even the eschaton.

  11. also I have to say from my own recent experience with college students, they are not as bad as the auther paints them to be… maybe a Newman Center just attracts “better” young people, but my impressions of current and recent grads is pretty good. Lots of responsible thoughtful and capable thinkers… not climbing in that hand-basket to hell, the ones I know are going to have a positive effect.

  12. I am an undergrad right now; I always hate articles like this because they really harsh my mellow. I like making believe I am intelligent and hard-working; I hate it when people point out I’m not.

  13. It is worth recalling that classical education was based on the seven liberal arts. The Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) trained people to think and speak clearly and convincingly; the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music) trained them to handle numbers – pure, extended, mobile and applied. In other words, it was about the acquisition of skills, or “arts,” rather than of knowledge.

    Not that I would go as far as Pascal, who could never understand why school children were taught Euclid’s theorems, “If they know the axioms, everything else is a matter of inference.”

  14. Pascal thought that because when he was a prepubescent kid he figured out everything worth knowing about math on his own. His perspective’s a little different

  15. Ike

    Pascal is a great advertisement for home schooling. His essay on conics, published in 1640, when he was 16, would have earned him a Ph D today

    And then, when he was 32, he took up writing and produced the most brilliant satire in the French language, Lettres provinciales (Provincial Letters)

    Very few people are really first class at two, quite unrelated, things

  16. I think it is ridiculous to say that people cannot learn to how think right simply because I go to a school which is a democratic school run by the students and staff (which are allowed in by the students) and we constantly deal with how we should think. The staff members basically act as experienced students who mentor the students. Most of the staff members brought into the school have been Catholic because they are the ones willing to treat the students as equals, there was an occasion when an Indian woman wanted to be a staff member and the school thought “at least than the parents wont whine about so many of the staff being Catholic but then we found out she to was Catholic.

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