We got home last night from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we celebrated Lizy’s graduation from Vassar.
Needless to say, the occasion prompted myriad thoughts and emotions, some of which we’ll share in the weeks ahead. For now, I’m still thinking about commencement addresses.
(On that subject, three posts down, I asked BloggEd readers to choose their ideal commencement speaker from a list of attractive candidates. Your votes skewed intriguingly with those of America, as reflected in a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll. America: 1, Warren Buffett. 2, Sandra Bullock. 3, Oprah Winfrey. BloggEd: 1, Buffett/Tom Hanks (tie). 2. Anderson Cooper/Nancy Pelosi (tie.))
Lisa Kudrow, Vassar ’85, gave the address to the class of 2010, their family, and their friends. It was really good—smart, interesting, and substantially funnier than anything Phoebe ever said on “Friends.” But the message bemused me. Boiled down to three words, it was: “Follow your dreams.”
One of my problems was that Kudrow’s support for the proposition of dream-following was her own example. She told how she graduated from Vassar with plans and training for pursuing medical-type research, but within months kept hearing voices in her head urging her to become an actress. She initially resisted but ultimately succumbed, endured seven or eight years of apprenticeship and only the most minimal success, then finally broke through with a recurring part on “Mad About You” and then sitcom stardom on “Friends.”
The fallacy is that for every Kudrow, there are dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people who have a dream and never get it. Actually, writing that sentence makes me feel like a small mean person, so I will hurry on to another problem with follow-your-dreams speeches, a problem they share with the other main theme of commencement addresses, the admonishment to be aware of and responsive to the needs of your fellow humans, develop a moral sense, be a productive member of society, etc.
The problem is that while all these things are good qualities to take through life, they’re only tangentially related, at best, to a college education, the achievement of which, after all, is the reason for the commencement.
So, sitting in the beautiful setting of Vassar’s amphitheatre, listening to Kudrow and her fellow speakers, I began to muse about what I would say in the improbable event that I had been asked to speak to the graduates. Here is what I came up with:
I stand before your eager faces, your splendid caps and gowns, and the best advice I can give you is:
Be smart, not dumb.
When I first started teaching undergraduates, it was a little surprising how dumb they were when the semester began. By “dumb,” I don’t mean unintelligent. (Legions of people with high IQs and SAT scores are dumb.) I mean three specific things: not being curious, lacking general knowledge, and being prone to offer or blindly accept unexamined conventional wisdom and flat-out unsupportable propositions, as opposed to subjecting them to critical thinking and analysis.
It was a lot surprising, and pretty sad, how many students were still dumb when they walked out the door after the last class. I fear that many of you will leave this campus today in that same unfortunate state.
Where does the blame lie? I suggest we share it jointly, the students and professors.
It’s tempting to absolve myself of responsibility, and to tell the truth, sometimes I give in to temptation. After all, isn’t curiosity an inborn trait, like red hair or nearsightedness, nurtured and cultivated, if at all, only at a very young age by your parents? And after all, it’s curiosity that leads to general knowledge. It prompts you to read books, or notice and wonder about things that pass before you as you go about your day, and look up articles on Wikipedia—and doing those things makes you know stuff, as if by magic.
Well, right, but the classroom is a little world, and in it we professors can “model” curiosity and mandate general knowledge about the subject at hand. Most important, we can and for the most part do build our classes around that critical thinking thing. It doesn’t matter what course or major. In science and math, you should or could have learned to distinguish an ingenious and elegant experiment or theorem from a shoddy and ill-constructed one. In history, you were taught to analyze primary and secondary sources and cast your judgment on the long-ago activities and motivations of men and women. In English, you learned the arts of “close reading” and argument. In every discipline, you were taught to train your eye on the text or topic under discussion, determine its intellectual worth, express your findings in that discipline’s language, and create something of your own that was new and good.
What I am asking you to do is extend these skills and habits of mind to your lives. Learn to recognize clichés and bromides, and do not accept them in place of real argument, sentiment or thought. If you find yourself thinking or expressing yourself in those terms, cast them out! Much better that you try to form an original and true idea, no matter how (seemingly) small.
Be skeptical (not cynical) of the many things you will be asked to agree with and believe. Politicians and pundits will constantly tell you what they think you want to hear. Scrutinize their statements and subtexts, and figure out what they really mean. No matter who is talking to you, think about what they’re really saying, and why.
Then there are the dumb commercials, dumb movies, and dumb reality TV shows that you will be exposed to. It’s not that you shouldn’t necessarily enjoy them. Just realize that they are dumb, and develop a sense of just how they are dumb.
And here is the most important thing. When someone sends you an e-mail describing an incident or offer that seems to good to be true, remember that dumb people send these on to their friends. Smart people check them out on snopes.com.
That is all.
Goodbye and good luck.