‘Tis the season of offering advice to graduating seniors. Brett Stephens offers his in a column in the Wall Street Journal. He gets things about right with his intro:
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.
But only if you didn’t graduate, presumably from one of the military academies, though the example he cites is West Point:
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.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. The poor princess had to wear, like soldiers everywhere during field exercises, her combat gear the whole time (incidentally, she’s probably lying about wearing it to sleep, unless the “weeks” were not more than about two). It is admirable the young lady does not feel sorry for herself. She received an almost-Ivey-League degree for free, though most likely would not have made the cut at any of the real Ivies. Not that it’s a condemnation of her abilities that she went to West Point instead. But her degree was paid for by the taxpayers. Yes, she has to serve five years in the Army as a result. But she will be paid while she does so. If her attending West Point were such a heroic overcoming of real hardships, then why doesn’t West Point have more trouble attracting applicants? And another thing, she may be in Afghanistan, but she’s not supposed to be directly engaged in combat with the Taliban, i.e., the Army still limits its females to combat support and combat service support roles. She isn’t in the infantry, and as the old saying goes, “if you ain’t infantry, you’re support.”
Then Stephens reveals what he thinks is the purpose of a college education. Surprise! It’s not to train a person with an understanding of how to critically view and understand the world around him. It’s to fill him with facts and knowledge such that they know something useful upon graduation:
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.
In a world where the dots are ever and always changing; in a world where one man’s facts are another man’s dogma; in a world where knowledge that is useful today is rendered useless with a few key strokes tomorrow, I would say that the purpose of a college education is exactly that clichéd idea, to learn how to think. Let’s use a different cliché to explain: Learning how to think is like learning how to fish. Teaching someone what to think is like giving them a fish. Learn how to think, and you can solve the problems of existence for a lifetime. Learn what to think, and when the world changes what should be thought, the whole process must be renewed. Going back to Stephen’s exalted West Pointer, even the Army does not expect to train an officer with an employable skill through four years of officer training. Post-graduation, all Army officers no matter the source–ROTC, West Point, even OCS–attend specific skills schools where they learn things useful to their particular specialty (e.g., infantry school, flight school, armor school, etc). Whatever Stephen’s West Point intern is doing in Afghanistan, she didn’t begin doing it until she had attended further, post-West Point training. An education that teaches one how to thinks so that problems, whatever their source, might be overcome, is the best that a college degree can provide.
After shifting his insults from graduates that don’t know anything useful to those that puff their credentials well beyond any reasonable sense of perspective, Stephens ends by denigrating the group-think among the young that he sees as so prevalent, and incredibly, revisits his West Point example to make his point:
In every generation there’s a strong tendency for everyone to think like everyone else. But your generation has an especially bad case, because your mass conformism is masked by the appearance of mass nonconformism. It’s a point I learned from my West Point intern, when I asked her what it was like to lead such a uniformed existence.
Her answer stayed with me: Wearing a uniform, she said, helped her figure out what it was that really distinguished her as an individual.
Now she’s a second lieutenant, leading a life of meaning and honor, figuring out how to Think Different for the sake of a cause that counts. Not many of you will be able to follow in her precise footsteps, nor do you need to do so. But if you can just manage to tone down your egos, shape up your minds, and think unfashionable thoughts, you just might be able to do something worthy with your lives. And even get a job. Good luck!
Stephens needs perhaps to reconnect with his intern now that she’s actually done something of service to her country, and see if she feels like the Army has been much interested in her “Think[ing] Different for the sake of a cause that counts”. If he thinks for a moment that group-think is not the Army way, if he thinks that the US Army is concerned for even a moment with what distinguishes this young woman as an individual, perhaps this explains his claim that learning how to think is not important, as he apparently hasn’t.
So to sum up Stephen’s advice: If you are graduating from one of the nation’s esteemed military academies, you can hold your head high; the world should be impressed with your achievement. Never mind that legions have done so before without expecting or receiving such acclaim. If you are graduating from Harvard or Yale or some other Ivy, and hold yourself in high regard because of it, you should instead humble yourself before the West Pointer or Naval Academy grad, because you’re just scum like the rest of selfish, egotistical America, that doesn’t voluntarily, selflessly, altruistically offer themselves up for sacrifice in the Empire’s service.
Here’s my advice to 2012 graduates:
Life is tough, but so long as you have food to eat and clean running water and some shelter, you have no right to complain. With just these, you can make it, and in 21st century America, anyone can easily acquire the necessaries of life. You have been blessed by birth to live in such a bountiful land. If you want to be a grownup, you have to face the challenges of life on your own. Get out of your mother’s house. Otherwise, you will remain the infantile dependent that society has made you, and that the government coerces even adults into becoming. If you want to live, to really live, you must cut the apron strings, whether they belong to your parents, or to your government or even to your employer, including most especially if your employer is the US military. Accept poverty if that is the cost of doing what you love. Material wealth can never replace time lost to doing something that makes you miserable.
Don’t try to change the world. Try to understand it. Don’t try to “Think Different”. Try to think correctly. Try as best you can to always get to the bare nub of the matter, to the essence of the problem, whatever it is. It is the only way problems are ever resolved. But always remember, that you can’t solve someone else’s problem for them. All you can do is to present to the world one human being, as mature and intelligent and capable as is possible. It is for the rest of the world, not you, to do the same for themselves.
But most of all, graduates: Ignore Brett Stephen’s advice. His mind is polluted with dogma. The regard he has for his West Point intern reveals his hatred for the individual freedoms that made this the least flawed of all governments under which one might exist. You needn’t feel guilty for having inherited these freedoms, and the West Pointers aren’t somehow better than you for having voluntarily agreed, for the price of an Ivy League education, the chance at a life long officer’s career, and the promise of a steady salary, to defend them for you. Besides, if these freedoms were ever really endangered externally, the opportunity to help defend them would doubtlessly be provided you.