If I were to give a commencement address

Graduating seniors, my message to you is simple:  do not try to make the world a better place.

I realize this contradicts everything you’ve been told since you arrived four years ago.  Since your freshman orientation, you have been encouraged to engage in activism, to join protests, to raise the consciousnesses of your benighted and bigoted elders.  But that’s strange in itself, isn’t it?  The presumption must be that you are wiser and more compassionate than the mass of men who make up the status quo.  After all, if you were uninformed or had an overly simplistic understanding of the world, it would be better if you didn’t change the world until after overcoming these defects, since there would be no reason to think your changes would be for the better.

Now, the prior speakers have already praised your passion, idealism, commitment to social justice and so forth, so let us grant for the moment that you are wiser than the men of previous generations who bequeathed to us the existing order.  When did you get this way?  To be really confident that other men’s group attachments or understandings of sex are mere bigotry, that other men’s religions and philosophies are mere superstition, that other men’s property is unjustly held, requires arduous prior study.  You must have sought out the strongest arguments of the other side and subjected your own to ruthless examination.  You must have approached those you would condemn and listened to them with sympathy to be sure there is no aspect of the case you have failed to consider.  A century ago, men like Planck and Einstein revolutionized physics, but even though they were certainly geniuses, they first had to have a very deep understanding of classical, Newtonian physics, its strengths (which their new theories had to reproduce) as well as its weaknesses.  Likewise, for you to condemn a society, you must have come to understand it better than its own defenders and participants.

When, exactly, did this happen?  Did it happen while you were here?  Even if so, it’s odd that you were encouraged to start inflicting your virtue on the world from your freshman year, before this process could be completed.  Do you regret any position you took prematurely as a freshman?  Have you found all your early positions ratified by further study?  What luck that would be!  I’m twice your age, and many of the things I said in my twenties, even with a bachelor’s degree to my name, now embarrass me.

But how could this process of rigorous critique have happened here, when you have demanded, and the administration has granted, that no beliefs of which you disapprove may be presented on campus, that aspects of Western and non-Western civilizations you deem “hateful” have “no place in our community”?  So, in fact, this detailed examination of our civilization, which you find so grievously wanting, must have happened before you even arrived here–or else it would have been foolish to have let you decide what ideas may and may not be given respectful consideration.  It must have been in high school that you gave all those “dead white men” their careful hearing and exposed their errors.

Or perhaps it didn’t happen at all.

To learn, one must at least suspect that one might be ignorant, and I hope I have planted a seed of suspicion in your minds.  Not that you are wrong, but that you cannot really be so confident that you are right.  Here, though, are two truths of which you can be certain.  First, it is easier to destroy than create; you’ve known this since you started playing with those legos for toddlers.  Second, simply maintaining a level of civilization–to say nothing of advancing in technology or “social justice”–is tremendous work, work that must be repeated each generation.  We often fail to show our ancestors sufficient gratitude for this work.  Yes, society is natural to man.  But just as it is natural to the predator to hunt its food and yet any day this may be exhausting work with uncertain outcome, so we humans must expend great effort to maintain a good that is natural to us.  Given this, it would be no small accomplishment to leave the world not worse than one found it.

Consider one more argument against trying to make the world a better place.  You will probably fail.  It is statistically certain that most of you are not destined for the history books.  By the time you reach middle age, your lack of world-historical importance will hopefully have become clear to you, and with it a growing acknowledgement of your own mortality.  How will you make sense of your life?  How can you find some meaning in your short time on Earth?  You may ask yourself how most men and woman have faced these questions throughout history, having realized at last that you are not different than them.  You will find that past generations drew solace from their very smallness, the fact that although they were unimportant and their time was brief, they participated in something larger:  a fixed and divinely-ordained order of nature, the multi-generational chain of memory of a particular culture, nation, or race.  These are the ideas that you, as an emancipated, rational citizen-of-the-world now want to undermine.

You might well ask me what an ambitious young man or woman should do, if not make the world a better place.  Well, you could try raising a family.  If you ask yourself what your parents’ main accomplishment was, most likely this would be it.  Why imagine you should do anything grander?  Remember my second truth.  Just carrying things forward–holding down a job, caring for children and teaching them well, maintaining a house and the friendship of neighbors–is a huge undertaking, the work of a lifetime.  Or how about this:  instead of trying to make the world a better place, why not let the world make you a better person?  After all, you are still very young, and the world still has much to teach you.

31 thoughts on “If I were to give a commencement address

  1. Pingback: If I were to give a commencement address | Reaction Times

  2. I’m so glad I stopped by today.
    Excellent “address,” Bonald, words, in fact, to live by — culminating in your final paragraph which hits to the heart of things: one can’t hope to fix the world until he’s wise enough to know how much fixing of himself needs to be done, a life-long pursuit. And the best arena for such growth of wisdom is within his own family.
    (My attempt at a paraphrase.)

    • Debra:
      I have probably mentioned this before in these threads, but years ago I committed to memory Noah Webster’s 1828 definition of “education.”:
      The question (that every parent should seriously consider) that has to be answered with regard to education of youth initially is “what is the goal?” Mr. Webster provides what the primary goal of education *should be* where he states “and to fit them for usefulness in their future stations.”
      We cannot know every detail of course about what a given child’s future holds/what his/her “future station” will be; but we can most assuredly know, within a reasonable degree of certainty, what some of the most important aspects of his future will be. E.g., (s)he will likely be married and have children of his own to raise and educate; he will work in some profession or other, and regardless of whether he is self or other employed, he will *always* have a boss or bosses who have authority over him; (s)he will be religiously affiliated, and so on.
      So our job as his/her parents and primary educators (following Webster’s definition) is to prepare them to be a good, loving, faithful husband or wife *till death do them part*; to be a good, loving, faithful mother or father; to be obedient to God-ordained authority and so on and so forth.
      In any case, I know I am sort of preaching to the choir in all of that, but your post inspired the thoughts, and so I thought I’d write them out and post them. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Cross-post: graduating seniors, please don’t try to make the world a better place | Throne and Altar

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  5. If a speaker really were to try to give an address like this, I wonder how far he’d get before being shut down by student protesters.

    • Ha! One of my siblings and me were just discussing that. She said the students (and faculty – the “adults”) would riot, and the speaker would need a heavily armed entourage of escorts to get out alive.

      • Oops! Failed to provide context: she was imagining if the speech were given at Berkeley.

      • I teach a high school economics and personal finance class. Its a fairly low key elective that is supposed to encourage them to think about things like long term life-goals. All this week seniors will be presenting their final “economics of…” projects which will be the last time I see them not including graduation. I feel the need to say *something* at the end of class, and frankly your address isn’t that much different from what they have come to expect from me. I could read it word for word and report back the response. I honestly think it would be positive, though I have more or less been preparing for them for this. Humility in the face of their own ignorance is kind of a recurring theme in my class (personal finance is pretty boring so I tend to go off script quite a bit).

        Incidentally, when they are not in the throws of mob mentality, kids are pretty responsive to dialectic. They aren’t used to it, but it helps to adopt the rhetorical style of Socrates; exaggerated humility, rarely putting forth a positive doctrine, pointing out logical inconsistencies, etc. I have had some interesting experiences. I only remember one feminist girl getting emotionally worked up to the point of logical incoherence, but even then when I stayed calm and continued the dialectic, that situation diffused itself. Nobody has ever called me a name, and I am, in all humility, probably considered the most interesting teacher in the school by my students.

      • Actually, since I mentioned, one more thing to illustrate what you can get away with for high school students as opposed to college students. I do an example for the final project I mentioned above. You are supposed to choose any topic and do some kind of analysis where you incorporate principles of economics. I do an hour long lecture on the economics of sex starting with sperm and egg as complementary goods and solving for various equilibria. While I make sure to use handwritten notes as not to leave a paper trail, the response from the students has been uniformly positive.

      • What do you have in mind? (Everyone’s free to use stuff here as best they can, but I’d hate to encourage anyone in a suicide mission.)

      • Oh good, no chance of violent death, and you’ll have the best understanding of what works in the context and what you can get away with. Plus, maybe high school is actually when they should hear something like this. Permission is given.

  6. A point well made; except that you would need to make your positive suggestions of what to do instead much earlier and more emphatically – because nobody will abandon a positive program until they have something wit hwhich to replace it: something they regard as better. If you gave the above speech as is, nobody would notice, remember, or be convinced by your final paragraph – it seems cursory, when it ought to be the key.

    If giving this talk; my advice would be to Be Honest with yourself and everybody else, in all things great and small – or say nothing.

    (And repent all your – inevitable – failings of honesty, explicitly.)

    With total honesty as a principle; no matter how foolish your ideas (and most will be very foolish indeed), no matter how expedient, hedonic and cowardly your behaviours – all will ultimately be self-correcting.

    That is indeed the subject of today’s blog post…

  7. Lovely, Bonald. My mother remembers giving an address about women’s place in the world when she was 23 or so and the audience consisted of middle-aged farmers’ wives. She shudders to imagine what banalities and errors she probably uttered and remembers the wives’ indulgence and forbearance concerning her sophomoric efforts. One imagines them them thinking “how cute.” There is nothing cute about today’s hectoring of one’s elders and betters.

    • Prof. Cocks:

      There is nothing cute about today’s hectoring of one’s elders and betters.

      Right; nothing cute about it at all. It is disgusting and not a little disconcerting and demoralizing to witness. As adults, with the accumulation of knowledge, experience and wisdom under our belts, it is *our job* to rebuke and correct such instances with youngsters who happen to fall within our sphere of influence; to neglect to do so is sin – perhaps of a more greivous nature than the juvenile’s sin itself (at least (s)he has an excuse – ignorance, and (in many cases) an improper upbringing t’boot).

  8. Del Gue–feel free to use it as best you can.

    Bruce, perhaps the order will make more sense if you consider that my goal is to demoralize. Today, people’s ideals are hostile to everything that makes life tolerable. If everyone were to just be completely selfish, the world would be–dare I say it–a better place. Better a life spent pursuing money and sex than persecuting people who don’t believe that a guy who cuts his dick off and puts on a dress is a woman.

    • @Bonald – Well, that is the secular Right’s strategy, but it does not and will not work. The problem is that people are already so demoralised that they cannot resist the demonic socio-political machinations underlie activism. Evil is mostly short-term selfishness, and doesn’t require much motivation. And systems don’t make people Good.

      There is no way round it – people must (mostly) want Good if any Good is to eventuate; people must have courage to achieve anything, and that means they must be motivated.

  9. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/06/04) - Social Matter

  10. I am late to the party, but….
    Doonesbury (!), May 19, 1991:

    The text:
    Graduating seniors, parents and friends… Let me begin by reassuring you that my remarks today will stand up to the most stringent requirements of the new appropriateness. The intra-college sensitivity advisory committee has vetted the text of even trace amounts of subconscious racism, sexism and classism. Moreover, a faculty panel of deconstructionists have reconfigured the rhetorical components within a post-structuralist framework, so as to expunge any offensive elements of western rationalism and linear logic. Finally, all references flowing from a white,male, eurocentric perspective have been eliminated, as have any other ruminations deemed denigrating to the political consensus of the moment. Thank you and good luck.
    — Doonesbury, Walden College Chancellor’s graduation speech.

  11. “instead of trying to make the world a better place, why not let the world make you a better person?”
    In other words: Change only yourself? Is changing the world incompatible with personal maturation?

    “Just carrying things forward”? In other words: Maintain the status quo?

    I don’t understand this speech. To me, it seems nothing more than a rehashing of the axiom “Nemo dat quod non habet” (one cannot give what he does not have). Am I missing something?

    • “Just carrying things forward”? In other words: Maintain the status quo?

      Here is the excerpted quotation back in the immediate context from whence you took it:

      Just carrying things forward – caring for children and teaching them well, maintaining a house and the friendship of neighbors–is a huge undertaking, the work of a lifetime


      Here is another maxim: A text taken out of context is a pretext.

      Am I missing something?

      Apparently you are. For starters, the average 18-22 year-old H.S. or college graduate is in no position to set about to “change the world” for the better. As the body of the “speech” makes abundantly clear.

      • It’s funny that what I said will seem counterintuitive to readers. That 22 year olds are wiser than their ancestors and likely to make the world better if they just start mucking around with sufficient “passion” is hardly a natural assumption. I would think the burden of proof would be on any 22 year old who thought this, that he would need some pretty strong reason for thinking that he or his cohort is so exceptional.

      • The idea that the average modern 22 year-old possesses more wisdom and knowledge of the world and how things really work than his ancestors at the same age in their times (to say nothing of the wisdom they gained during the remainder of their lives) is a huge stretch, and completely counterintuitive, in my view.
        I personally believe it is not at all natural for a 22 year-old to believe this about himself in any age; that if in fact he *does* believe this about himself it is strong indication he was very poorly raised and educated, that he is the product of a societal-wide mindset very much out of touch with reality. That isn’t his fault of course, but that it isn’t his fault doesn’t change the hard fact.
        The average modern 22 year-old college graduate[*] might well possess a head full of data but (following Webster’s definition of “education”) he is generally not well disciplined, has not as yet had his understanding sufficiently enlightened, his temper has not been well and sufficiently corrected, his manners and habits not properly well formed, and thus he is generally not very well fit for usefulness in the various stations he will soon find himself thrust.
        The “speech” addresses well the basic problem with the current mindset, but the average college graduate (who were actually listening) would hear it and say to himself and his peers “are you listening to this guy?; silly old man, what does he know?!” And that’s the problem.
        *exceptions granted as always

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