By John Long
When my musings first began to occupy this space on the editorial page, lo these many years ago, about this time of year I often took the chance to offer a commencement address to the current flock of college graduates. I haven’t done this in years, however, because I always assume institutions of higher learning will be clamoring to get me as a graduation speaker come May. And yet, inexplicably, May is half over and once again not a single college or university has arranged for me to share my insight with impatient diploma candidates, sweating beneath their caps and gowns. I’m sure they tried to leave me a message, but I don’t quite understand my phone’s voicemail.
So anyway, here’s what I’d tell the Class of 2019:
Congratulations, graduates! For some of you, this moment marks the culmination of four years of hard work in which you were academically challenged, in which you sought to excel, in which you grew in knowledge and understanding. For a bunch of the rest of you, this moment marks the culmination of five, or six, or more years of half-hearted commitment, cutting as many corners as possible, taking fluff courses to achieve a minimum GPA, and enduring lectures and research papers to get the embossed piece of parchment which, for the convenience of the party here on stage, will actually be mailed to you at some later date.
Somewhere along the way, some professor or another probably told you that graduation would not be the end of your learning process. He or she was correct. And to prove it, I now give you an unexpected pop quiz — a sort of exit evaluation to be sure you actually learned something here in these hallowed halls. In your program you will find space to answer these questions. As your name is called to matriculate officially, turn in your answers; I will quickly evaluate them and let you proceed across the stage if I’m satisfied. Ready?
1) True or False: You are the center of the universe, and what you desire at any given moment must be of monumental concern to the rest of creation.
2) Multiple choice: Should you in the next few weeks a) move home and sleep until noon in your old bed hoping some boss shows up at the door begging you to take a job with a six-figure salary b) hopelessly apply for a few jobs and whine on social media about how it’s impossible to break into the rigged system c) grab the first job you can find and work at it diligently until you find a better job, then take that one.
3) Which is the more ridiculous activity for someone who is legally an adult to pursue: spending any length of time playing video games, or sitting in the yard watching grass grow? Explain.
4) Examine the following two lists of terms: a) Maturity, responsibility, self-reliance, self-denial b) Party, fun, gratification, entertainment. Now analyze them. Which concepts contribute more to a functioning society? Which concepts end up featured on social media more often?
5) In 200 years, which of the following do you anticipate will still be performed, analyzed, and appreciated: Beethoven’s symphonies, or the music on your Spotify account? Try to explain.
6) Calculate, without using your phone, how long you can live without looking at a screen of some sort.
7) Name at least one academic concept that you’ve learned as an undergraduate which you had never even considered before arriving on campus but which made you really think and which you would say fundamentally changed your outlook on life.
8) Name at least one academic concept you accepted from a professor uncritically, but which, upon reflection, you realize may have been more propaganda than truth. Analyze.
OK, now ball up your papers and leave them under your chairs for the poor, underappreciated grounds crew to clean up later. Your answers to these snarky questions actually have nothing to do with you getting your diploma. But they have a lot to do with how your going to live in the next few years, and the next few decades. And they reflect something of what you’ve learned here at your soon-to-be alma mater. If your answers satisfied you—or better yet if they would satisfy your grandfather—then just maybe you received an education here after all. Perhaps you acquired not just information, but wisdom as well. Perhaps now you’ll continue it as a lifelong pursuit. Congratulations!
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.