In late 1941, during the most difficult months of World War II, when the outcome was still very much in doubt, Winston Churchill delivered a speech at the Harrow School in which he advised the graduating students: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Churchill’s remarks deserve to be quoted by college-commencement speakers around the country this month — and they probably would be if he were not a “dead white male.”
Though student activists today have little understanding of “good sense” or “honor,” they have demonstrated plenty of resolve. Indeed, they are much better at never giving in than the administrators and faculty members who are charged with educating them.
Student protesters have offered a never-ending stream of demands for free tuition, gender-neutral bathrooms, the removal of historic names from buildings, the censoring of professors, the disinvitation of speakers, and the resignation of administrators. But this year, things have taken a violent turn. The riots at Berkeley over Milo Yiannopoulos, the attack on Charles Murray, and the threats against Heather Mac Donald, along with other similar incidents, suggest that the time may have arrived for a different response.
Which is why commencement speakers this spring have a different responsibility from that of their predecessors. The politicians, businesspeople, and entertainers charged with giving advice to 21-year-olds usually tell graduates to dream big, pursue justice at all costs, and stand up for the little guy. But this year’s speakers should pursue a new tack. They might begin by advising graduates to infuse their dreams with a dose of realism, to think more deeply not only about what justice means but how it can be approximated in the real world and why the “little guy” may not be who they think he is.
Let’s start with attempting to right-size students’ expectations for their future. Perhaps it sounds obvious to most of us, but many parents are hoping that their children will actually find gainful employment upon graduation. According to a study from Accenture last year, “many recent grads feel underemployed and disillusioned. Grads are looking for more of a ‘me’ experience, where their passions will be acknowledged and their career path customized to their interests.” That their four years in college have given them the impression that an entry-level job is going to give them a “me experience” is a problem. But the list of demands that young people have for their employers is actually much longer. A LinkedIn survey found that recent college graduates also want employers to let them work remotely and have a good work-life balance, in addition to providing regular social activities and a casual dress code.
These, at least, are practical matters. Young people who spend any amount of time trying to hold down a job will quickly find that employers are not like the typical college president or dean of students. Graduates will soon learn that employers are more interested in making sure that their work justifies the salaries they are paid than in making their lives fun and fulfilling or capitulating to their “demands.” A decade ago the Wall Street Journal published a column describing how “the Mister Rogers lesson” (everyone is “special”) had created new challenges for companies in dealing with the demands and expectations of new employees. Today the problem is worse because that lesson has been delivered to students not only by parents, teachers, and public-television programs but by college administrators as well.
Once they are done pushing back on the narcissism of college students, commencement speakers might begin to address the problem of self-righteousness that is plaguing our campuses. Almost every cause that is now popular among students is the result of the naïve conviction that “the arc of history bends toward justice” and it is the job of young people to bend it just a bit further. There is nothing inherently wrong with this ideal, assuming that students understand its limitations as a historical narrative and are aware that progress arises less by making demands than by good-faith efforts to persuade people to change their minds and to accept and adopt reforms.
Once they are done pushing back on the narcissism of college students, commencement speakers might begin to address the problem of self-righteousness that is plaguing our campuses.
Unfortunately, despite their grand claims, college students today have little understanding of the history whose mantle they are claiming. According to a study last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only 17.5 percent of American colleges and universities require students to take a course in American history or government. More surprising still, less than a third of the nation’s leading colleges and universities require history majors to take a course in U.S. history.
It is little wonder, then, that student activists often make ideological claims that betray a woeful lack of historical understanding — as, for example, when they equate rare (and often justified) police shootings in inner cities with slavery, or suggest that women are second-class citizens because the U.S. doesn’t have mandatory paid maternity leave, or that the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis is comparable to the horrors Jews experienced in the Holocaust.
Finally, commencement speakers might spend a few minutes talking about the people in this country who are truly in need of their help. Students like to claim that they are fighting for the voiceless, the downtrodden, the helpless. But too often they assume that society’s underdogs are actually their own classmates — the victims of microaggressions.
Of course, the ranks of society’s helpless do include racial minorities and families trapped in violent inner cities, as well as immigrants who come to this country seeking a better life. But they also include many in middle America who have had trouble earning enough money to support their families, whose families have fallen apart, and whose communities have been wracked by the opioid epidemic, but whose problems have long been dismissed as those of ignorant backward racists.
The gulf between campus and the world outside is greater than ever before. In the past the campus was different from but parallel to the wider society. Students came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and locations. A study earlier this year by the Equality of Opportunity Project found that at 38 elite colleges, including five Ivy League schools, more students came from the top 1 percent income bracket than the bottom 60 percent. And a study from 2010 found that students from rural areas are 2.5 times less likely to enroll at elite schools than their urban or suburban peers, even controlling for academic achievement.
Today the preoccupations of the campus are not only different from but in many ways conflict with the assumptions that guide social and professional life. Commencement speeches may be no match for the years of indoctrination that students have received from their professors and the years of self-righteous reassurance they have received from their peers. But a little perspective could go a long way.