Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Truth Telling Time: College Grads Aren't 'Special' - Neither are Humans As A Species

Truth telling was in high profile over several recent high school and college commencement addresses, something you don't often find. More generally, the already inflated egos of the new graduates are inflated even more by one speaker or another who tells them gibberish such as "the world is your oyster" or "you will change human history". Hogwash! The fact is most grads (especially from high school) are ill-equipped to deal even in the most superficial ways with their affairs, far less changing the world! The same is often true for college grads. Most can't even find work that enables true independence (which also fosters independence of thought) and they perforce must hunker down with Mom and Pop. Often this is not their fault and the decision is a wise one financially, but they should not allow their sense of self or importance to become inflated by so doing.

As for their knowledge skills, in most cases they're inadequate across the board  - from history, to politics, to economics. Many, indeed, managed to get their 'Magnum cum laudes'  - by sheer dint of the benefits of grade inflation over the past 40 years. Much of which I attribute to the egregious feedback mechanism known as 'Teacher Evaluations' whereby teachers are essentially blackmailed into giving grades no lower than C.

Then there's the fact that many of these new grads, rather than emerging as independents in a true sense, have been tethered to their parents via texting, emails or phone calls for most of their college experience. Hell, many helicopter parents have even bragged on intervening to try to assist Junior or Missy receiving a higher grade in Physics by emailing the prof directly. This is shit that was unheard of back in the 60s where we prided ourselves on never having to call home ....and being exposed as weenies. And if we had a matter to settle on grades, we took it directly to the profs, and didn't let Mom do it for us.

So yes, it was gratifying to see them getting called out and being properly brought back to Earth. A few examples:

David McCullough, Jr., the son of Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough, addressed graduates of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, saying:

"Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. ... But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

McCullough explained that he wanted to spare teenagers the disservice of sending them into the world with an “inflated sense of themselves.” He wanted them to realize that society will not continue to revolve around them for no particular reason. McCullough was also likely aware that in the American child-centered culture, adults often emerge as servants of children on whom they lavish celebrity-style birthday parties and new cars as graduation gifts. Indeed, I already blogged on studies that examined middle class parents and exposed how often they were ordered about by their offspring. See, e.g.

With so much infernally nutty enabling, no wonder so many would enter the late- teen realm with delusions of grandeur!

Other commencement wake up calls:

From Jim Lehrer, addressing graduates of William and Mary College:

"The fact that you are receiving a diploma from one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated."

Alas, I fear that might have gone over most of their heads, since they'd ask: "Hey! I got a degree! Of course I'm educated!"

Not realizing that education - the genuine article - implies a lifelong devotion to building one's mind, accumulating more knowledge, filling out the gaps in one's knowledge. So, if you only took one math course in college, say college algebra, you go on to teach yourself basic calculus as well - either through purchased courses (e.g. the Great courses offerings) or via the multitude of free resources online. Same thing if your degree was in a tech-science field overloaded with math, physics, chem courses....you now engage more learning of the classics, e.g. in literature, as well as world lit. But merely receiving a parchment in a gown doesn't magically confer "education" as in one instant. NO freakin' way!

In a similar vein, director Aaron Sorkin wanted graduates of Syracuse University to know they hadn’t accomplished much., simply by taking hold of their magic paper. He told them:

You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You are barely functional,”

Which, again, spells it out. When does one become "functional"? My guess is perhaps just beyond mid -life, sometime in the 40s. By then, if one has diligently kept his or her mind active and not allowed it to turn to jello, s/he can engage in a reasoned argument, or write a definitive tract which is both comprehensive and rigorously logical. By then also, one generally finds there are fewer howlers made each day, and many more positive contributions to one's life and humanity's stock overall.

Of course, many might hold up a guy like Mark Zuckerberg and proclaim he was "functional" from the instant he achieved full ownership of Facebook, even if he never graduated college. Maybe. But from where I sit, blowing it on the initial IPO offering (with an absurd initial share price of $38) shows the guy has a LONG way to go - to at least achieve pragmatic market functionality. As it is, too many of his groupies who grabbed onto those inital shares got burned. They hope to recover their losses, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Now, let us assume by diligent action and rigorous learning one can become functional .....at something. Does that also confer speciality, or specialness? No. Because I think in a relative sense, no human being is special nor is the species special.  In many ways it is indeed, the meme of human exceptionalism which has led to the depradation of the planet. We are believed to be the 'top of the food chain' so we can do damned near whatever we want. Use up a million hectares a month of the planet, but who's looking, or counting?

This exceptionalism, meanwhile, engenders the delusion or false belief that we - unlike the Saber Tooth Tiger or Woolly Mammoth- can never become extinct. Our technology, brains or whatever will always bail us out.  In fact, on a realistic cosmic scale humans represent merely another randomly evolved and purposeless species of bipeds - now confined to a tiny dust speck planet circling a middling G2 star, two -thirds out to the rim of one ordinary spiral galaxy among one hundred billion. 

Given this perspective, our species - while evolutionarily bestowed certain advantage to do with our large cerebral cortex - nevertheless can't be exalted more than any other. Thus, we are still trapped within a world of limited resources, and if we overplay our hand (e.g. by our numbers) we will exhaust those resources and end up with our bones right behind those of the T. Rex, or the Woolly Mammoth.

The bottom line is that specialness is overplayed - whether in terms of an individual who's just received a piece of parchment, or a species that has barely climbed out of its metaphorical crib.  Maybe one day, humans will prove to be a special species, but the historical and cultural evidence so far is not very comforting.

And so long as we continue to allow those with warlike natures, dispositions to appropriate most of our precious resources, I daresay our remaining time on this orb might come to a close sooner than most of us believe. 

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