Commencement speeches have become con jobs.
To commence is to get underway. Yet sample some of this year’s commencement addresses and you’ll see they undercut graduate’s initiative by reinforcing a sense of entitlement. Studies indicate this saps the energy required for those entering a bad job market and inheriting a ruinous federal debt.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, David Brooks writes how college graduates are being “sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears.” He notes how graduates are told to “follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”1
The reality is that this is not how reality actually works. In our last recession, in the early 1980s, graduates in that period experienced upwards of 20 percent earnings losses 15 to 20 years later according to a study by Harvard University.2 The drumbeat of recession beats the tar out of marching to the beat of your own drummer. Almost 25 percent of last and this year’s college graduates are unemployed. Reality bites.
As Brooks points out, the problem is this year’s graduates “are members of the most supervised generation in American history.” They have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree, leaving them with a sense of entitlement. The laws of the universe don’t apply to them. Somehow, someway, somewhere—preferably in a hip urban setting—it will all work out.
Entitlement has become endemic among American youth, writes psychologist Jean Twenge. “American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins.”3 This is the same phenomenon observed by University of South Alabama psychology professor Joshua Foster. Using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, he asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Foster says no group anywhere in the world has ever scored higher in entitlement than American youth.
That last line bears repeating. American youth score higher in entitlement than any group anywhere in the world ever has. Commencement speakers fantasizing about following your passion don’t help. In fact, research indicates they can make people less likely to achieve goals, by sapping the energy required to do the work required to succeed.
In one study, 17 undergraduates were asked to describe their week ahead that included the best possible outcomes, while asking 23 others to describe neutrally how things might go (some successes, some disappointments).4 Immediately afterward, the researchers asked students to rate how “enthusiastic,” “excited” and “active” they felt, on a five-point scale. Those who described things neutrally reported higher scores. Those who described the best possible outcomes had lower scores. Researchers concluded: “Positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement.”
This is why telling graduates to find their passion and pursue their dreams is “a mantra that misleads on nearly every front,” Brooks writes. “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”
This is exactly what Jesus taught. “Religion has traditionally put the brakes on narcissistic behavior,” Twenge notes. “Many religious beliefs directly promote the reduction of narcissism, teaching the belief in something larger than the self.”5 Twenge is right, but she’s referring to traditional religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah says modern faith is more about “my personal relationship with Jesus.” Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls this “moralistic, therapeutic deism”—a triumph over historical, traditional faith that seeks shalom for others rather than self-fulfillment. Shalom is not about feeling entitled.
There have been worthwhile commencement speeches. David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College address is one. “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe.” David Brooks cites Atul Gawande’s countercultural address this spring at Harvard Medical School as another example. Gawande said being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist. But the commencement most often recalled is Winston Churchill’s address to Harrow School.
On October 29, 1941, the British Prime Minister visited Harrow School after a Luftwaffe bombing. Amidst the rubble, he encouraged them to face brutal reality and not lose hope: “Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Churchill wasn’t kidding Harrow students about the harrowing task before Britain. Next year, colleges might consider pocketing the fees they pay politicos to deliver con job speeches and instead simply read Wallace, Gawande, or Churchill. At least graduates would get more of the resolve required to pound the pavement in a bad job market.
1 David Brooks, “It’s Not About You,” The New York Times, May 30, 2011.
3 Jean Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 4.
4 “Positive Fantasies About Idealized Futures Sap Energy,” Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (July 2011)
5 Twenge, Narcissism, pp. 244-255.