graduation speeches and the value of college

I have been waiting for Case to post a transcript of Chris Matthews' speech to the graduating class of 2005, which was delivered in the Veale Center on May 16... but apparently, we how only post a video archive of the event, which is no longer available online. It was an interesting speech, focusing on Matthews' experiences in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, marred only by his extremely rapid delivery.

(Robin Dubin, the University Marshall and a professor of economics, told me afterwards that she was afraid that he took her too literally when she told him that he really needed to keep his speech to 15 minutes. Anyone who finds it implausible that the very tall and accomplished Mr. Matthews might be intimidated by the very petite Professor Dubin has not spent very much time with her. She is a powerful thinker, and inspires great effort in her students; when in academic garb and wielding her ceremonial scepter at graduation, she becomes an imposing guardian of ceremony despite her short stature.)

My friend John Ettorre recently posted the text of David Foster Wallace's speech to Kenyon's graduating class, and it is definitely worth a read. He discusses what we mean when we say that college is meant to teach young people how to think in a very humorous and yet also a very meaningful way.

Both speeches provide some good answers to the query "Does college matter?" but perhaps not in a way that would convince a high school student like Ben Casnocha to enroll immediately, rather than taking a year or two off first. Ben is an entrepreneur, and reminds me a little of Stan Garber, who took MGMT 250-251 over the past year while serving as CFO and Senior Sales Manager for O-Web Technologies. Ben did not visit Case during his spring break college visiting tour, though I think he might find us a pretty good fit. Who wouldn't get excited about the idea of studying with Scott Shane and Richard Boland?

Should all high school graduates with the intellect to handle college attend? Only if they want to, is my answer. There's nothing more frustrating to me as a professor than a semester of interactions with a student who is only in my class because that's what everyone else was doing, or because he couldn't think of anything else to do, or because his parents told him he has to be there. Students will not learn much, no matter how skilled the professor, if they do not want to learn. Students who have no passion for learning should work for Starbucks or the post office or in some kind of job where they might discover what they still want to explore for a year or two.

As David Foster Wallace says in his speech, "The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration." Sometimes it is only once young people have experienced the numbness that can result from those parts of life that they begin to hunger for what a college education, approached with enthusiasm, can give them: an appreciation of their own freedom and potential within society, and the desire to exercise and develop it responsibly.

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."

"The real value of a real education... has... everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over... to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out."

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