A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person

I couldn’t say these things during a traditional ceremony, but these aren’t traditional times.

The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here.

Updated at 12:20 p.m. ET on May 18, 2020.

You bastards stood me up!

You invited me to give this commencement address months ago. You never told me it was canceled. So I drove across the country, got up early this morning, put this scratchy graduation gown over my Ramones T-shirt, and now I find myself standing in an empty stadium with a Very Important Speech in my hands!

The speech I was intending to give fully lives up to the extremely mediocre norms of this genre. You invited me because I’m a person who has achieved some career success, and so you wanted me to give a speech about why career success doesn’t matter. You wanted me to open with some heartwarming jokes I stole from Ellen, and to drop the names of some obscure bands to prove that I’m hip to youth culture. Then you wanted me to conclude with inspiring stories about how moments of failure taught me valuable life lessons—especially about the need to give generously to your college’s alumni association.

I was going to do all that—and in 10 minutes!

But since you didn’t show up, I’m going to give a different talk. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that the parents aren’t here to say something I could never say in front of the parents. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that the faculty and administrators aren’t here to say something I could never say in front of the faculty and administrators. And I’m going to take advantage of the fact that you students aren’t here to say something I could never say in front of you yourselves.

First, here’s what I can’t say to you in front of your parents.

Your parents are proud of you, and a little surprised that you’ve made it to graduation. They are eager for you to launch yourself off into a successful life. Screw that. The next few years are going to be a terrible time to start a career. So don’t do it. Put off launching your career until 2023.

You happened to have graduated into a global emergency that has interrupted everything. That whole career-track thing you’ve been worrying about? Fundamentally interrupted. Don’t see this as a void; see it as a permission slip.

See it as a permission slip to think differently about time. Usually, time flows continually, like a river, and one thing leads to another. But sometimes time comes in a discrete box. The next two years are going to be a discrete box. Think only about this unusual two-year box right now. You’ll probably have 60 more years after this box is over and they’ll probably be more normal. You can worry about them later.

Use this hiatus to do something you would never have done if this emergency hadn’t hit. When the lockdown lifts, move to another state or country. Take some job that never would have made sense if you were worrying about building a career—bartender, handyman, AmeriCorps volunteer.

Don’t worry about where the job you take puts you on any status hierarchy. Our society’s career status hierarchy is in the midst of changing anyway. Instead, try to do something that people will ask you about for the rest of your life. What was it like to work on a fishing boat off of Maine? What was it like to teach at a nursery school for the children of Mexican farmworkers? You’re graduating into an extremely uncertain time. You might as well get a master’s degree in handling uncertainty. If you use the next two years as a random hiatus, you may not wind up richer, but you’ll wind up more interesting.

Now let me tell you what I can’t tell you in front of the faculty and administrators.

Graduation day is a good day to step back and reflect on all the things you’ve learned during college. It’s also a good day to step back and reflect on all the ways your college failed you, on the pieces of your education this place should have given you but didn’t. You’re going to have to learn these things on your own.

The biggest way most colleges fail is this: They don’t plant the intellectual and moral seeds students are going to need later, when they get hit by the vicissitudes of life. If you didn’t study Jane Austen while you were here, you probably lack the capacity to think clearly about making a marriage decision. If you didn’t read George Eliot, then you missed a master class on how to judge people’s character. If you didn’t read Nietzsche, you are probably unprepared to handle the complexities of atheism—and if you didn’t read Augustine and Kierkegaard, you’re probably unprepared to handle the complexities of faith.

The list goes on. If you didn’t read de Tocqueville, you probably don’t understand your own country. If you didn’t study Gibbon, you probably lack the vocabulary to describe the rise and fall of cultures and nations.

The wisdom of the ages is your inheritance; it can make your life easier. These resources often fail to get shared because universities are too careerist, or because faculty members are more interested in their academic specialties or politics than in teaching undergraduates, or because of a host of other reasons. But to get through life, you’re going to want to draw on that accumulated wisdom. Today is a good day to figure out where your college left gaps, and to start filling them.

Finally, students, let me say the thing I can’t say to you in front of yourselves.

It’s about your diet. No, I don’t mean your physical diet. Our culture spends an awful lot of time talking about food, celebrity chefs, craft beers, and so on, so I suspect you’re covered when it comes to thinking about your physical diet. Gluttony is the shallowest of the vices and being a gourmet is the most bourgeois of the virtues, and I’m just not that interested.

I’m talking about your mental diet. What are you putting into your mind? Our culture spends a lot less time worrying about this, and when it does, it goes about it all wrong.

When people do worry about your mental diet, they tend to fret about the junk you’re pouring into your brain—the trashy videos, the cheap horror movies, the degrading reality TV, and all the hours of Tiger King and Love Is Blind you binge-watched when this pandemic started.

I’m not so worried about the dangers of mental junk food. That’s because I’ve found that many of the true intellectuals I’ve met take pleasure in mental junk food too. Having a taste for trashy rom-coms hasn’t rotted their brain or made them incapable of writing great history or doing deep physics.

No, my worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.

The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.

In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks. Have you ever noticed that 70 percent of the people you know are more boring at 30 than they were at 20?

But then a pandemic hits, and suddenly you have time to read Henry James and Marilynne Robinson, to really look at Rembrandt and Rothko. Suddenly you feel your consciousness expanding once again. The old intellectual muscles come back.

Here’s what I can’t say to you in front of your face: I’m worried about the future of your maximum taste. People in my and earlier generations, at least those lucky enough to get a college education, got some exposure to the classics, which lit a fire that gets rekindled every time we sit down to read something really excellent. I worry that it’s possible to grow up now not even aware that those upper registers of human feeling and thought exist.

I wonder if you will sense what many of your elders do—that the whole culture is eroding the skill the UCLA scholar Maryanne Wolf calls “deep literacy,” the ability to deeply engage in a dialectical way with a text or piece of philosophy, literature, or art. Or as the neurologist Richard Cytowic put it to Adam Garfinkle, “To the extent that you cannot perceive the world in its fullness, to the same extent you will fall back into mindless, repetitive, self-reinforcing behavior, unable to escape.”*

I can’t say that to you, because it sounds fussy and elitist and OK Boomer. And if you were in front of me, you’d roll your eyes.

But hey! You’re not here to listen! I’m just alone in this stadium, free to speak my piece.

And now I’m going to run to the end zone and pretend to be Aaron Rodgers.

* This article previously misattributed a quotation by Richard Cytowic and the publication in which it appeared.