The Annual Commencement Post
Moontower Munchies #15
That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.
In Dazed and Confused, Wooderson is the creeper who hangs around the HS crowd years after he’s graduated. Guessing he didn’t pay much attention to the commencement speech. And here’s irony coming around the corner — my favorite all-time commencement speech is by the guy who played Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey.
Presidents, great scientists, Steve Jobs. I can’t imagine the pressure of having to deliver timeless wisdom in the tradition of such minds and achievers. And yet McConaughey, at ease, perched on a barstool, delivers the best commencement speech of all time.
It’s best via video but you can find my favorite excerpts below.
My Favorite Tips From Wooderson
#1: Life’s not easy…don’t try and make it that way.
“It’s not fair, it never was, it isn’t now, it won’t ever be. Do not fall into the entitlement trap of feeling you are a victim, you are not. Get over it and get on with it. And yes, most things are more rewarding when you break a sweat to get em.”
#3: The difference between happiness and joy.
“Happiness is an emotional response to an outcome — If I win I will be happy, if I don’t I won’t. An if-then, cause and effect, quid pro quo standard that we cannot sustain because we immediately raise it every time we attain it. You see, happiness demands a certain outcome, it is result reliant. If happiness is what you’re after, then you are going to be let down frequently and be unhappy much of your time. Joy, though, is something else. It’s not a choice, not a response to some result, it is a constant. Joy is “the feeling we have from doing what we are fashioned to do,” no matter the outcome.”
#4: Define success for yourself.
“How do I define success? For me, it’s a measurement of five things — fatherhood, being a good husband, health, career, friendships. These are what’s important to me in my life. So, I try to measure these five each day, check-in with them, see whether or not I’m in the debit or the credit section with each one. Am I in the red or in the black with each of them?”
#5: A roof is a man-made thing
“You ever choked? You know what I mean, fumbled at the goal line, stuck your foot in your mouth once you got the microphone, had a brain freeze on the exam you were totally prepared for, forgot the punch line to a joke in front of four thousand graduating students at a University of Houston Commencement speech? Or maybe you’ve had that feeling of “Oh my God, life can’t get any better, do I deserve this?” What happens when we get that feeling? We tense up. We have this out-of-body experience where we are literally seeing our self in the third person. We realize that the moment just got bigger than us. You ever felt that way? I have. It’s because we have created a fictitious ceiling, a roof, to our expectations of ourselves, a limit — where we think it’s all too good to be true. But if we stay in the process, within ourselves, in the joy of the doing, we will never choke at the finish line. Why? Because we aren’t thinking of the finish line, we’re not looking at the clock, we’re not watching ourselves on the Jumbotron performing the very act we are in the middle of. No, we’re in the process, the APPROACH IS THE DESTINATION… and we are NEVER finished. Bo Jackson ran over the goal line, through the end zone and up the tunnel — the greatest snipers and marksmen in the world don’t aim at the target, they aim on the other side of it. We do our best when our destinations are beyond the “measurement,” when our reach continually exceeds our grasp, when we have immortal finish lines. When we do this, the race is never over. The journey has no port. The adventure never ends because we are always on our way. Do this, and let them tap us on the shoulder and say, “hey, you scored.” Let them tell you “You won.” Let them come tell you, “you can go home now.” Let them say “I love you too.” Let them say “thank you.” TAKE THE LID OFF THE MAN MADE ROOFS WE PUT ABOVE OURSELVES AND ALWAYS PLAY LIKE AN UNDERDOG.”
#12. Give your obstacles credit.
“Instead of denying your fears, declare them, say them out loud, admit them, give them the credit they deserve. Don’t get all macho and act like they’re no big deal, and don’t get paralyzed by denying they exist and therefore abandoning your need to overcome them. We’re all destined to have to do the thing we fear the most anyway. So, you give your obstacles credit and you will find the courage to overcome them or see clearly that they are not really worth prevailing over.”
Slatestarcodex wrote a fake graduation speech. It’s better than most of the real ones.
These excerpts capture the gist of the “speech” that I want to retain. It ends with my favorite lesson. The first in our household coat of arms.
What if education, as you understand it – public or private or charter schooling from age four or five all the way to university as young adults – is, on net, a waste of your time and money?
Addressing The Alleged Benefits
Benefit 1: The philosophical benefits of feeling connected to the beauty of mathematics, the passion of the humanities, the great historical traditions.
Testing the claim: Compare to a control group — the unschooled
“unschooling” movement, a group of parents who think school is oppressive and damaging. They tell the government they’re home-schooling their children but actually just let them do whatever they want. They may teach their kid something if the child wants to be taught, otherwise they will leave them pretty much alone.
And this is really hard to study, because they’re a highly self-selected group and there aren’t very many of them.
What do we know from the small sample?
if you’d stayed out of public school and stayed home and played games and maybe asked your parents some questions, then by the time your friends were graduating twelfth grade, you would have the equivalent of an eleventh-grade education.
Louis Benezet’s experiment: He decreed that in some of the schools in his district, there would be no math instruction until grade six. He found that within a year, these sixth graders had caught up with their peers in traditional schools, and furthermore that they were able to think much more logically about math problems – figure out what was going on rather than desperately trying to multiply and divide all the numbers in the problem by one another.math education before grade six is useless at best. And it’s hard to resist the urge to generalize to other subjects and children even older still.
Why is it so easy for the unschooled to keep up with their better-educated brethren? My guess is that it’s because very little learning goes on at school at all.
According to the general survey of knowledge among college students, 3.3% know who Euclid was, 7.6% know who wrote Canterbury, and a full 15% know what city the Parthenon’s in.
36% of high school students know that an atom is bigger than an electron, rather than vice versa. But a full 59% of college students know the same. That’s a whole nine percent better than chance. On one of the most basic facts about the fundamental entities that make up everything in existence.
“But knowledge isn’t about names and dates!” No, but names and dates are the parts that are easy to measure, and it’s a pretty good bet that if you don’t know what city the Parthenon’s in you probably haven’t absorbed the full genius of the Greek architectural tradition. Anyone who’s never heard of Chaucer probably doesn’t have strong opinions on the classics of Middle English literature.
Benefit #2: The practical benefits of being able to get a job and afford nice things like food and shelter.
Testing the claim: Employment
About fifteen percent of you will be some variant of unemployed straight out of college. Another ten percent will find something part-time. And another forty or so percent will be underemployed, working as waiters or clerks or baristas or something else that uses zero percent of the knowledge you’ve worked so hard to accumulate.
As bad as you will have it, everyone who didn’t graduate college still has it much, much worse. All the economic indicators agree with the signs from the desolate wasteland that was once our industrial heartland: they are doomed. Their wages are not stagnating but actively declining
Testing the claim: More education
As bad as the job market is, staying in school looks worse. Economists warn that attending law school is the worst career decision you can make, so much so that newly graduated lawyers have nothing do to but sue law schools for not warning them against attending and established firms offer an Anything But Law School Scholarship to raise awareness of the problem. Doctors are so uniformly unhappy that they are committing suicide in record numbers and nine out of ten would warn young people against going into medicine. Graduate school has always been an iffy bet, but now the ratio of Ph. D applicants to open tenure track positions has hit triple digits, with the vast majority ending up as miserable adjunct professors who juggle multiple part time jobs and end up making as much as a Starbucks barista but without the health insurance.
We were counting the benefits of formal education. We did not do so well in trying to prove that it left you more knowledgeable, but it did seem like it had some practical value in getting you a little bit more money.
What of the costs of education?
Musing for society at large
Well, first about twenty thousand hours of your youth. That’s okay. You weren’t using that golden time of perfect health and halcyon memories when you had more true capacity for creativity and imagination and happiness than you ever will again anyway.
the financial side of it. At $11,000 average per pupil spending per year times thirteen years plus various preschool and college subsidies, the government spends $155,000 on the kindergarten-through-college education of the average American.
How about to each of the individual types?
To the one who says:
I am the 3.3%! I know who Euclid was and I understand the sublime beauty of geometry. I don’t think I would have been exposed to it, or had the grit to keep studying it, if I hadn’t been here surrounded by equally curious peers, under the instruction of enthusiastic professors.
to you, my advice is: if you’ve sacrificed everything for knowledge, don’t forget that. When you are a paralegal in Brooklyn, and you get home from work, and you are very tired, and you want to curl up in front of the TV and watch reality shows until you are numb, remind yourself that you value knowledge above everything else, that you will seek intellectual beauty though the world perish, and read a book or something. Or take a class at a community college.
my education was worth it….because of the friends, I made here
my advice is similar: if you’ve sacrificed everything for friendship, don’t forget that. When you are a paralegal in Brooklyn, or a market analyst in Seattle, or God forbid an intern in Michigan, and you get home from work, and you are very tired, and you want to curl up in front of your computer and check Reddit, remind yourself of the friends you made here and give them a call. See how they’re doing. Write them a Christmas card, especially if it is December. Anything other than declaring friendship your supreme value and drifting out of touch.
my education was worth it…because of the connections I made
If you’ve sacrificed everything for ambition, be ambitious as hell. When you are a paralegal in Brooklyn or whatever, claw your way to the top, stay there, and use it to do something important. If you’ve sacrificed everything for ambition, don’t you dare stop at middle manager.
my education was worth it… because it helped me learn civic values, become a better person who is better able to help others.
If you’ve sacrificed everything to help others, don’t let it all end with donating a tenner to the OXFAM guy on the street now and then. Join Giving What We Can or go volunteer somewhere. If you’ve sacrificed everything for others, make sure others get something good out of the deal!
my education was worth it because formal education in the school system taught me how to think.
Sorry, one second, HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAAAHAHAHAHHHAAHAHA…I’m sorry. Ahem. To you my advice is, again, similar. If you’ve sacrificed everything to learn how to think, learn how to think. When someone says something you disagree with, before you dismiss a straw man and call that person names and slap yourself five for your brilliant rebuttal, take a second to consider it fairly on its own terms. Go learn about biases and heuristics and how to avoid them. Read enough psychology and cognitive science to figure out why your claim might kind of inspire hysterical laughter from people even a little familiar with the field. Just don’t sacrifice everything to learn how to think and end up only rearranging your prejudices.
And To Those Of Us Who Feel Fleeced
Finally, some of you will say, wait a second, maybe my education wasn’t worth it. Or, maybe it was the best choice to make from within a bad paradigm, but I’m not content with that.
To you, I can offer a small amount of compensation. You have learned a very valuable lesson that you might not have been able to learn any other way. You have learned that the system is Not Your Friend. I use those last three words very consciously. People usually say “not your friend” as an understatement, a way of saying something is actively hostile. I don’t mean that.
The system is not your friend. The system is not your enemy. The system is a retarded giant throwing wads of $100 bills and books of rules in random directions while shouting “LOOK AT ME! I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” Sometimes by luck you catch a wad of cash, and you think the system loves you. Other times by misfortune you get hit in the gut with a rulebook, and you think the system hates you. But either one is giving the system too much credit.
To you I don’t have very much advice…if I knew how to fix the system, it’s a pretty good bet other people would know too and the system would already have been fixed. Maybe you, armed with a degree from the University of [mumble], will be the one to help figure it out.
On the other hand, someone a lot smarter than I am did have some advice for you. Poor Kurt Vonnegut never did get to give a real graduation speech, but one of his books has some advice targeted at another major life transition:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
I don’t know how to fix the system, but I am pretty sure that one of the ingredients is kindness.
I think of kindness not only as the moral virtue of volunteering at a soup kitchen or even of living your life to help as many other people as possible, but also as an epistemic virtue. Epistemic kindness is kind of like humility. Kindness to ideas you disagree with. Kindness to positions you want to dismiss as crazy and dismiss with insults and mockery. Kindness that breaks you out of your own arrogance, makes you realize the truth is more important than your own glorification, especially when there’s a lot at stake.
☮️ Stay groovy
[Reminder: It’s summer break. Posts will be intermittent to nonexistent until routine re-imposes itself — ie I’m back to exhausting my time on earth in front of a monitor while weighing the relative merit of having the radiation take me out before my vertebrae fuse into permanent vulture neck.]
I was invited to be a part of the Substack Meetings beta. You can book a time to chat. I’m more expensive than a 900 number from 1988 and have a less sexy voice.
Book a meeting with Kris Abdelmessih
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