As You Go Out Into the World…

Sharon May 15th, 2009

A reader of mine emailed me, informing me that she had been asked to do the commencement address at the college where she is employed, and then asked me what I would say, given the opportunity to address a graduating class.  She also asked me to ask my readers what they would advise someone to tell a graduating class, and so, I have written my own commencement address here, and I invite you to either write one yourself and link to it, or offer suggestions in comments on the salient points to raise. 

I admit, I feel particularly unqualified to do so, since not only have I never delivered a commencement address, but I’ve never actually listened carefully to one.  I skipped both my college and Masters commencements, attending only the departmental degree ceremonies.  I did sit through my husband’s Doctoral graduation, but I was mostly involved in attending to 3 month old Eli at the time, and remember little of it, although I did enjoy and at least partly understand the Latin address.  I attended my high school graduation, but have no memory whatsoever of anything that was said.  So I am perhaps the last person in the world who should give one.  Perhaps it is just me, but my first reaction to this request was ”does anyone actually listen to these things?”  And yet, the thought that I might be ignored has never stopped me yet.  So here goes.

It is, I believe, conventional at college graduations to begin from the premise that those graduating are about to embark upon life in the “real” world - a venture that is supposed to be radically different than their carefree college years.  The assumption is that the institution in question has given you what you need to embark upon a meaningful and productive future - you are wiser than when you came in, and perhaps more ethical, certainly fitted to the world of work.  Now, I have been chosen to give you your very last bit of wisdom, something to carry with you into the future.  So here is the sum total of that wisdom

“Everything you have been taught to expect is wrong.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t a joke.  You have been taken in by a host of assumptions that are not true, and if you walk out of here believing what you have been told and taught over the last four years, you will leave woefully unprepared for you.  The consolation, I can offer you, however, is that while what you have been taught to expect is wrong, the things you have actually learned may be of more use than you think.

The first bad assumption here is that is that college is not the real world of work - it is true that those of you supported in totality by your parents are perhaps living a dream you will never experience again.  But how many of you fall in that category? Most of you will have taken out substantial student loans, and worked many hours during summers and school years supporting your educational dream, in addition to whatever attention you gave your school work.  For most of you, the real world will not be new because it involves hard work.   In fact, what may be newest about it is the absence of such work.

In fact, even those who were lucky enough to have their way paid by others have probably worked hard all their lives.  During your childhood, you were told to work hard at school, so you could go to a good college.  And you did.  You were told to work hard at your extra-curricular activities - soccer and violin, newspaper writing and dance are no longer pleasures, they are jobs for children.  After school and during summers in your teenage years, you were told to work hard to save for college, ensure the right appearance, or make sure you had a car to transport you to your job.

In college, you were told to work hard to get a good job.  Moreover, many of you were on workstudy or required to support your hobbies, or simply seeking betterment through internships and other unpaid work, so you worked even harder.  Now, you have been told you will have the opportunity to get a starter job, which, if you work hard, will lead to another job, which, with luck will eventually lead to 45 years of employment and hard work, after which you can retire. 

The problem with this model, of course, is that there is no job waiting for you.  You probably know this already, and have already been making the rounds of job fairs and sending out resumes.  But there are 2.1 million of you, and unless you’ve come out with a nursing or mining degree, odds are your contribution is not much needed.  Some of you will take from this the lesson that you should go to graduate school, take out more loans and work harder to get a still better job.  

Now I came out of college into a recession in 1994 as well, and going to graduate school was a time honored method of avoiding the “real world” for a while, one I chose myself.  But what is different about this economic crisis is that it is an expression of a larger change - that is, the shift away from the global economy and affluent society that you were trained for.  The economy you were trained to serve (and you were trained to serve it, the economy was not designed to serve you) does not really exist - even before the economic collapse of global trade, high energy prices were ending globalization.  Even before the current crisis, it was not clear how a ”service economy” could exist in perpetuity without creating anything, or how indebted a nation could become before a crisis emerged..  The job you have trained for is very likely not to exist fairly soon into your career as a working person, while the retirement dangled at the end is almost certainly not going to exist.

In some ways, eventually, I think you may find this to be a blessing.  Even were the retirement you were promised likely to come, subsidized by the government (and I suspect it is quite unlikely, actually), is it really worth it to have worked so very hard for 60+ years, only to be promised a fixed income, golf and the exclusive company of your now aged peers?  That is, what you are being offered right now - a period of impoverished leisure, may be a better deal - but we will come back to that.  The problem, of course, is that you may feel you have no option of indulging that leisure.

Most of you have entered into an economic contract for this education you recieved that amounts to debt slavery - you must work to pay it off.  In many cases, the payment period covers the period in which you hoped to make some money, buy a house, find a mate and settle down into what leisure and pleasure your working life permitted.  This was possible, despite heavy debts, in an era where credit was freely given - unfortunately, you do not come of age in that era.  It will be difficult for you to pay your student loans, more difficult still to get a house, even if you credit rating isn’t trashed by said loans, and more difficult still to establish a household and family with two of you working to pay down your respective and collective debts.

I hope someone did explain to you before you took out your loans that student loans were the one form of debt that cannot be vacated by bankruptcy, and to which you can be perpetually enchained - they can and will garnish your wages, they can and will double, triple or quadruple your debt due to periods of personal insolvency.  I do hope that someone told you how high a price you are paying for your education.

That is not to say that you have learned nothing of value - on the contrary, while college is an extremely expensive way of learning these things, you may well have learned some extremely useful things.  It would be a mistake, seeing the high price, to imagine you got nothing for it.

Most obviously, I would hope that you have learned something that gave you pleasure, excited your mind, made you think critically or argue.  The poetry and art, the music and mathematics, the history and ethics that you may have derived now and again from your classes remain in your head as long as you choose to keep them there.  The odds are good that much of your working life will involve doing very dull things - having something to think about while you are doing them is enormously valuable.

But most of the lessons that you probably learned in college aren’t ones taught by your Professors. For example, you learned how to live closely with others, and share resources with them.  This is an important lesson, since odds are very good that you will either share a small space with several housemates as you eke out your living, or that you will move back in with parents or other family in order to make ends meet. The skill of living closely with others, of deriving happiness from late night conversation and shared work in the kitchen, of taking turns to use the bathroom will stand you in excellent stead.

So too will making the food last, or finding more food when the meal points don’t meet the end of the month.  Tasty things to do with ramen noodles, the making of a pot of soup to feed 15 hungry people, and the ability to scavenge will be of the utmost use.  So will a willingness to drink cheap beer and to laugh about one’s circumstances.

So too will be contentment with the lot of a college student - building cinderblock bookcases, and picking furniture out of dumpsters is a useful skill.  Insulating windows with old bits of bubble wrap, busking, intermittent work and sharing resources are useful skills.  These are real, “real world” skills.  It is a pity that 20, 50, 80K in debt was required for you to master them, but there is no point understating one’s gains.  

If these constitute the beginnings of your skill set, it must be admitted - and perhaps best we admit it here, while your deans and college presidents, professors and administrators are present to answer your queries on this subject - much of what you need to know no one has taught you at all. 

For example, the odds are good that your education has been for a globalized and parochial world, rather than a local and international one.  By this I mean that you have been taught that America is unique and special - even if you have received critiques of this worldview, you have most likely been taught that it is specially invulnerable to hardship.  You have also been taught that your work will enable the cause of a globalization that has already failed, a globalization that has also done enormous harm.  Unfortunately, unless you are lucky, you have also never been taught to understand the world order without America fully at its center.  You are not prepared for the international realities of energy depletion and climate change, and the language of the last two decades, in which you have been immersed, has placed America in the position of the sun, with the rest of the nations revolving around it.  While some of you have managed to see more than this, many have not, and thus the implications of our global predicament are likely to be startling and painful.

You have been unfitted for a local future.  The assumption has been from the moment of your birth that you will grow up and go away - away from your parents, away from your hometown, towards those globalized jobs, towards affluence.  Sense of place, family ties - these are all assumed to be transient, and a good future is one in which you do not return home in any sense.  Growing up, you have been taught, is about going out and away, about abjuring family ties, rather than supporting them.  To go home, to support ties is to be perpetually adolescent, rather than mature, to be the butt of jokes about still living in your parents’ basement.   Contempt for the local and familial has pushed you to disregard the real possibilities of returning to places where you in some measure belong, and where there are people you can throw your lot in with.  At a minimum, you should decline to be ashamed to do so.

Even more derided is the idea of producing something useful - the thought that your work should be good and useful.  Instead, you’ve grown up in the most affluent, and money-centered society in human history, where no other value system has had a hope of penetrating.  You grew up in a world where shopping and wealth were everything, and now, that cannot be any more, and you would be less than human if you were not frustrated.  But consider the merits of replacing consumption with production, bad work with good, an economy that serves your interests rather than an economy that does not.  Consider the pleasures of actually making and doing something that matters in the world.

You may not know how to go about this.  Few of you will have had Professors who spoke of practical applications for your knowlege. Few of you will have learned manual skills of any kind, except by accident. Even fewer will have learned the uses of unmediated experience.  Few of you when you learned of Shakespeare’s eglantine will have wondered what it smelled like, or sought to see and touch an Eglantine rose.  Few of you will have learned to identify the stars, not through a telescope, but through the naked eye, for pleasure or knowledge.  Mediated experience is the norm - mediated through electronics, through books, through teachers, through drugs.  Because you have only rarely known real leisure - even your play was work, because you have rarely known unstructured time, this transition to unmediated experience is likely to be shocking, scary, and painful.

The world is about to become radically less mediated.  The lures of hard work in the interest of a good job and a someday leisure are likely to become less attractive, when the work is dull, the respite never comes and the dream of affluence is lost.  The world is likely to require more people who can produce things, grow them, tend them, repair them.  The world is likely to require more community, more extended family, more going home and more staying there.

My suggestion, then, would be to seek out unmediated experiences.  Put a seed in some dirt, and watch it grow.  Harvest something and eat it.  Take a hammer and a nail and make something you need.  Ask a friend to help you, rather than hiring someone.  Share resources rather than purchasing anything.  Talk to someone rather than texting them.  Sit down with those you  love - family or friends, and talk about how you can make use of your new time, your new delight in life unmediated, your hopes for the future in ways that are imaginative and human - how could you work together.

You began your lives with a set of promises that are likely to be unfulfilled.  First, you were told to work hard, for an end that will not come.  Then you were told your future would operate through devices, that direct contact was not needed.  You were told that America was immune from dangers it now faces.  You were told that the skills you picked up by accident were less valuable than the ones that you paid dearly for.  All these things were wrong.  I wish I could offer you better than this, but better the truth today than later.

But here is the reward.  Instead of dreaming of someday leisure, you will be poorer longer, but you will have leisure sooner - enjoy it, use it, do good things with it.  Instead of dreaming of serving the global economy, you have a chance to serve you friends and neighbors and people you love in communities.  Instead of further and deeper levels of mediation, if you can get past the scariness of it, you have a chance the deep pleasures of unmediated contact with the world - with other people, with dirt, with tools, with animals, with life itself.  You may yet have a chance to free yourself from your wage slavery - as more and more people struggle with debts that they cannot pay, solutions must be found, and combining your energies with others in the same boat gives you the power to negotiate a decent future for yourself.

Most of all, the pleasure that comes with pain of this shift is this - you have now the chance to ask, for perhaps the first time in your whole history “what do I actually care about” and do it.  That is, it is very, very hard to live in the world and sort out one’s idealism from the place that the whole larger world has made for you.  It was given to you to be a cog in a larger economic machine.  But perhaps fortunately, the machine has broken, for most of you, your spot is no longer available.  And this is a kind of freedom that few older adults have ever had - yes, we came of age in a world of growth and affluence, but ask your baby boomer parents whether even their attempts to say no were ever fully heeded - they may have dropped out for a short while, but they were drawn back, the economy could not spare them. 

The world, the economy, the government, our industry, corporations, all of them are quite insistent that you are here for them.  But they have no place for you, no matter how loudly they declare that it remains true.  And in that is a kind of release - because if there is no place, you might begin to realize that you were never here for them, that you are not here to serve the economy, but perhaps your people, or your chosen place, or your chosen G-d, if you have one. 

And in the best sense, you are here to serve yourself.  By this I do not mean the endless chasing of pleasure, or living outside ethical guidelines.  I simply mean that you now have a small measure of choice - not the choice of whether you will be affluent or not, not whether you will live in a world of declining resources - but you can choose how you view the world you walk into.  You can choose what it means that you have this time, this chance, these seeds, this hope.  You can choose who and what you will serve and support.  It is not what you were promised, and for that, I am sorry - or maybe I’m not, because what you were promised wasn’t what it seemed.  But it is what you have, and you have it right now, with both hands, and that is something.  I wish for you that you hold on tight and go forward, in this new, this real world.


29 Responses to “As You Go Out Into the World…”

  1. edenzon 15 May 2009 at 12:13 pm

    While that is an excellent sentiment - I would definitely change the tone and some of the more dire specifics.

    Gov. Granholm of Michigan basically gave that speech at my husband’s graduation (minus the environmental bits) and it was very, very poorly received by both the students and their parents. She experienced a noticeable drop in popularity, and it was a very negative memory for a supposedly happy day. For the rest of their lives, whenever those graduates think of their ceremony they will not have happy reminisces.

    Your reader should also keep in mind that the parents are as much the intended audience as the graduates, and more inclined to complain to the school if they don’t like what they hear. As your reader is employed by this school, this is even more important than for a visiting speaker.

    So if your reader doesn’t want people hating them, I suggest a tone change. It is after all a celebration and there are plenty of hopeful things to focus on without losing the message.

    I suggest doing a little research in to the school in question and mentioning specific accomplishments, initiatives, organization and clubs that have started along the right path (not just the typical ‘green’ stuff) - this should be relatively easy since your reader is employed there.

    And start and end on the happier bits.

  2. Brian M.on 15 May 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Graduation day will be a happy occasion and happy memory for many, maybe even most, whether the Commencement speech is somber or not. I’ve sat through many graduation speeches now, and they are usually far more upbeat, but they are also usually by people who feel beholden to the institution. If your friend works there, he/she is beholden and needs to tow the “upbeat messages only” line. But if the institution invites a guest speaker with weaker ties, they can opt for honesty over sunshine. I took this as Sharon saying what SHE would say if invited, (which seems unlikely), not as advice on what the friend should say. Speaking truth usually has a price, but Sharon’s always been pretty willing to pay it.

  3. dogear6on 15 May 2009 at 12:56 pm

    The most significant speaker when my daughter graduated from college was the army general who commissioned the ROTC officers. He spoke, not to the military, but to young people who were getting ready to go out there into the world about how they could make a difference but that those differences would come with sacrifice (at that time, we were at war in Afghanistan & Iraq). It was an upbeat message of hope for the world and for those who were starting out in a new life.

    It was an interesting dynamic also, that I remembered his speech so well, while the politician (vote for me! vote for me!) and the school officials were just more of the same blah, blah, blah.

    I think Sharon’s points could be delivered in a way that sends out students with encouragement and hope. As edenz points out, it would meet the needs of the audience but the students and their parents would hear something worthwhile to take into the future.

  4. Sharonon 15 May 2009 at 2:52 pm

    These are my own words, not anyone else’s. I find it enormously unlikely I’ll ever be asked to do a commencement address, and don’t particularly want to, which is why I feel free to say what I actually think, not the kind of stuff that actually gets said at these things ;-). Not being a governor, I don’t particularly have to care if my popularity drops a few points, either, which is just as well.

    I have no doubt that my correspondent will say what she thinks, and what she thinks would be wise and productive. I’m sure it will be better than what I think, which is why they asked her.


  5. rheatheron 15 May 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I think your speech would have made me think-a little bit at least- at my high school graduation. Then I could have had a 20+ year heads up!

    At least I’ve been poor, so I’ve had to realize if I wanted it fixed I’d just better fix it myself. So I’ve got some useful skills…..

  6. Marcia Moiron 15 May 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Bravo!!!…Very important stuff that needs to be said and heard.

  7. rainmanon 15 May 2009 at 5:36 pm

    A friend recently sent me the following link:

    It is a commencement speech recently given by Paul Hawken, at the University of Portland. It is well worth the read, and although it contains some “hard news” it is framed as a challenge. I’m not a connoisseur of the form when it come to commencement speeches, but it seemed pretty motivational to me. I’d be interested in your views.

  8. Stephen B.on 15 May 2009 at 6:48 pm

    As usual Sharon, you have distilled the entire essence of what a lot of us have been thinking about our collective situation in this modern life into a very succinct essay and address to fit the occasion. I wouldn’t change a word.

    The sad part is that, despite all the negative economic and ecological developments our country has endured over the past 2+ years, and despite the rather obvious (to most of us) fact that it’s going to get a good deal worse, that kind of honest, frank, truth delivered in a commencement address simply cannot be heard and tolerated by most people yet and therein lies the problem with our society, namely its inability to face the fact that major change is on the horizon and must be dealt with by all of us soon. The fact that we’ve been living a lie and we’re supposed to face up to that fact now, makes a turnabout all the more impossible to contemplate for most folks.

    Anyhow, if you *do* deliver that speech, at least you can hope that the event coordinators put up some protective Plexiglas around the podium as the often do these days. I mean sitting there, what could the kids really have on them to throw at that point, beyond their Ipods or maybe their mortar boards? :-)

  9. zon 15 May 2009 at 8:13 pm

    There are actually a bunch of forms of debt that aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy. Not to be nitpicky, but I’m sure you’d want to know– student loans aren’t “the one” and the term is “discharged.” A bunch of different kinds of debt, such as child support, damages from drunk driving or other injuries to people, certain taxes, etc. are not dischargeable.

  10. Greg B.on 15 May 2009 at 8:22 pm

    As the father of a HS Junior who will begin to make “after high school” plans soon, this commencement addressbrings to front and center a predicament I have been struggling with.

    What to advise him to do, that he is likely to at least consider, that will still leave him some shared connection to the paths of his friends?

    How does a young adult step off the common path without becoming lost and alone?

  11. Pipon 15 May 2009 at 10:41 pm

    I just stumbled across your blog. You are brillliant. I have been building for a long time (and living) the life you are speaking of. There is no “disappointment” about it — it was not forced but intuited bit by bit. I did not wait for a so-called “downturn” to do it. It is working incredibly for me. I would not do otherwise. It is the integration of conscience and human scale in everything. I live close to extended family and work and exercise and connectedness with nature –very close — “hidden” in plain sight in a large city.

  12. John Andersenon 15 May 2009 at 11:05 pm

    My son is soon to be a high school junior. He will be attending Early College High School; a program at the community college paid for by the school district.

    Essentially what it means is his first two years of college get paid for.

    The main focus for him will be literacy and numeracy, i.e., writing, math, and foreign language.

    No matter what our future brings, literacy and numeracy will be essential.

  13. Chris Newtonon 15 May 2009 at 11:28 pm

    I read your post earlier today and had a chance to reflect on it after a conversation with an older friend later in the day. He is in his late sixties now and grew up farming in Saskatchewan.

    We were talking about raising chickens and he told me about the time recently that he walked around the corner of his chicken coop and spotted a coyote laying in wait. The coyote was so intent on watching the chicken coop that it did not notice him, so he left and went and got his rifle.

    Normally, he said, he would not kill a coyote, just scare it, but when it is that close to the livestock it is likely to come back so he took a shot at it. He said the distance was about a hundred feet and he fully expected to hit it. What he did not count on was the rifle sight being out of alignment from the rifle getting whacked around where it has been stored for years. The shot missed, the coyote looked at him, and then it wandered off. He never saw the coyote again, so he figures that he accomplished what he set out to do!

    He was indignant about missing the shot, saying that he had made shots like that his entire life. He then went on to describe how he re-sighted the rifle so he would not have the same problem next time.

    Two things struck me about this conversation; the matter of fact assumption that he was going to hit the coyote in the first place, and upon missing the shot the fact that he simply re-sighted his gun so he would not miss again. The skills that this person takes for granted (does not even think about) were common when he was growing up, and picked up casually as part of daily activity. Our mediated activity has led to a loss of these and many other skills, and I do not think we are learning remotely comparable skills today.

    This person is the most ‘unmediated’ person I know. He left school at grade eight (not uncommon at that time in a farming community) and he has never looked back. He has been a farmer, logger, sawmiller, heavy equipment operator …. the list goes on and on. Oftentimes when I talk to this person my initial reaction to his opinions is that he is over the top. On reflection I am often surprised that I agree with much of what he is saying. He grows his own wheat, barley and oats on 10 acres with no pesticides so I guess I would have to describe him as the most politically incorrect environmentalist I know (I believe he would be offended to be described as an environmentalist).

    This person has mentored me in more ways than I care to count. He has a solution to just about any problem, and is probably one of the most content people I have ever met. The sad thing is that so few people like this are around today. Today’s culture simply does not value the experiences that teach this kind of self-reliance.


  14. Ståleon 16 May 2009 at 1:45 am

    I recently read a very powerful commencement speech delivered by David Foster Wallace in 2005 (linked to from Ran Prieur’s website): http://web.archive.org

  15. ceridwenon 16 May 2009 at 2:12 am

    I see what you are saying. Personally - I would put a lot more positive slant on it though - as in reframing it as opportunities to relearn the old skills/develop a greater sense of “community” and so forth. If I were a parent/mentor of younger people - then I think the single most important thing I could do for them would be to ensure that they took every chance to learn the “old” skills.

    I think most younger people automatically come out with comments along the lines of wondering whether they will be able to ever retire for instance already. Being in a country with the shreds of a Welfare State (ie Britain) - I get rather angry with them for calmly accepting this - as we can see our employment pensions “heading down the river” - but we still have State Pensions and I think the fastest way for the State not to hand over that income come the time any more is for people to state calm/resigned acceptance that this is how it will be (thank goodness I’m about to retire in the next few years myself - as I would be very worried if I was in that generation that resignedly accepts that for themselves. Fortunately - my generation will carry on insisting that the State must still fulfil the Promise to pay our State pensions).

    It must be a lot more difficult in America than we have it here in Britain though - hence I know I couldnt live there myself.

  16. LisaFon 16 May 2009 at 3:48 am

    I read this as the “fantasy commencement speech” that clearly could not actually be given in most settings. An excellent “what if we could say what we really think” version of the form that crystallizes much of my thoughts in a new way. We have a two-year old and while I have no clue what the lay of the land will be in fifteen years, we are allowing him unfettered access to our life of growing food, teaching, cooking socializing and connecting with the people around us. At 13 months he was toddling around foraging all the goodies outside - uncannily only the edible ones:) I hope that augurs well for his future. If college is desirable and viable for him, fine. If not, double-fine.

  17. Brad K.on 16 May 2009 at 8:43 am


    A commencement exercise, like most “public” events, is about marketing - drumming up future classes, burnishing the image of the institution. For Universities, keeping the Alumni satisfied and supplying funds. Impressing this newest class of “alumni” with the value - and worthiness of donations - of the school.

    No one needs to be told they finished classes.

    No one needs more than receiving their credentials - if it is over a handshake in front of an audience or camera, it is certainly for the benefit of the handshaker.

    There can be no “spoiling” of the graduation address or experience. As long as the diploma is “signed” and valid, the rest if gravy for the school. Just look at how class books and pictures show profits for the school, by design, as well as class rings. And the other branded stuff in the bookstore. Graduation ceremonies are as blatantly commercial as college football. The euphoria of graduation will still manage to make the following parties memorable.

    Just look at the number of college sport teams being dropped when they don’t bring in enough revenue - so much for being “in the best interest” of those involved. And other extra-curricular activities - these are meant to draw additional funding to the school, directly or indirectly.


    About “what do I actually care about” and do it.

    I keep thinking about the elder-years blacksmiths, and various apprenticeships. I think there is an additional perspective.

    “What does my community need, that I could do?”

    Whether being a repairer and maintainer, a gardener, a librarian - or soldier, in this increasingly dangerous world - I expect that the old optimism of picking out what you want to do, and expecting to find or make a niche is also less likely today.

    Just as many unemployed today look for opportunities to be “underemployed” but employed, the future will have certain niches that a community will require, even though it might not be anyone’s dream to dig wells, clean septic systems, or service power systems. It might well be that a community has too few people to put on a play, or someone that intended to teach piano or recorder or clarinet.

    As localization proceeds, what the family and community need will likely take increasing precedent over individual choices.

    This happens today in smaller communities, and the fringes of “modern” corporate culture. We see an opportunity to open a junk store, a corner market. We see a car repair shop that needs another mechanic when we are looking for work. We see a need for another barber, a dressmaker, a store clerk. A tax attorney.

    Sometimes we see a need, sometimes an opportunity. What is changing is the ability to cast about to find that niche, that need, that opportunity that we prescribed for ourselves. I recall asking a recruiter to find me a programming job in 1984 “anywhere but Minneapolis” where I was working. Twenty five years ago that one was easy.

    Oh, and no one mentions to College Grads the fact that they will be unacceptable for many jobs. Many workforce supervisors will *not* hire a college grad. College teaches you to consider history, question assumptions. And this complicates most production tasks.

    A craftsman, though, can afford a bit of question, an insight into a task. Just not a craftsman in an assembly line.

    Your “address” sounds more like an elder’s address to the family, than something a college would want to sponsor. And it does need saying.

    Thank you.

  18. rainbirdon 16 May 2009 at 11:26 am

    Five years ago, I was just finishing up my Associates degree (along with ~$9000 in student loans), and I was already well on my way towards earning a Bachelors. That was when I first learned of peak oil.

    After a few months of research (and soul-searching), I dropped out of school and immediately entered the work force, to earn whatever I could with my Associates degree, while it still had some value. I’ve never questioned or doubted that decision; on the contrary, I think it was the best move of my life.

    Since then, I’ve spent most of my free time learning self-sufficiency and practical, “homestead-y” skills like gardening, doing maintenance on my car, and raising and butchering rabbits for meat. I’ve also spent that time paying down my various debts as fast as humanly possible.

    Sharon’s commencement speech would serve students much better at the beginning of college, rather than the end of it … but better late than never. Some percentage of students would actually get the message.

  19. Bevon 16 May 2009 at 12:41 pm

    This address should be given to kids exiting elementary school, not college when it’s too late. Sadly though (and as evidenced by some of the comments here), since we live in a culture where a positive spin is necessary for a message to be heard, kids will have to wait until they’re adults to learn the brutal truth.

    It’s very difficult to operate from a different set of assumptions than everyone else, and even your own self a few years ago. But we’ve only had the luxury of certainty for a couple of generations. My recent ancestors in Europe who lived through 2 world wars and a depression never had anyone tell them that anything they did by the age of 22 would guarantee them a prosperous future - because it wasn’t true. And it isn’t true now.

    Better to teach our kids to take pleasure in the ordinary and the now. But that wouldn’t benefit an economy based on striving and wanting.

  20. Cloud Shadowon 16 May 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I just read your posting and wanted you to have a comment from someone who is not in your educated elitist sphere.
    Look around you for a moment and think,how many of the products and services that you use every day are made or done by the ‘uneducated’.The workers in factories that day after day produce products that you use but are only mentioned as a statistic in the evening news when whole segments are devoted to the poor college grads that has to settle for a job that pays so little(even if it is more than I make).
    The education system in his country is designed to teach the exploition of the underclass (read as uneducated), it is the ticket into a mentality that tells them that thay are superior to those beasts in human form that work(to them that is a four letter word)so I can succeed. Untill such time as these educated ones can break thru there trained arrogance can they truley become useful,I have met some so there is hope.
    Hope is all we really have in these comming hard times, hope that thru cooperation insted of competition we can create better society. (hopefuly based on Micah 6:8)

    Have you ever read a book called Outliers,by Malcom Gladwell you might find it interesting


  21. NMon 16 May 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I found it lovely and moving.
    What favor do we do our children when we refuse to tell them the truth, because it isn’t “positive?”

  22. Lizon 16 May 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Sharon, What a wonderfully thoughtful and insightful essay. Wish you WERE the person giving the commencement address but I am quite sure that the content would disbar you !

    I feel sorry for all those young people who are now massively in debt for their college tuition.

  23. Elaineon 16 May 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Dear Sharon,

    This is a great piece of work. It was honest though hard-hitting and spoke with heartaching pain. The pain comes from the lies that were spoken through our school daze. Your eloquence speaking about their futures and what wonderful lives lie ahead of them is real. None of us knows how long that will be, but all we’ve ever had is right now. Right now they have great opportunities to make the difference in everyone else’s life including their own. We Baby Boomers will never be given back all the years worked toward a retirement that is nothing what we expected it to be. Thank you for the honesty spoken, sometimes it hurts.

  24. Ron Numberon 17 May 2009 at 4:46 am

    But I do find this address positive!

    I can remember my final days at university and being no longer able to ignore the crushing inevitability that I would spend the next 40 years of my life as a cog in a machine; the fact that I would never again have as much as a week clear to pursue some hobby or interest, or to simply contemplate life, never mind the 6 or 12 weeks I had recently enjoyed. This commencement address would have cheered me up; made me realise that I was not alone; given me something to live for.

    Remarkable things are happening at the moment: here in the UK we have a scandal developing which is probably unreported in the rest of the world but, unbelievably, is being talked about as threatening the entire UK parliamentary system. Our representatives, in lieu of salary increases - which would have been unacceptable to the public - instead introduced a system of allowances to ‘top up’ their salaries some years ago. The details of their claims were never meant to be made public but someone has leaked them. The British people are extremely angry; representatives are resigning or being sacked; an election is being demanded with many people indicating they will vote for radical new parties. That this coincides with the ‘economic downturn’ means that this is the closest the UK may have come to ‘revolution’ for a long time.

  25. John Andersenon 17 May 2009 at 7:28 am

    One more comment.

    This is so good, we read it aloud last night together as a family, stopping to discuss important points along the way.

    Both of my children (ages 19 and 16) are fully on board with these concepts, and are preparing for the unprecedented freedom from the machine they will experience.

    Sharon, thanks for putting it all out there in plain language.

    It’s essays like yours which underscore the point that the real meat out there to think about is not in the mainstream media, but rather in thoughtful blogs online.

  26. Johnon 17 May 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Don’t ever tell Americans the truth. Don’t ever tell them reality is going to be grimmer rather than rosier. Truth isn’t what counts; popularity, good feelings and memories, are what count. If you want Americans to turn on you, tell them the truth. Mentally, the American public isn’t well equipped to face true adversity. They are “optimists,” “positive thinkers.” We now have generations of spoon-fed, tv-addicted, bread-and-circuses, potato-chip munching, thoroughly narcissistic, entitled people.

  27. g andersonon 18 May 2009 at 12:51 am

    It is as if the students were in prison and Sharon came along with the key and unlocked the door
    Why can’t people recognize upbeat when it is staring them in the face.

  28. Teartayeon 18 May 2009 at 11:02 am

    I have to say, this speech makes me very glad of two things:
    1) That I’m a “starving” student and have had lots of practice with doing without
    2) That I have no debts. I don’t even owe my best friend/mom/grandparents/fiance/etc. $20, let alone owe a university 20k

    What makes me sad, however, is that I’ve always wanted to be a farmer… And “everyone” made sure I knew that was unrealistic. And now that I’m “grown up” it’s not only realistic, but desperately needed (give it a couple years!).

    At least I have a huge garden to putter around in this year. My dad broke his hip and can’t work (much) on their garden so I took over =).

  29. dogear6on 18 May 2009 at 11:37 am

    For those who wrote in here about introducing their children to it and / or getting them on board, sometimes the seeds you sow don’t come back for a long time. Cooking from scratch, gardening, preserving food, fixing your own house up, all came back after our daugher started her own household. She calls with questions as she doesn’t remember everything she did with us as a child, but she doesn’t need much more than a few answers from us to remember it.

    Her Dad and I were amazed at the change, considering how hard she fought us on all of this when growing up.

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