By Charlotte Allen
Now that commencement speakers have finished their work, what messages did they dispense to the class of 2012, graduating into the worst economy since the Great Depression? Mostly generic words of anodyne idealism: "Live your dream," "go change the world"--conventional bromides that graduating classes have heard since college life began. Few speakers gave the new graduates advice that they actually could use in the current dismal job market: don't hold out for that ideal job--take the best one you can find and get to work; remember, paying work of any kind has much to teach you, about managing your time, getting along with difficult bosses and customers, and learning by observing management how to run a business. But most speakers fell back on clichés, and some told the Class of 2012 that it ought to disdain the world of private enterprise altogether--the most abysmal advice that a new college graduate could hear in this economy.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's convocation address at Cornell:
To expand knowledge, we need great teachers in our public schools, who can prepare the next generation for the global economy. And we need talented researchers in our labs, who can develop new ways of attacking disease, advancing agriculture and understanding the universe. To expand our infrastructure, we need scientists who can pioneer new forms of clean energy and engineers who can build the power grids - along with the bridges, tunnels and high-speed trains - that we need in order to remain the world's strongest economy. To expand our freedom, we need soldiers who will fight to protect us from tyrants and terrorists abroad and leaders here at home who will stand up for equal rights for all people, including -- I believe -- the right to love and marry whomever you wish.
All well and good (although note the political plugs for high-speed rail and gay marriage), but nowhere did Bloomberg suggest that we also "need" people who can create the enterprises--as he did--that will produce the profits and the genuinely productive jobs to pay for all those teachers, scientists, soldiers and political leaders.
No More Fat Paychecks
Michelle Obama, speaking at Oregon State University's commencement on June 17, expressed disdain for the business world. She belittled the "fat paychecks" she had collected from the Chicago corporate-law firm where she worked before quitting to take a job in the mayor's office at a lower salary. "I didn't want to be up in some tall office building writing legal memos. I wanted to be down on the ground helping the folks I grew up with." She had covered that same ground a few weeks earlier, in a May 12 commencement speech at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute: "I left that fancy law firm, and I wound up ultimately running a non-profit organization that trained young people for careers in public service."
Even more pointed was the May 14 commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania given by Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. Canada's speech was downright confrontational, pitting his nonprofit operation against the "1 percent" of corporate America. "Our team, the one that rallies us around the common good, that emphasizes self-sacrifice and altruism, is losing. Their team, the team that says "every man for himself," that makes us turn our back on the poor, feel no empathy, that feeds off of our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our personal demons and prejudices, is winning....The other team offers you money, power, luxury cars, vacation homes and stock options. Our team offers you challenge and struggle, a rich intellectual life, honesty as a guiding beacon and a good night's sleep." In other words, shun the business world. The "other team," that Canada presented in caricature, is the one that creates the wealth supporting efforts like the Harlem Children's Zone.
Recommending Rousseau's 'Noble Savage'
As if Canada's harsh put-down of the private sector weren't enough, Penn's graduating seniors the day before had heard from Nipun Mehta, founder of yet another nonprofit, Service Space, which coordinates volunteer efforts to provide technical support for charities. Mehta's baccalaureate address similarly encouraged Penn graduates to forsake the corporate rat race. He talked of a three-month walking trip he and his wife had made in 2005 through rural India, whose peasants Mehta described with a romanticism worthy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "Their entire mental model is different--the multiplication of wants is replaced by the basic fulfillment of human needs. When you are no longer preoccupied with asking for more and more stuff; then you just take what is given and give what is taken. Life is simple again." Taking three months off to indulge in self-discovery tourism by feeling at one with poor people in the Third World might have been passable advice in 2005, when the U.S. economy was riding a housing-fueled economic crest. With reference to the class of 2012, staggering under student-debt loads that could prove impossible to repay, Mehta's enthusiasm for the "simple" life of the dirt-poor seemed almost comically out of whack.
The theme that "public service"--defined as just about anything except being an entrepreneur or working for one--was the only morally acceptable career for this year's graduating classes resonated through many other commencement speeches. Susan B. Rice, permanent U.S. representative to the U.N., summed the sentiment succinctly in her commencement speech at Ohio State University: "I always bet on America. That's why I'm in public service--because America will always be the indispensable nation in world affairs, and because there is nothing we cannot achieve when we come together in common purpose."
Your Graduation Is 'Perfectly Timed'
Addressing graduating seniors at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Dylan Ratigan, lately a financial analyst for MSNBC, said: "It doesn't matter if you're an environmentalist or a history buff, a political science major or a law student - a musician, an author, a thespian or an animator --your arrival into this world is perfectly timed." In Ratigan's catalogue of artistic, intellectual, and ecologically sensitive professions, there seemed to be no room even for the founder of a Silicon Valley start-up.
The closest that President Obama came, in his speech at Barnard College's commencement exercises on May 14, even to recognizing the existence of a private sector, was to pay homage to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, in which Congress made it easier for women to sue their corporate employers in cases of alleged pay discrimination.
Other commencement speakers refrained from business-bashing and resisted the temptation to extol taking a government job, working at a nonprofit, or leading the artistic life as the ethically correct course for the Class of 2012. But their speeches turned out to be, well, dull. "Don't walk around here like you hit a triple; you were born on third base," Newark Mayor Cory Booker told graduating seniors at Bard College on May 26. On June 17 Cory told graduating seniors at Stanford, "Take the more difficult road in life."
General Motors chairman Dan Akerson, speaking at Columbia Business School's commencement on May 13, said, "I urge you to put your country's interests above your own. Get involved in your community. Serve your fellow citizen. Bring your intellectual firepower, your ambition, and your energy to making America the country we know it can be." Fair enough, but can't the chairman of General Motors bring himself to mention what the private sector does?
An Undelivered Speech That Made a Point
There was nothing inherently wrong with that sort of counsel, and certainly those who handed it out possessed the authority of genuine accomplishments. But the Class of 2012, graduating into economic uncertainty and perhaps loaded with loans, at a time when the very value of a college degree has become questionable, needed more. Furthermore, they didn't need to be told that the private business sector, the engine of wealth and productive job-creation, is either ethically suspect or ethically irrelevant.
One of the most pertinent commencement talks of the season was never actually given. In what he called "the graduation speech your kids need to hear but probably won't," syndicated business columnist Cliff Ennico wrote: "[B]efore you can realize your dreams, you are all going to have to figure out a way to make a living and support yourself, maybe a spouse and children, and maybe your aging Baby Boomer parents who never saved anything for retirement or nursing home bills. I don't have to tell you that it has never been harder in America to do that." Ennico counseled: "if you don't already have a job, get out there and get working....While you are doing this, look for opportunities. What emerging new industries and technologies will dominate the American economy, what services will be in demand in the next five, 10, 15, and 20 years? Position yourself for the future, not the past. Forget about traditional jobs, even lucrative ones, that will eventually be eclipsed by technology and an evolving digital world."
Indeed, a few commencement speakers did give versions of that very speech that Ennico had outlined. At the University of California Berkeley's graduation ceremonies on May 12, Eric Schmidt, the founder of Google, said, "Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of a new economy, and a more prosperous society, the engine that keeps communities growing. Two-thirds of the new jobs created are in small businesses, and you all should try now to create a small business... or be part of one." Another speaker, the economist and columnist Walter Williams, addressing graduating seniors at Grove City College in Pennsylvania on May 19, reminded his listeners that, contrary to common wisdom, the free market was not just "tall office buildings" and an engine for alienation. Williams titled his speech "The Morality of Capitalism." He carefully explained how the free exchange of goods and services in the private sector has generated the unique prosperity of the West--a prosperity that is now threatened by a ballooning and intrusive welfare state. "The great problems that confront our nation have their roots in morality where we've asked government to commit immoral and unconstitutional acts," Williams said. "We don't have many years to turn it around so that today's young people can live in and bequeath to their children the robust nation that was bequeathed to us by our grandparents."
That was something useful to the Class of 2012.