By Korey D. Maas, June 26, 2012 in What is Education?
Essays and exams have been marked, final grades submitted, and graduations endured. Now begin the post-commencement rituals of college professors: revising lectures and syllabi, reading through a semester’s worth of neglected journals, reacquainting oneself with the half-finished manuscript that was due on an editor’s desk four months ago.
And, in light of that recently endured graduation, asking oneself—at least half seriously—is any of it worth it?
Because after another year during which you (and, one hopes, your colleagues) sought faithfully to fulfill your high calling of initiating young charges into the life of the mind; during which you struggled mightily to impress upon another generation the truly liberating nature of the liberal arts; during which you consistently and eloquently challenged them not only to know but to love the true, the good, and the beautiful—you have again been confronted with the spectacle of the modern American college graduation and what appears overwhelming evidence that it was all for naught.
It would be all too easy to slide into a curmudgeonly snootiness here, to lament, for example, that the orchestra’s attempt to advertise and establish a certain solemnity was doomed to immediate failure, “Pomp and Circumstance” yet again being overawed by air-horns and vuvuzelas. Or to grouse about so many students, at a ceremony otherwise so invested with traditions and formalities, making embarrassingly feeble attempts to demonstrate their contrarian bona fides: “Hey, look, I’m wearing shorts and flip-flops under this gown—and sunglasses, indoors!” “I’ve snuck in a beach ball!”
As grating as such Philistinism can be, however, and as much as it inclines me toward muttering (in my own Philistine way), “it’s not all about you,” I remain aware that this day and this ceremony are indeed, in many and important respects, “about them.” They, after all, are the graduates, they are the ones upon whom degrees are being conferred, the ones being recognized and honored for their academic achievement. So I can’t (or, at least, I don’t want to) begrudge them their youthful enthusiasm. And despite being convinced of its inherent tackiness, I can still find something charming in the co-ed’s mortarboard festooned with sequins to read, “Thanks, Dad.” It’s a small but sweet gesture of recognition that the accomplishment here celebrated was made possible only with the assistance of others.
But what, exactly, is this accomplishment being celebrated? Or rather, in what manner do the accomplished themselves understand it? The procession of each graduate individually across the stage to receive his or her diploma offers, perhaps, one uncomfortably revealing answer. Fewer and fewer approach provost or president with what might be called dignity, humility, or even composure, or take in hand their diplomas with what might be recognized as appreciation. Instead, more and more swagger, strut, or dance across stage, receiving diplomas with one hand and pumping the air with the fist of the other (pausing occasionally to raise both hands high, as if beckoning more applause).
One of my colleagues has recently taken to suggesting that modern America’s lowest-common-denominator culture makes it increasingly difficult to communicate to a broad audience unless one does so in the metaphors of sport. And it’s difficult not to see this at least partially borne out in the antics of so many graduates. The strutters and the fist-pumpers resemble nothing so much as wide receivers spiking balls in the end zone or power forwards thumping their chests after contested slam dunks.
But suspecting that I have indeed fallen into mere curmudgeonly snootiness, one might ask, why should they not? Each gesture expresses celebration of a real accomplishment, an accomplishment made possible only after much time, effort, and personal sacrifice, an achievement worth celebrating precisely because it is not attainable by many. And yet for all such similarities, the athlete’s gesture is not merely a celebratory expression of achievement. It speaks not so much to those with whom one celebrates—to teammates, for example, or fans—as it does to one’s opponents. It is, and is intended to be, an expression of defiance, even conquest. “You thought you could tackle me? Hah!” it says; “You think you can keep me from the hoop? Think again, chump.”
This facile imposition of the athletic on the academic raises troubling questions about how our graduates—even after four (or five, or six) years in our tutelage—continue to view their accomplishment, and the whole of the academic enterprise more generally. Disappearing seems to be any recognition of the college as a collegium, a place for the shared pursuit of a common goal. This spirit of cooperation, of collegiality, is instead displaced by that of competition, the college reduced to a place of contest, a realm in which one “wins” only by ultimately defeating an opponent.
So just whom, or what, might that be? No longer oneself or one’s own ignorance, it seems. Not likely even one’s peers, GPAs, for example, not being announced with a graduate’s name. It might be too depressing to suppose that the professors themselves are those perceived as having been “defeated” (though rampant plagiarism in the American academy suggests that many students do view their professors at least as adversaries to be duped or outwitted); but it is no more comforting to contemplate the plausible alternative.
It’s hard not to suspect that in a very real—though perhaps not fully understood, clearly articulated, or even consciously intended—way, the fist-pumps and moon-walks announce that one has beaten the “game” itself. Engagement of and in the Great Conversation was successfully evaded long enough to run down the clock. “After four (or five, or six) years,” the swagger seems to say, “I remain unbloodied, unbowed, unchanged: I win.”
And, alas, on those terms more and more young American graduates do seem to be winning.