In the company of everyone, I’ve been listening to Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the Stanford graduating class of 2005. Against the background of our humming anxiety about whether students are going to stop paying for their education and hang out auditing our open content for free, his story of learning calligraphy as a freelancing, freeloading, highly engaged college drop-out is full of institutional terror and promise. What if everyone does this?
Given today’s understandable emphasis on his thoughts on love and death and risk and creative professional passion, Jobs’ careful account of the context of his adoptive family story for his college drop-out decision is easy to miss. But as I’m also a one-time college drop-out, this question of how students’ decisions are framed by family hopes and aspirations seems important to me. I know that it’s far harder for students to front up to their families to explain a change of direction than it is for them to quietly stop coming to our classes.
So as we crank open the jaws of higher education to take in more and more students to achieve miraculous levels of degree qualification by 2025, or whatever our target horizon might be, we need to think about what it means that we’re also ratcheting up the proportion of the overall cohort who are the children of those for whom university education was a remote prospect. It’s an understatement to say that they show up with baggage.
When they arrive, we do very little to help them explain to us whose hopes they bring to their enrolment, or the ambivalence they might feel about these hopes. They all want to convert this ambivalence into success, for sure, but at least part of the time they also want to flee. We give them very little time to talk about this because we’re so busy trying to ensure they don’t show up on our attrition data, and we’re pumping funding into programs that secure their
loyalty transition so that we can instead shuttle them into our completion data. Under the regulatory circumstances in which the human story of attrition has been warped into institutional performance data, we find it hard to speak of the fact that systemic underpreparedness or poor personal timing might mean that we should be supporting them to transition out, even for a while.
Eventually I went back to college, and the rest is you-know-what, and here we are. But if I had attended my own graduation, I’d have wanted to hear the future mapped out with the bracing clarity of the other haunting commencement speech from 2005, David Foster Wallace talking to the graduating class at Kenyon College, three years before his death.
David Foster Wallace tells a far tougher story than Steve Jobs. Instead of offering inspiring accounts of his capacity to pluck success from failure by being creative, authentic and bold, as Jobs does, he tells them about the “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” of adult life. In a long story about how it might be possible to handle the flow of ordinary life—in the supermarket, in traffic—with imagination and compassion towards others, rather than exhausted pent-up rage, he suggests a way of thinking about the value of an arts education as an enhanced capacity for choosing what to think about:
Twenty years after my own graduation I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea. Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because if you cannot exercise this kind of control in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
So it’s not quite the same as “stay hungry”, if that’s the kind of thing you want to hear. But David Foster Wallace’s gentle closing wish that we should all have “way more than luck” is the one that works for me.