David J. Steinberg, President, Long Island University
(last commencement as president, retiring July 1, 2013)
Commencement Address - May 16, 2013
Over the past five years there has been a constant barrage of press and media attacks on the value of a college degree. These attacks have challenged the long-held belief in America that college was the gateway to a good job and a successful life. The argument rests on the notion of a return on investment. It asks whether it is worth assuming so much debt when job prospects look so glum? It asks do you need college to achieve upward mobility? To find a good life? Middle class status?
Are you guys chumps for showing true grit, for graduating today after such sacrifices? The pundits on TV and in the press seem to suggest "yes;" you and your generation who are graduating into the "Great Recession" will be downwardly mobile, trapped, living at home, saddled with endless debt and unable to achieve the American Dream dating back to World War II that offered upward mobility and hope for generation after generation.
This argument is flat wrong in my view for two critically important reasons. The first is economic. The sky is not falling, you are not suckers, and your peers who dropped out or never started are ensnared in dead-end jobs, with less earning capacity and greater the risk of being downwardly mobile.
A week ago The New York Times ran a lead story in its business section buttressing my assertion. It began with that familiar question: "Is College worth it?"
The reporter, Catherine Rampell, citing a recent Labor Department study, wrote "…the evidence suggests college graduates suffered through the recession and lack-luster recovery with remarkable resilience. The unemployment rate for college graduates in April was a mere 3.9 percent compared with 7.5 percent for the work force as a whole …"
But her rebuttal of this very common but wrong-headed opinion misses the more important reason why your college or advanced degree is so critical to your future life. To monetize your education is to miss the deep structural value of your educational experience. It assesses the value of your time at LIU, the return on investment, using a broken scale, a distorted yardstick. To me, at least, what really matters is whether or not you have become a thinking man or woman. It is that pursuit which makes today so special at Barclay Center and at every other graduation across the Republic.
What I am asserting is deeply embedded in the notion of a humane education. "The great end and real purpose" of college is to acquire an analytical capacity to reason and to know right from wrong. It is to learn how to value and to understand our culture and those of different places and times. It is to seek out that which is beautiful – to come to appreciate art, music, dance, math, the life and physical sciences and all the myriad literacies of our modern society and to respect them. It is to achieve verbal fluency and to be able to articulate your ideas coherently and precisely. To become educated means to know yourself, weaknesses and strengths both. It means to challenge accepted ideas and to form your own.
It may mean to challenge your faith, and hopefully to gain it back, strengthened. It demands you to wrestle with evil. It means, in sum, to become mature.
Of course, every University's task is also to provide you with an effective, useful education, one that prepares you for a profession, a career, a good job and for a better life. LIU has always understood that. Nonetheless, your education is far more than amassing technical skills or career fluency. If we have done our job and if you have met us half way, you are different now than when you arrived. A skilled faculty has sought to inculcate self-discovery so that like the ancient Ulysses you will "follow knowledge like a sinking star…"
Your degree empowers you in ways that can and will transform your life, and, I might add, can never be taken from you, irrespective of your employment status or conventional definitions of success. Thus, your education is far more than an earnings projection. Eating from the tree of the knowledge, an act that separates good from evil, has always carried high risk. As Adam and Eve discovered, they were suddenly naked and experienced human vulnerability and frailty for the first time. Their symbolic banishment from Eden is your discovery that this world can be a cold, harsh place. Your life-long search for self-awareness inevitably floats free from jobs and money and career success. That Biblical fruit is in sharp contradistinction to the current global (and patent-protected) icon of one of America's largest corporations, Apple.
Its stylized bitten apple logo is recognized everywhere. Like you, I love my iPhone 5, but its wizardry and gazillion apps can never substitute for your personal journey of self-discovery which comes, in its own way, with a lifetime guarantee. This journey has little to do with whether you get a job immediately or not, whether or not you are able to move out of your folks' home.
I am not suggesting that the next months or years will be easy. They probably will not be. But life is never easy for any generation. Your degree is like a key in your pocket. It opens a remarkable toolkit, one always at your disposal to help you deal with the joys and disappointments you inevitably will face across a lifetime. And many of these have nothing to do with jobs or career or money, but, instead, may be related to marriage and children and loneliness and illness.
Moreover this priceless toolkit is something you cannot buy whatever your wealth. The trick of living a full and rewarding life is to keep that educational toolkit open and to have easy familiarity with knowledge, beauty, solace and wisdom stored inside.
Let me end this little homily, as I have now for more than a quarter century, by quoting that great galactic philosopher you know as Yoda: "May the force be with you."