David J. Steinberg, President, Long Island University
(last commencement as president, retiring July 1, 2013)
Commencement Address - May 10, 2013
Class of 2013, congratulations! Each of you has had to overcome many obstacles to be here today and collectively you richly deserve the applause of faculty, family and friends. And while your loved ones may be singing Hosannas because you made it through college or graduate school, you and they both understand that you now face a new set of challenges. Most of you are entering this new chapter of life with too much debt. Many have an existential panic about finding a job or being able to move out of your parent’s home. If you are a graduate student, you wonder when you will have enough money to marry, or to start a family.
One thing is clear: you are entering adulthood at a very difficult time. I am sure many of you must wonder if the struggle to earn this degree has been worth the climb.
Conventional wisdom in the national press over the last few years suggests that a college education is not worth its cost. Almost daily one reads one story or another suggesting that return on your investment will be a poor one. But be careful about buying too quickly into this Jeremiad. On May 4th The New York Times ran a lead story in its business section that began with that familiar question: “Is College worth it?”
It went on, “given the growing price tag and the frequent anecdotes about jobless graduates stuck in their parents’ basements, many have started to question the value of a college degree.” And yet the reporter, Catherine Rampell, offers a compelling counter argument. She writes “…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, according to a Labor Department report …. Even when the jobless rate for college graduates was at its very worst in this business cycle, in November 2010;” she noted “it was still just 5.1 percent….
Among all segments of workers sorted by educational attainment, college graduates are the only group that has more people employed today than when the recession started.”
But Rampell’s counter argument also misses the real reason why a college or advanced degree is so critical to your future life. To monetize your education is to miss the essence of your educational experience. It is to assess the value of your time here on a broken scale, a distorted yardstick. What really matters is whether or not you have become a thinking man or woman. It is that pursuit which makes today so special here and at every other university.
What I am suggesting is deeply embedded in the notion of a humane education, which is at the very foundation of our culture. “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 ages and times. It is to seek out that which is beautiful -- to appreciate art, music, dance, math, the life and physical sciences and all other literacies. It is to achieve a 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 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 life. 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. 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 suddenly became aware of their nakedness and knew vulnerability 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 careers. 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 may not be. But life is never easy either. The degree is like a key in your pocket. It can open a remarkable toolkit, one always at your disposal to help you deal with the joys and disappointments you will face in living.
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, and wisdom stored inside.
I 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.”