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The Problem is Not With the Graduates (Beware of the Sirens)

Commencement season is upon us, which means that the "You're not special" book, authored by the son and namesake of historian David McCullough (son who probably would never have been asked to deliver any Commencement speech if he hadn't had such an illustrious father) is once again gracing the displays at most bookstores. It's apparently not a popular book, although I suppose it is more popular with the buyers than with the intended recipients of the book. I once read somewhere that TV series about high school aren't aimed at high school students but people whose high school years weren't as happy or successful as they had hoped, and I suppose a lot of the Commencement literature at Barnes & Noble is really aimed at older adults who wish they'd been given better advice when they graduated. 

It seems like people love to complain about Millenials' entitlement these days. I've had many Millenials in my classes, both at Lehigh and at SMU, and they all cared about learning material that would help them distinguish themselves in the workforce. That was our unspoken contract, at least in an engineering college: I'm going to do my best to teach you things that will help you set you apart once you're in the workforce, and you'll do your best answering my homework problems. I've never found my students entitled, and by now we're talking about several hundreds of undergraduates and Master's students. 

But I also moved to Dallas last summer and it didn't take me long to realize there were plenty of entitled young adults in the world (at least in the U.S.) In Uptown Dallas, you see (which is a feeder for the University Park neighborhood where SMU is located, with an excellent public school system separate from the Dallas schools), the dream of just about every 25-year-old native Dallasite seems to find a man who will earn a good living so that she can spend her life getting blowouts and manicures. Those 25-year-olds are the Americans non-Americans think about when they imagine Americans to be shallow and self-centered. I also attend public events at SMU where the local community (meaning University Park, for the most part, but with views expressed by elderly people who are more thoughtful and eloquent than average, and very outspoken American patriots) spoke powerfully about the sort of America they wanted to live in, which is not aligned with the degradation of civil discourse we have observed under President Trump. Dallas might be a conservative city (although that's open to debate), but it knows what it stands for, and degradation of women and immigrants isn't part of the plan.  

The problem, I think, is really with the 25-year-olds. At the "100 days of the Trump presidency" event, the audience (largely elderly, except for a few outliers like me) came out quite vocally in favor of a principled America whose President shows profound respect for the office. I was surprised audience members were not more willing to rubber-stamp  all the policies coming out of the Oval Office at the moment. If it doesn't happen in Dallas, in which big city is it going to happen? But the elderly people in Dallas show respect and have manners. The 25-year-olds behave as if they are owed success or (for the women) at least a good husband impressed by the beauty of their curls, courtesy of the local hair salon. 

I could go on the topic forever, but to keep the post of manageable length, I'll stick to the 25-year-olds in Dallas, who once were 20-year-olds, probably at SMU, where they were thoughtful and kind and held the door open for their professors with an assiduity I've never found elsewhere. The problem, as I see it, is really with what happens after graduation, when young adults slip away from the mentoring of their parents and teachers old enough to be their parents, and focus on impressing their friends with non-existing job status or prestige. Young adults don't want to wait to come up through the ranks anymore because their friends boast fancy titles, whether deserved or not, and they want the same. They become very shallow individuals, living in apartments co-signed by their parents so that they can impress their friends, driving leased cars so that they can show off in front of their fellow drivers. Maybe they were shallow all along, I don't kn0w - I suppose the most likely victims were the people who were most susceptible to it, the ones worried about not wearing the right clothes, not getting the right job offer.

Many young adults these days don't really want to feel successful. They do when they graduate from college, but it doesn't last long. Many young adults these days, in fact, want to feel envied. That's what happens when they lose the connection with their elders (parents, teachers and mentors) and focus only on the other young adults around them. And I don't think it's an issue with the students politely listening to graduation speeches, although it is always entertaining to listen to people who haven't accomplished anything in life debate about the worthiness of this or that Commencement speaker, when the school has to deviate from household names. (This is not the case at SMU's Commencement this year. The NIH Director will deliver the address. This is not a read on SMU specifically. SMU, in fact, has gone out of its way to instill a strong sense of ethics into its graduates.)

So what message is appropriate for most graduates, knowing how their peers turned out when they were just a little older? Beware of the sirens. That will perhaps be the title of my book, if I write a book about this. They don't want to wait anymore. They don't want to learn in the shadows. But sometimes the siren song of who they (we?) hope they are meant to become does them more harm than good. It's as if 25-year-olds had been told too often they should behave "as if" (meaning: as if they'd already become successful), and then they wonder why they seem so offputting to everyone. Although perhaps they are not off putting to the native Dallasites, since that's how they've been conditioned to be.

But if I were to offer some words of advice to the graduates, I would say: keep track of how you are behaving. Make sure you're not annoying the person you mean to impress. Anyone with a bit of experience in the workforce has learned to distinguish the "real deal" from the hot air. You can curl your hair just right and sport a designer's brand of aviator sunglasses, but that still doesn't mean you're going to get the life you want - even if your daddy threatens to sue the awful people who don't do your bidding.

And the real problem is why so many parents in America these days feel the need to live vicariously through their children - why their life wasn't enough, why they need to see their kids' lives as an extension of their own to feel vindicated - but that has no place in Commencement speeches.         

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