Everyone gets a little wiser during Commencement week. In economic terms, the world experiences something like a wisdom bubble. Advice that, in normal market conditions, has roughly the worth of Confederate currency, or zucchini—“Don’t be afraid to fail!” “The world has never been more complex and interrelated!” “Wear sunscreen!”—becomes inflated with inspirational and nutritional value. The moral economy produces a glut of sensible sayings. Gravitas is all around. Some people are even able to exchange it for honorary degrees. By June, though, you can’t give the stuff away.
Professors are sometimes imagined to be persons engaged in the wisdom supply business, and we are therefore often called upon to meet this urgent but temporally circumscribed demand. Some professors require less inducement than others to disburse the needed commodity.
I’ve always been suspicious of the belief that professors possess greater wisdom about life than doormen or airplane pilots do. What makes people assume this? Maybe it’s because we give grades, and pilots and doormen don’t.
However, we do know something about education, most of us having spent, since approximately age three, our entire lives in the business, either on the consumption or the production end. And one thing we know about education is that it teaches us how little we know, and how little we will ever know. Graduating seniors: Take one last look at the Courses of Instruction. There are 8,000 courses listed in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Most of you took 32. Meaning that there are 7,968 you will never take. Even if, say, three quarters of those courses are too advanced or esoteric for you, you still left hundreds of courses on the table.
Education is about empowerment and skilling and confidence building and all those robust good things. But it’s also about learning that you, by yourself, are not all that supersmart and omnicompetent. College is the place where this humbling is supposed to happen. High school hot shots are like philosophers in the days before the Scientific Revolution: 4.0s in everything. Four years later, those same people discover that they are the assistant sous chefs in the kitchen of knowledge, quite good at shredding the carrots, but not much else. As long as the world continues to want high-IQ carrot shredders, they will do fine. But they will never be asked to poach the plums.
The reason professors know all about this kind of humility is because as the graduating senior is to the Courses of Instruction, we professors are to our own disciplines. Universities produce specialists (that’s what Ph.D. programs are for) and they reward specialization (that’s what tenure is about). And the more specialized we become, the less we know of what the specialist next door knows, even if the specialist is in the same department.
Universities operate this way on the principle of the division of labor. You get a better product if you use the best-trained expert to make each component, like in an automobile assembly line. Of course, at the end of the automobile assembly line, there is a car. At the end of college, there is… whatever remains from those 32 courses.
This is why the social side of college life is as important as the academic side. You did learn a lot, after all, even if it was a fraction of what is still out there to learn. But a ton of education, not just emotional but intellectual, happened on the social side (which includes interactions with your peers in the classroom). That’s what justifies the price of four years in a residential college. You learn that to solve any problem or to create any product, you need other people. You can’t do it all by yourself. So keep in touch with your friends.
Oh, and the best advice is probably Augustine’s: Love God, and do what you like.
Louis Menand is Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English.