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Departing Thoughts

Good graduation advice reveals much about the meaning of education

By Charlotte C. Chang

As Commencement Day approaches, advice to graduates can be found in words of congratulations in the yearbook, videos of past commencement speeches, and even articles that reveal what graduation addresses “don’t tell us.” At first glance, these pieces of advice seem to follow a predictable template that tries to illuminate, through examples both trivial and serious, how we should lead our lives going forth. A closer look at this reveals two types of advice that have fundamentally different implications on the meaning of happiness and the role of education.

The first type is perhaps epitomized by Steven P. Jobs’ famous commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 that concluded with two imperatives: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Through examples of the failures and ultimate success in his own life, he urged graduates to pursue their dreams by believing in themselves and aggressively overcoming obstacles. Although motivational, Jobs’s advice to graduates to strive for a life of the utmost degree of individuality seems to presume that the goal of education is to enable the pursuit of happiness through individual success alone.

The second type of advice foregrounds the importance of morals and ethics that come with education and sees graduates as individuals connected to the world by what they have learned about the past and what they can determine about the future. This type of advice suggests, though often subtly, that pursuing happiness is only significant when happiness comes from endeavors beyond the individual. In his brief note to the class of 2012 in the yearbook, Professor Peter J. Burgard from the German Department writes that we should “never stop grappling with challenging texts” as a way to “act ethically.” While we have to “pursue the good life,” happiness is “not good enough” in a life without reflection, courage, and honor. This type of advice urges us to think of education as a continuous human endeavor built upon reading texts and engaging with the world—engaging with what has happened, and even more importantly, what has been undertaken and thought by moral and intelligent people in the past—in order to change the beliefs we take for granted and to act morally.

This type of advice emphasizes that the “good life” should be defined by morals and ethics and not just pursuing success—success being a natural consequence of the knowledge and analytical skills we have acquired. To paraphrase another commencement speaker, David Foster Wallace, the true value of a liberal arts education goes beyond teaching us “how to think” to enabling us to choose “what to think,” meaning that it should allow us a closer glimpse of truths in order to decide what is right and then to act on this knowledge even when we are inclined to do otherwise. In practice, this means taking classes that challenge our fundamental beliefs, changing our beliefs after critical engagements with texts, ideas, and knowledgeable people, and keeping what we know at the forefront of our existence as adults on a regular basis. Acting morally and ethically at all times as an educated person would inevitably, through things big and small, make the world a better place, and only the happiness that comes with this moral engagement with the world is worth pursuing.

Yet education is more often viewed merely as the necessary preparation for a life of personal success, while it should really be about engaging with the world, utilizing the knowledge we gain from this engagement, and opening up our defensive, self-interested minds to effect positive change in global, national, and local issues. The lessons from our Ethical Reasoning requirement should really be taken away as “things that regularly influence how we think” instead of merely “things we know.” Indeed, the world needs scientists, economists, bankers, and influential figures like Mr. Jobs, but all these people play larger and more important roles as citizens, community members, parents, and educators. Fulfilling these roles in a moral and enlightened way is an imperative of education that far surpasses personal success in importance.

Beyond the scope of college, this type of advice reflects fundamentally upon the idea of education and learning in general. What prevalent mentalities on education lack is an emphasis on its moral, ethical, and humanistic dimension. Education is neither merely the necessary path one must take in order to become a professional and achieve financial success nor a “battlefield” in which competition is necessary for individual gain. If every student in a classroom had so-called “tiger parents” and always had to “win,” the whole foundation of education would fall apart as the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to a selfish endeavor. If educators, parents, and students at all stages acknowledged that the goal of education is to enable a moral life based on knowledge and truth, education systems the world over could be more equal and instill in students the true value of learning—a value that is not only revealed at college graduations, but also guides our actions before, during, and beyond our years of formal education.

Charlotte C. Chang ’12 is a Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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