To the Class of 2022: Maybe Don't Reach for the Stars
A very British graduation address from Kathleen Stock.
Today we come to the end of our first-ever graduation week. If you’re behind on emails, don’t worry, we’re putting everything right here for your convenience.
What Happens on Campus Doesn’t Stay on Campus — Bari Weiss
We Aren’t Raising Adults, We’re Breeding Very Excellent Sheep — William Deresiewicz
What Princeton Did To My Husband — Solveig Lucia Gold
Friendship > Politics — Maya Rackoff
And last but certainly not least, we bring you a very British graduation address from the courageous and funny philosopher Kathleen Stock. — BW
I’ve spent the past 18 years as a philosophy professor in the UK, which means I’ve spent many a graduation clapping til my hands were numb. The robes were always too hot, the graduates hungover, and the commencement speeches reliably cliched. Go out into the world and make a difference! Dream big! Make it count! Young people are the future! I’m sure you’ve watched countless YouTube videos of this sort of thing before.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a different perspective. Admittedly, nobody’s asking me to, but I’d still like to take the opportunity.
What I’d like to point out is that in terms of large-scale influence on the political stage, in business, technology, the charity sector, the film industry, or wherever else your individual talents or interests may lie, statistically speaking you are highly unlikely to make any noticeable difference whatsoever to anything. The world is too large, the competition too great, attention spans too short, and issues too complex and multi-faceted.
This may sound like bad news. But I actually hope it will come as a huge relief.
For I’ve also noticed that my generation tends to place a heavy burden on your still relatively unblemished shoulders. We have proved ineffectual at sorting out poverty, war, racism, affordable housing, famine, the climate, or even just how to keep track of the TV remote. Sometimes it seems to me that we conceive of our major contribution to the world as frightening subsequent generations into tackling the problems we’ve been too disorganized or self-interested to sort out ourselves. That’s presumably why some modern parents talk as if their teenage offspring were an enlightened race of wise sages, bringing strange news from another star, instead of people who have only just discovered how to work a washing machine.
I’m not surprised so many of you seem to feel anxious and guilt-ridden. It’s as my generation has resurrected the doctrine of original sin—except that we’re asking you to expiate for our sins, too.
Perhaps that’s partly why, if you don’t mind me saying, quite a lot of you seem to be living in a rather dramatic moral universe: one where you feel you must be constantly sorting people into unredeemable villains or unimpeachable saints, and not sparing yourselves in the process. I think it might bring you some relief to ditch the inherited guilt. In my experience, feeling guilty for things you haven’t done tends to make you miserable, ineffective, and, ironically, less able to face up to your real faults with honesty and accountability. I’m not saying to act poorly, of course, but maybe not everything in life should be approached with the moral weight of Sophie’s Choice.
You might also consider taking a week or two off from all that endless disapproving and approving. Maybe even a whole year! Have some utterly meaningless fun. Don’t worry about whether it’s the right thing to do—you don’t need to justify it as “self-care” or “anti-work” or otherwise explain to yourself why it’s an optimal use of your time when you could be doing something else. Just enjoy yourself, for itself. Not everything in life is about right and wrong. Which I know sounds rich coming from a former teacher of ethics, but I still think it’s true.
Back when I was a teacher, over the years I saw fashions amongst undergraduates come and go. I’ve seen it all: emo, crop tops, intersectionality, Uggs. At the start of my career, the challenge was to get a philosophy student to have a disapproving opinion. Relatively many that I met were moral relativists of an exceptionally facile sort, and some were so diehard that there wasn’t a depraved thought experiment you could come up with, involving undisguised villains committing heinous crimes, that wouldn’t be met with an obstinate “but that would be right for them.” Believe me, I tried. Even a recounting of history’s worst atrocities, and its universally reviled characters could be met with a chorus of ‘Who are we to judge?’
By the end of my teaching career, I no longer had this problem. The pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that it was hard to get students to stop having strong and unequivocal moral reactions—indeed, hard to stop some of them calling other people Nazis at the drop of a hat. In their newfound tendency towards absolutism, students were following growing trends in the culture more generally. In between pendulum swings, a consumer-friendly version of identity politics had got a grip on the bourgeoisie, a missionary class had been created in the management sector, and the internet had arrived on our phones.