2013-05-13

Convocation

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to watch the convocation ceremonies at the College of Saint Benedict, a private, Catholic, girl's college in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

My initial reaction to the experience was overwhelmingly positive. It has been ten years since I graduated college, and, because I am the youngest in my family, I hadn't had the opportunity to attend another college graduation ceremony since then. Predictably, the festivities brought with them a lot of memories of my own experience, both in college and during the graduation ceremonies, and an undeniable wistfulness for the opportunities of youth. It was a great experience!

As a reader of Stationary Waves, though, you can imagine that I have some thoughts about what I saw and experienced. Farbeit from me to forego any opportunity to analyze our human behavior!

The Leaders Of Tomorrow
The first thing that struck me about all the speeches given during the convocation ceremony was their unwavering insistence on the fact that the graduates were going to become the leaders of tomorrow. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.

The accomplished graduates of the College of Saint Benedict have many things to look forward to from now on. They will make the transition from a two-decades-and-then-some career as professional learners, heavily subsidized by parents, the government, and education-subsidization-foundations to being... productive members of society. They are about to begin lives as women who actually work for a living. For many, this will be the first such experience of their whole lives.

A great many of the graduates now hold degrees in nursing. Nursing is a technical, challenging, stressful, and yes, noble profession. Let me be clear on one point: the world needs more nurses and will be a better place now that some of these women are entering the workforce.

But... nurses aren't leaders. Sure, some of them are. Some of these women will go one to have strong careers in nursing management and clinic administration - perhaps even hospital administration. Some may become wealthy CEOs, etc. Others may end up becoming leaders outside the workforce, in their communities, volunteer organizations, churches, and so on. But the vast majority of nurses cannot possibly be called leaders.

That got me thinking: Every graduate speech that has ever invoked the phrase or the concept of "you/we are the leaders of tomorrow" has been dead wrong. Few of us are leaders. I'm certainly no leader. Not everyone is a leader. In fact - and here's the really important part - not everyone wants to be a leader.

For example, as an individualist, I have little desire to exert anything more than conversational influence over other human beings. I like talking with people, I like discussing things, and I like it when people find useful the things I have to say. Other than that, I have no desire to be a leader. Instead, I'd rather work on my own stuff, individually, by myself. I don't fault anyone for wanting to be a leader, I'm just saying... not all of us want to lead.

And that's okay! There is absolutely no problem with not wanting to be a leader. Some of the most brilliant academics are merely researchers and lecturers. Some of the greatest inventors, most brilliant scientists, most passionate servants of humanity, and artists are not leaders at all.

Leadership is an important characteristic of managers, politicians, and coaches. If you're not directly involved in those activities, however, leadership is nothing more than an admirable trait, no different than the ability to play a musical instrument or cook homemade pasta.

I guess what I'm driving at here is that society seems to fetishize leadership as the greatest possible endpoint of a person's professional development. Those who take pride in in their work without feeling the need to become leaders are demonstrating another kind of excellence, one that leaders quite often do not possess themselves. It's not as if mankind would have failed to discover fire, were it not for Thag the Leader, impeccably "inspiring" Grok to rub two sticks together. The world needs leaders like Thag, but the world also needs people whose skill set is to actually do stuff.

Of the many graduates of the College of Saint Benedict, some of them will certainly become leaders. The majority will choose to pursue other character traits. Not only is that okay, that is extremely important. Leaders get a lot of fame for what they do, but let's not forget that Thag didn't discover fire; Grok did.

The Glory Of The State
The keynote commencement speech was given by a CSB alumna who taught me a new word: alumna. I had no idea that there was a feminine form of the word alumnus. In my cynicism, I assumed that the word was borne out of the obsessive political correctness of the last few decades, but as it turns out (at least, according to TheFreeDictionary.com) its usage dates back to the late 19th Century.

I mention this because we optimists believe it is possible to take something positive from something, even if you consider that something to be overwhelmingly negative. Unfortunately, this is how I would describe the speech that was given.

Why? First, because it was an extremely dreary exposition on the woman's own life-changing experiences, emotionally jarring circumstances that shaped her desire to cure the world's poverty using the magic powers of socialism. For what must have been at least half an hour, this woman implored the new graduates to look around them and take stock of all the suffering in the world, and then do things about that suffering. By "do things," she apparently meant either joining a government organization that professes to alleviate the problem, or some other possibilities: (a) Start a beer company that donates some of its profits to charity, (b) Start a clothing company that donates some of its profits to charity, (c) start some other company that uses a share of its profits to engage in leftist policy, (d) become a victim of a highly publicized national tragedy, and then use that tragedy as a springboard for a leftist agenda, (e) convince a university to remove its drinking fountains and install "watering stations" from which students can fill up metal water bottles.

And so on. Changing the world, according to this woman, involves feeling terrible about all of the world's suffering, and then practicing leftism. I don't fault someone for actually believing this, but I do fault this woman for using someone else's happy day of celebration as an opportunity to promote it.

For one thing, if these graduates wanted to experience a college graduation ceremony, they were a captive audience to this woman's political ideology. That's not fair. If any woman chose to avoid this political speech, that woman would therefore miss out on her opportunity to experience a graduation ceremony marked by a celebration of her accomplishments, and some well-wishing for the future. This point was completely lost on the speaker. Instead, she elected to promote her chosen ideology.

Look, I promote my ideas, too... on my blog. One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was because I wanted to let my friends and family off the hook. You can't go around promoting your political ideas at every opportunity. It's rude. There are appropriate and inappropriate times to do this. College graduation ceremonies should be apolitical, happy, optimistic, encouraging, and congratulatory. One should walk away from them feeling inspired, not shamed.

Will You Please Confirm My Priors?
Also over the weekend I had a few conversations in which I was asked a certain kind of question. I don't want to unfairly pick on those with whom I spoke, because the situation is hardly unique. You yourselves have likely experienced this sort of question many times in your own lives, and will do so again. Still, it made me think, so I am reporting it here.

The situation is this:

Upon learning that I had spent nearly a decade living in Canada, people often ask me questions about how life compares there versus life in the United States. This is a perfectly natural curiosity, and we all think about such things when we meet others who have lived abroad.

But on this occasion, someone asked me - as a first follow-up question upon learning that I lived in Canada - whether I found there was a smaller gap between rich and poor there than here. By the way the question was asked, I understood that my response was supposed to be "Yes, definitely."

I don't want to initiate a discussion of comparative income gaps in various countries. That is a matter of pure data analysis, and if what I have read about that data is true, the subtraction of [average income of highest quantile of citizens] - [average income of lowest quantile of citizens] works out to be a smaller number when it is computed using Canadian data than when using American data. Of course, this wasn't really the question. The question was whether it feels that way to ordinary people who have lived in both countries. My answer was a response to this second question, not the first.

My answer also doesn't matter much. The person asking the question expected to hear a certain answer, one that would confirm a prior assumption already well-entrenched in that person's line of thinking. My only role to play in this situation was to serve as conformation for an existing impression. (Perhaps this makes me a bad person, but I rather enjoyed answering in a way that contradicted that prior assumption.)

I had a similar experience shortly after moving to Canada, in August 2003. A leftist history professor asked me if I was "feeling the impact of the US war in Iraq." I think she had it in her head that the United States was reeling. It wasn't. I remember there being a few ultra-leftist protests staged on public grounds for a few weeks, and then most ordinary people went back to doing what normal people do every day.

This is is precisely what I reported to the curious history professor. She was very disappointed by my answer. Indeed, she was incredulous, saying, "Really? You're really not feeling the effects of the war?" I'm not sure what she expected me to say. Was she feeling the effects? She was equally as close to the war in Iraq as I was. The United States was not what she assumed it was.

Neither is Canada what most Americans - even highly leftist Americans who imagine that life in Canada is what life in America would be like if it weren't for those do-nothing Republicans - imagine it to be. The health Canadian care system has serious problems. There are still lots of greedy corporations. The government is equally as corrupt. Poor people still starve on the streets. The mentally ill are still homeless. All of the problems that exist in America also exist in Canada, and vice-versa. Just because one country is more socialist than the other does not mean every other, non-governmental, human institution is radically different and makes for a different quality of life.

Now, incomes and standards of living are certainly higher in the United States, and economics provides us with some good insights as to why that might be the case. But it certainly doesn't all come down to the fact that Canada is a leftist-majority country while the USA is more of a 50-50 left/right split. Get real.

Conclusion
Anyway, it is important to remember that everyone has a different experience, because we're all different people. What I saw in Canada might not be what you see if you live there. For that very reason, it is important to understand that we cannot simply come to conclusions and then expect everyone else's experience to adhere to whatever we imagine to be true.

Not every youth is a leader of tomorrow; not every adult is a leader of today; not every leader is useful or necessary; not every act of leadership is positive. Leading isn't a person's greatest accomplishment, love is.

An auditorium full of proud young women who are anxious to get started on their adult lives, like all human beings everywhere, are far more interested in making themselves happy than they are in hearing about the tragedies in an old person's life that committed that old person to a lifetime of socialism. As every sixth grader knows, socialism fails because people are fundamentally utility-motivated and tend to provide better for society when they are allowed to provide the largest share for themselves. Don't cloud a person's sunny horizon with the pessimism of age. Let youth be youth.

Even if you think you're right about something, do not expect every data point to adhere to your theory or support your conclusion. When you see competing data and consider competing theories, pay attention: you are about to learn something. Learn, absorb that knowledge, and take it back into the world with you. Let it provide you with a revised understanding of how you know your world to be.

Above all, never forget that every human being on Earth deserves to be happy. That includes you.

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If I were asked to deliver a convocation speech to the CSB Class of 2013, it would look something like that.