To the graduating class of 2020, I offer, in this order, congratulations, condolences, consolation and a few words of welcome. Congratulations first of all on your imminent Bowdoin degrees and on the years of diligence and hard work they represent. From childhood, you have made sacrifices to become the kind of person who arrives at an elite institution, and that you have succeeded there, is a testament to your diligence and perspicacity.
Yet, by graduating in the midst of a global pandemic, with skyrocketing unemployment and a collapsing labor market, you are facing the very real prospect that all your work may have been in vain. Some version of the following promise has accompanied you through life: do what it takes to meet a series of arbitrary thresholds, and, in doing so, demonstrate your work ethic, talent and acceptance of social norms. In exchange, places like Bowdoin will offer you a comfortable life in the middle class. It can be hard to escape the conclusion, especially as government aid is channeled to the wealthiest, while corporate interests rule the day, and financial institutions take care of their own at the expense of the rest of us, that this was all a lie meant to extract tuition dollars from you.
My condolences, then, that this lesson comes to you so painfully.
I recall once being seated next to an economics professor at a luncheon and listening to her explain how wonderful it was that so few college students fell in love anymore, so that they wouldn’t be hindered when it came time to move to a new city for a great job offer. The youth was finally understanding the value of rational decision making, she explained to me. I felt a bit queasy at the thought of this lesson’s effect on impressionable young minds, but as long as the market is booming, asking young people to become jedis for the sake of their job prospects at least has a certain Faustian logic to it. When the jobs dry up, though, the market’s demands become nothing more than an act of intergenerational cruelty.
This episode called to mind the words of a writer who is as close to my heart as any other, who lived in turbulent times and had seen the dreams of successive generations wiped from the pages of history. “No worse fate can befall a young man or woman,” said Knut Hamsun as he accepted the 1920 Nobel Prize for literature, “than to become prematurely entrenched in prudence and negation.” Those of us who succeed in something as bourgeois as going to school have done so, in part, by making just these compromises to sound judgment that the great writer saw as fatal to the creative soul.
My heart goes out to those of you whose offers of employment have been withdrawn, whose would-be employers will not survive this crisis or who are simply gazing out at a wasteland where post-graduation prospects were supposed to be. And my deepest sympathy to all of you, whose lives will carry a scar from this uncertainty, whatever comes next, for years to come. I know about this scar, because I bear just such a one myself.
Among the hollow assurances about the arc of history and the long term trajectory of the markets, which I am sure you are hearing from the well-meaning on all sides, some words from the class of 2008, from someone who received an expensive and prestigious degree that meant nothing in the world I graduated into, might offer some consolation.
You and I did some pretty dumb things for the sake of our degrees: some of us gave up the weekends of our childhood to master a sport we never cared for; others saw their families’ finances strained to pay for tutors and coaches, only so they could be strained again by ever-rising tuition costs; others still moved far from home and gave up on happiness for a few years, guided by the dream of a better life. We all murdered generations of fruit flies and filled our heads with irregular verb conjugations. Was all of this a waste, then, of our precious youth?
No! Let me welcome you with an emphatic “no” to the ranks of the enlightened. More valuable than anything else we could have learned is this lesson: we have nothing to lose by pursuing an authentic life. The threats and promises our parents and teachers and bosses made in the voice of prudence and reason and sound economics were lies, and we never have to worry about them again. We have paid a high price for this clarity.
My favorite graduation-ready quotation comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who said: “If you want to build a ship, do not gather people to collect wood or assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to dream of the endless immensity of the sea.” We have seen the fantasies of a generation of wood-collectors dissolve into nothing, and behind it, the vision of a better world is taking shape. Our lessons in shipbuilding may prove worthless, but our dreams of the sea are worth more than ever.
Andrew Hamilton is a Visiting Assistant Professor of German.