As you may know, I am a humanities professor at a community college. You can usually tell which bloggers are community college professors by the fact that their output slows down considerably sometime in early October, then picks up by mid-December, and almost completely stops between February and May. The load is heavy–five sections per semester with no teaching assistants, or “graders” (other than ourselves, of course), and lots of so-called “professional development” in between.
Well, the semester is almost over and commencement is this Saturday. Despite my frustration with certain aspects of the education sausage, especially the administrative-managerial emphasis on “measurable outcomes” and some vague thing called “processes,” I am proud of my work, and enjoy teaching. I stand in awe of my colleagues who have dedicated themselves to continually improving their teaching, and I am inspired by my students, most of whom work long hours outside of school to make ends meet. Many–where I teach, anyway–are the first in their families to graduate college at any level. This is satisfying and humbling to me.
Nevertheless, I often wonder how much of an impact our work has on students’ lives. I don’t mean this in the sense that most legislators do–i.e., how many jobs will a humanities education create? Rather, I wonder whether or not a student has considered, for example, Aristotle’s case for happiness when entering the post-college world.
This is why I find it comforting every now and then to listen to my favorite commencement speeches–that is, the ones that tell the truth about adult life. The best ones not only say something about how important it is to make good choices everyday, but also acknowledge that you will be faced with a lot of crappy ones. To be sure, life is full of golden opportunities, but can you recognize the difference?
I particularly enjoy commencement speeches from artists (I also like their obituaries, but that is a different matter). It seems to me that artists, by the very nature of the creative life, are synced into the problem of choice at a deeper level than others. To that end, my very favorite commencement speech is from the literary artist David Foster Wallace, whose 2005 address to the graduates of Kenyon College presents, to my mind, the very best case for a liberal arts education. It is certainly the most honest.
Here it is (the speech is divided into two parts).