President Obama's Graduation Delicacies

Daniel Asia

Entries in NAS blogs are supposed to be about education. So while it is somewhat tangential, it seems to me that President Obama’s commencement remarks at Barnard College are fair game.  I first heard a short clip of the speech, but  as I was so horrified by what I heard, I  read it in its entirety.  I remain dumbfounded after a complete read. My concerns have nothing to do with my views of our President; rather, it has to do with what he assumes college is for, and how graduates should use their learning in the afterglow of graduation.

“Of course, as young women, you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges, like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work; whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health.”

At my university, unlike that the in U Cal system, there is not equal pay for equal faculty level, time in the position, or dare I say, level of competence and contribution.  But I can assure you that women are paid more than men, as they are not currently represented in proportion to their presence in the general population.  I have not heard of women lawyers or doctors receiving pay at lesser amounts than men. Both my wife and I had issues of balancing the demands of job and family.  We all control decisions regarding our health that we are capable of controlling. These issues have very little to do with gender.

“Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn’t possible; …; that you won’t be able to close that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be.”

What can this possibly mean? If these students have had any sort of education, they must know that speaking to them is the first black President; that they will most likely live longer than any generation; that they live with indoor plumbing; that obesity, not starvation, is a problem; they have great teeth (and very white at that!), that they ingest antibiotics and other medications that weren’t available only 20 years ago; in sum, they live better than any population in human history. Life, as it is for these young women, is really very good. It is true that they don’t live as if the Messiah has already arrived, but then, that is the human condition.

“We know, for example, that this country would be better off if more Americans were able to get the kind of education that you’ve received here at Barnard.”

There are more excellent colleges and universities of higher education in this country than in any other in the world.  A university education, and a good one at that, is pretty universally available.  And numerous prominent sociologists have suggested that the problem is that too many people go to college, not too few. College has become simply a ticket to a supposed better life, ultimately sending many to college who shouldn’t be there, and also thus demeaning those who don’t attend but are gifted in other areas. Lastly, given the state of education, which promotes a utilitarian, if not nihilistic understanding of oneself and our culture, rather than a real wisdom, is a college education really all that the President thinks it is cracked up to be?

“My first piece of advice is this: Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”

Fighting, fighting, and more fighting.  Spoken like a community organizer, not a lawyer or president. These students at university should have learned that we use our words to make change.  It is reasoned argument that wins the day in our society, not combative fighting.

“So don’t accept somebody else’s construction of the way things ought to be…It’s up to you to hold the system accountable and sometimes upend it entirely. It’s up to you to stand up and to be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote. Don’t be content to just sit back and watch.”

What is a construction? Does this mean codes of conduct, morality, right and wrong, understandings of the workings of the universe?  Hopefully these students have learned about some of the past and present models, and can make appropriate decisions as to what has worked best.  Do we really wish to upend the system entirely, including those silly things like freedom of speech and religion, and the rights of women and minorities?  Does this president really want a French style revolution? And lastly, march and organize? How about a call to deep thought, work, productivity, improving the economy, and maybe even marriage, as activities that create a true, and thriving community?

As I said at the start, this talk raises some real concerns about what President Obama thinks we are training our students for, and most importantly, whether they are truly being taught how to think, or whether they are being taught what to think. His talk is suggestive of the latter.

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