Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 December 2011

My (Never-Given) Matriculation Speech

[The following post may be of interest to college students. It’s a little late for matriculation, but it’s not too late for planning next semester’s courses. I wrote it and published it to a small circle a couple of years ago, and anonymity kept me from publishing it here. Here it is, with some minor updating and correction of a few errors.]

Life has many oddities, when you think about them. One of them is the so-called “commencement” speech. Colleges and universities get famous people to lecture to their students just before giving them diplomas. These leading lights are supposed to reveal their secrets―in Doug Adams’ famous words from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy― of “life, the universe and everything.”

Now this is more than passing strange. Young folk sitting in the audience have read thousands of pages, all assigned by their professors. They’ve done experiments in the laboratory. They’ve written essays. They’ve taken tests. If all this wasn’t supposed to teach them about life, the universe and everything, what good was it?

Maybe all those leading lights giving commencement speeches know more about life, the universe and everything than professors. That’s certainly possible. But if so, and if the kids can get what’s important out of a forty-minute commencement speech, why spend four years and incur over $100,000 in student debt? Why not just cut to the chase?

And if the commencement speech is just a good summary―a sort of Cliffnotes’ Cliffnotes―of all that came before, is it really more than a chance to practice the skill of sleeping in class without snoring?

No, I think the commencement speech is a bit of blather out of time. When students really need to know the secrets of life, the universe and everything is when they matriculate, not when they graduate. They need to know what’s really important beforehand so they can plan their schedules, their majors, their careers, and their lives. In the best of all possible worlds, the first two would match the last.

In that spirit, I’ve prepared the following matriculation speech. My credentials are simple: I’ve had three careers: physicist/geophysicist, lawyer, and law professor. So, except for investment banking, which I learned something about indirectly in my last two careers, I’ve had pretty rigorous training in all the things that our society has valued most since the last great war: science, law and commerce. If you think I’ve got my priorities wrong, then by all means, write a matriculation speech of your own.

Dear matriculants,

I call you “matriculants” both because it’s a long word and a neutral one. It might be more accurate to call you “subjects” or “victims.” But that might annoy or scare you. It’s better to use a long word that many of you will never have heard and will have to look up. Using the dictionary, whether on line or on dead trees, is a good skill in college and in life.

So, dear matriculants . . . Here’s my advice on starting college. There are only four points, so you won’t have to take detailed notes. But please remember the four and think about them.

First, you are about to enter the most intense educational experience of your life. Many of you will have gone through execrable high schools. So you won’t know what “execrable” means, and you will have trouble writing a coherent sentence, let alone an incisive paragraph. The dictionary can help with the strange word, but learning to express yourself well in writing can take a long time.

That’s one reason why college takes four years. While you think you are learning other things, what you are really learning is how great minds thought and wrote, and how to emulate them.

Colleges stow much of this lore under the general heading of “English,” although journalism and other courses teach it, too. But “English” is such a narrow, boring title. It’s also misleading. You think you already know English, right? You’ve been speaking it for most of your life.

But you don’t really know English unless you know Shakespeare’s English, the King James Bible’s English, a rapper’s English, an ad-man’s English, the President’s English, and a corporate manager’s English. And you don’t really know English unless you can take all these differing genres apart and explain why and how they differ.

Most of all, you don’t really know English unless you can tell when a speaker or writer is lying or deliberately trying to mislead you. For that, you can take clues from the speech or writing itself. But to see quickly when someone is trying to mislead you, you have to know a little of life, the universe and everything.

That’s another reason why college is so long. Context is everything. If you know little or nothing, it’s easy to lie and mislead you. The more you know, the harder it gets.

Liars usually lie about more than one thing. So the best way to identify a liar is to know lots of things. As a liar says more and more things you know are not so, you begin to lose credulity and identify the speaker as a liar or propagandist. That’s one of the most important skills that college or anyone can give you. It might even save our democracy.

How do you acquire these skills? Well, as boring as it may sound, you take courses in English. You read a lot. You write a lot. And you might consider taking a basic course in journalism, “communication,” or political science―especially one that focuses on propaganda and totalitarianism―even if those subjects don’t appeal to you in general.

So as you plan your schedules, be sure to take courses that force you to write. That’s a good strategy even if you plan to be a mathematician, scientist, engineer or dentist. You never know where life will take you, especially at your age. Good command of English is always an advantage, and poor command a disadvantage, in any occupation.

Let me give you an example. When I first started teaching law, they forced me to teach a course in beginning legal writing. I didn’t much like teaching that course―just as many of you won’t like struggling to write assigned essays. But I tried to do my best. I marked up students’ papers carefully, explained to them their many errors, and consulted personally with each student at length.

One young woman seemed pleasant, bright and earnest. But she wrote execrably. (There’s that dictionary again.) As she became frustrated with her slow progress in the course, I asked about her background. She had been an accounting major at a state university. So I asked her how much she had written in her entire college career. After some thought and some prompting from me, she came up with the answer: “four pages”—one per year.

I explained to her that, in my freshman English course in 1962, I had written ten pages every week four fourteen weeks. That was just one course, and I was a physics major. “How,” I asked her gently, “could you expect to be good at something if you never do it?”

You can never know enough about your own language, how to use it effectively, and how others in the past have used it to ennoble or corrupt. Perfecting your language is a task that never ends. You can begin, if you don’t already know them, by looking up the words “matriculant,” “execrable,” and “credulity” and internalizing their meanings.

My second point may seem remote from the first, almost contradictory. But it isn’t. After mastering your own primary tongue, your next most important task is math. Why? Because just as English (in this country) is the language of life in general, math is the language of science (including economics), business, investing and daily commerce.

I don’t mean to imply that you are a loser and a failure if you don’t excel in math. We all know that higher math requires special aptitude. Some people have more, and some people have less. Some people have such genius that we can only view their work and minds with awe.

But whatever aptitude or skill you have in math, take it as far as it goes. You won’t know why it’s important at first, just as you won’t know at first why it’s important to read and appreciate Shakespeare. But you will with time. I guarantee it.

If you’re considering becoming a scientist, engineer, economist or financial planner, your need for math is obvious. But math goes way beyond that. If you buy a house or car on time, only math can tell you what your monthly payments will be, how much interest you will ultimately pay, and how much it helps you to pay off more quickly. If you invest in stocks, bonds or other intangibles―as more than half of Americans do today―only math can help you compare them as investments and choose the best one.

Most of all, math helps put things in perspective, even in politics. Once you’ve learned enough math, you will acquire something that people who use math a lot call “mathematical intuition.” Without actually doing calculations in detail, you will know when something doesn’t make quantitative sense.

For example, suppose a national politician rails about a ten-million-dollar waste. If you have mathematical intuition, and if you know that we have a 15 trillion dollar economy and over 14 trillion dollars of national debt, you will know that he is either (1) an idiot or (2) trying to distract your attention from something more important. And you’ll know so without even doing the arithmetic and calculating that what he is railing about amounts to less than one millionth of our national economy or national debt.

So never slight math. Take as much as you can stomach. And always seek the teachers with the best reputations for making it simple. Like sour-tasting medicine, or like “pumping iron” even after your muscles start to burn, math is good for you.

As an adjunct to math, take a course or two in economics, and make sure it has some math in it. The great economist John Maynard Keynes called economics a “dismal science.” But it is indeed a mathematical science, more so today than in his time. Every citizen should know something about economics and the mathematical logic behind it, if only to protect their own economic interests and recognize politicians’ lies.

My third point may seem in tension with my first. Take the time in college to learn a foreign language well, fluently if you can. Doing so will broaden your learning and your opportunities in life more than almost anything else you can do.

While English is everybody’s favorite second language, we who speak English as our first or only language are only about ten percent of the world’s population―one out of ten. The other nine out of ten speak, think, write and grow up with other languages.

Unless you learn another language well, you will never know how much your own language influences the way you think and feel. Every language has its own unique way of expressing certain things. Some are better, shorter or more current than others.

We Americans say “violà,” in French, because we have no similar word. The rough equivalent “behold!” is too old fashioned, and “look here!” sounds too angry or dictatorial. And we have no equivalent to the Spanish “adios!” It means “goodbye” for a long time or forever, while our single word “bye” works both for forever and a telephone call to someone about to meet you across the street.

These are just tiny, overly simple examples. But as you learn a foreign language well, you will begin to appreciate a whole new way of thinking, feeling and expressing yourself. You will absorb a new culture along with the language.

Doing that will open you up to appreciating foreigners here and abroad in whole new ways. It might also bring you a new career, a foreign place of residence, a new spouse or new set of friends. There is nothing potentially more broadening.

When you pick a foreign language to study, don’t just pick the one you think is easiest. Think strategically. More than 1.3 billion people speak Mandarin, and China is likely to become the world’s economic and technological leader in your lifetime. So don’t dismiss Mandarin just because it’s hard to learn. Also consider languages that cross national boundaries, such as Arabic, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

And if you already have a tongue other than English, think twice, maybe three times, before abandoning it in a headlong rush to become fully American. The experts say you can’t learn a language without an accent unless you start before you are eight years old. So learning a foreign language as a baby gives you a big head start over other Americans, who start in high school or college. Don’t give that advantage up without a great deal of strategic thought about your life and the state of the world. If you can, keep studying and mastering your native “second” language in college, whether or not besides another non-English tongue.

Your linguistic strategy won’t always be right, but it may lead you to strange and wonderful places. My father, a native-born American, spoke fluent German. As I was growing up, he and I always assumed that I would learn German, because it was then the language of science and I wanted to become a scientist. But in 1959, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and overnight Russian became the second language of science. Two years later, our public high school―which was a good one!―hired a native Russian speaker to teach it, and I began to learn.

The Cold War kept me from visiting Russia, and later I switched careers from science to law. But I had taken a course in Russian literature, in Russian, in graduate school, and I never lost my love of Russian literature and poetry. In my new law-teaching career, I got a Fulbright Fellowship and taught law in Moscow, in Russian, in 1993. There I watched the Russians shed their confining skin of Communism and create a more modern, freer society. My time there was far from a vacation, but I would not exchange those four months for any others in my life.

If you have still not taken this chance to hone your skills of sleeping in class, some of you may have noticed something strange. So far, all my advice has been about means, not ends. English is a means of communicating. Math is a means of calculating. It’s a primary subject only to mathematicians; the rest of us use it only as a tool. Foreign languages are similar; they are the equivalent of English to foreign people and a means of communicating with them.

So don’t I have any advice on “substantive” subjects, things that are not just means or process? The answer―besides touting economics as an adjunct to math―is only one.

You yourself will choose the right “substantive” courses as you explore the world of knowledge and chart your life’s course. You will know what they are. Some of them are required for your eventual goals, even in your first year.

But the subjects I have named so far―English, math with economics, and a foreign language―are fundamental. They are the basis on which you will build the rest of your life and life’s knowledge, including knowledge of whatever foreign cultures you may be thrown into. They are the foundation for everything else.

As for specific subjects, I would recommend only one: history. That advice may seem odd coming from a physicist who became a lawyer and later a law professor. It might seem odder still when I confess that I personally hated history until I was well into my advanced years. In college I tried as hard as I could to avoid it. In law school I got the worst academic grade in my life, a D, in English Legal History after I couldn’t bring myself to read the boring assigned tome.

But history is a bit like English and math. It’s a foundation. It underlies what we are today―our culture, our politics, our national preferences and our quirks. It does the same for every other people on this planet. Language alone―even a foreign language―is not enough. You cannot fully understand another people, or even your own, without knowing something about their history.

Ignoring history can be harmful to your health. We lost the War in Vietnam―and over 50,000 Americans―because we didn’t know Vietnam’s history. We didn’t understand how long its people had been hell bent on achieving independence from both China and Western colonial powers. So we didn’t see that our “domino theory,” which viewed Communism in Russia and China as a dangerous motivating force, was just a paranoid delusion. We are now having trouble in Afghanistan because we failed fully to appreciate that mountain realm’s history. Though seemingly primitive to us, it had repelled every foreign invader since Alexander the Great, including the British and the Soviets. We might have acted differently if we had understood that history better and thought longer about how we might be next.

So now, in my retirement years, I think history is one of the most important subjects and one of those most consistently undervalued in our college curricula. Fortunately for me, my childish distaste didn’t render me completely ignorant. My university forced me, like every other student, to take one course in American history and another in “institutions,” which had a lot of history in it. I’m still learning world history as I age.

Like math, history is not something you have to steep yourself in if you don’t like it. Take only as much as you can comfortably carry, and seek out professors who make it interesting and fun. But at least take one course in American history, so you can recognize present-day domestic lies, and one course in world history, so you can put your globalized world in perspective. As an American in a globalized and multipolar world, you are going to have to deal with foreigners whether you like it or not, and you might as well know something about who they are and how they got that way.

If enough of you take history seriously, it might even save your or your child’s life. There might be enough Americans who understand what really happened in the past to think twice or more before entering foreign wars rashly.

So that’s it: a matriculation sonata in four parts: English and writing, math with a bit of economics, a foreign language and history. The rest is up to you.

But don’t forget to spend enough time and college credits to learn that foreign language fluently. If you can, take a semester or year abroad to perfect your foreign-language skills. Doing so will enrich your career and your life more than you can now imagine. And finally, don’t forget to perfect your own language―English―by practicing writing and using that dictionary every chance you get.

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  • At Wed Dec 07, 11:54:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    Not only was this interesting to read, it was very fun to read! I have had many of the same disjointed thoughts running around in my mind but lacking your skill to place them together as you have in this blog. It felt simply really good to read this and to know that my recently 9 year old son and I have together been planning an excellent father and son experience so that we can together learn (or re-learn) much of what you suggest.

    Similar to you, I was a pure 100% electrical engineer with over 15 years of very practical and technical experience that had absolutely 0% interest in anything non-fiction or non-math related (especially with regards to writing/English) at least until my son was born 9 years ago. He was also born before I entered law school also about 9 years + 3 months ago.

    Since then my son has opened my eyes on a vast array of Roman, Chinese and a continuous spectrum of history that exploded in his mind at about 3-4 years old when he somewhat systematically digested everything Egyptian before preceding into Rome/Greece. I read some where that a parents main job was to (1) keep their children happy and (2) to keep then curious and exploring. Yes, that may greatly simply over emphasize my role as a father but it is a key role that I have constantly remembered.

    My son and I have extensively read together since he was able to sit upright at a few months old. A few years after that when he was reading and schooling me in ancient Egyptians history we switched to me schooling him a nightly 20 minutes of math studies. In January, 2012, we'll be embarking on a 9 year journey to learn mandarin together with what looks like weekly lessons from a local collage professor. No matter what, I work hard to be a good father to my sone, but it even gives me greater joy when I work even harder to give my son skills early in life that I could not have even imagined even at ages much older than he is now.

    Happy Holidays to You and Your Wife,

    Best, R.H.


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