The Commencement Speech Obama Should Give, But Probably Won’t

In a rearguard action titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum contends that a humanist education helps one learn to “judge political leaders critically, but with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them” (26). This critical radar isn’t the province of history and philosophy alone, either. One can develop the capacity for simultaneous skepticism and empathy by reading literature, and I don’t just mean texts like Julius Caesar or All the King’s Men, whose plots entail overtly political entanglements. Witnessing the psychological, sexual, and then legal bind that Dmitri Karamazov gets himself into will also give you a vivid sense of how “making the Right Choice” is sometimes impossible.

Last week, UC Irvine announced that Barack Obama would give this June’s commencement speech. UCI estimates that the logistical complexity of a presidential visit will add around $1 million to the event’s costs; and if you live in northern Orange County, have fun with your weekend driving! That said, I admit that it is pretty cool to get the President for your graduation ceremony instead of some actor or a retired senator.

But if you have spent much time on the General Reader, you know that the editors do not support Mr. Obama’s education policies, particularly his administration’s daft conception of how higher learning (i.e. College) works in theory or in American historical practice. You can read some of our grumblings here and here and here and here.

To be fair, President Obama inherited an education system that, from the pre-K level up to graduate programs, has been terribly damaged by the same forces that are eating away at our whole democracy. His administration didn’t create the preference of state legislatures for spending more on prisons than schools and food stamps; or the metastasis of a sumptuously compensated managerial class that isn’t very good at managing; or the cynical neoliberal reliance on part-time contract labor; or the strange popular faith that a form of magic called Technology will solve all forms of human suffering and lack; or the indifference of citizens who would rather be babysat by their screens than read anything about how their nation operates, because, hey, Candy Crush; or the shifting of financial risks and burdens onto individuals (like the students who acquire debt that will accrue interest at more than twice the Fed prime rate); or the creepy, spreading belief—nourished by a scum-tide of corporate money—that since radically defunded public institutions have a hard time functioning, then we must privatize them and trust that the market will take care of us.

Further, Mr. Obama has had to confront the hysterical wreckage of the Republican Party, an “opposition” that is little more than a proudly irrational mob with an awesome media team. When your opponents’ reaction to literally everything you say or do is UMMDURRRR NAW NO WAY BADMAN, it is difficult to accomplish much. In many respects all the President can do is talk intelligently and patiently.

Luckily, commencements are all about talking. Most speakers go in for pious abstractions about The Value of an Education/Hard Work/Economic Competitiveness. Is it too much to ask that Obama, a man lauded for his eloquence, reject the standard rhetorical fare? After all, most of the the students he is addressing voted for him.

A President’s capacity to persuade the public is limited; if the bully pulpit were still bully, then the Affordable Care Act would have a 90% approval rating and we’d be taxing carbon. But were Mr. Obama to start speaking honestly and in concrete terms about why American higher ed is such a mess, surely the debate over what to do will grow at least slightly more intelligent. His rhetorical support alone would make more room for education reformers who are actually teachers and students, not standardized-testing corporations, textbook publishers, Silicon Valley tech pimps, cornball privateers, or New York Times columnists.

With that in mind, here are some notes to help the President draft his speech. Mr. Obama, if you need more advice, hit me up on Twitter.

  • Since you are speaking at a branch of the greatest public-university system ever built, tell us about the people and ideologies threatening to destroy it. Instead of merely scolding colleges and universities for their tuition rates, you could call out the state legislatures that have spent forty years abdicating their commitment to citizens and thereby driving up those rates. The UC’s present woes did not result from geological forces that nobody could resist; they are the result of actual decisions made by actual people under the influence of a privatization fetish that remains ascendant in the United States. As such these decisions and people can be countered by other decisions and other people who aren’t so dim. Treating “fiscal crises” and “budget cuts” like tectonic shift does nothing but disguise existing problems and create new ones. Just be honest.
  • Many of the students you are addressing have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their education. The people in the audience who just finished their PhDs? Oh, they have debt, too. This is a great time to demonstrate that you have the stones to support Elizabeth Warren’s proposition that we cut student-loan interest rates in half. And if you really want to show us some Change we can Believe in, announce that you would like to see all student loans become interest-free. People who earned BAs and graduate degrees want to pay off their debts, but artificially elevated interest rates make it hard to do so, especially for those of us who did what you are always asking young people to do, and went into public service. Just be honest.
  • Explain how a return to robust public funding of state universities would ensure that any student able to handle college-level brain work can get an education as good as the ones you and the First Lady received at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. It is fine that you attended private school, but you should commit to ensuring that the public/private distinction has nothing to do with baseline educational quality. Just be honest.
  • Smaller classes, smaller classes, smaller classes. Also, smaller classes. This is what works. You know that, having been educated in small classes at excellent schools. You will send your daughters to colleges that prize small classes. Schools that do not rely primarily on courses with fewer than 25 students should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal. No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • You are speaking to an audience from a university that, like almost all American universities, relies heavily on teachers who have little job security. This is bad for the teachers (duh) and their students. Even intimate seminars cannot accomplish much if they are not taught by people who have advanced degrees in their subjects and the material security to develop their pedagogical skills. For the millionth damn time: We cannot depend on adjuncts. America cannot educate its children using temps, no matter how good the temps are; and we are very good. Schools that do not primarily employ full-time, tenure-track teachers should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal.  (As with the bullet point above, a model based on this commitment has already been formulated by Robert Samuels, who teaches in the UC and leads its biggest faculty union. You could totally call him up.) No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • Point out that American schools spend too much money on amenities like sports programs (especially basketball and football programs) and elegant dorms. These financial habits are killing them. Yeah, I had fun filling out my NCAA bracket, too. But if colleges are cheating and stupefying their students by offering them new fitness centers so they won’t care too much about taking classes in overcrowded, crumbling rooms, then fuck our brackets. Just be honest.
  • Remind the administrators in attendance that “retention” targets and quantitative enrollment goals can never be more important than maintaining (or re-establishing) academic rigor. If college classes are not demanding, if they do not ask their participants to read, think, and write a great deal, then GPAs swell up while intellects languish. This hobbles a democracy. Just be honest.
  • You should praise UC upper-management for recently (finally) signing a humane labor deal with the union that represents the system’s poorest employees, and emphasize that income inequality, which you have declared “the defining challenge of our time,” will only lessen if we encourage new unionization and support existing labor groups. For fuck’s sake, don’t crow about trade deals, stock markets, or mortgage-based tax breaks that mainly help rich people. Just be honest.
  • Don’t say anything about T/technology. Everyone knows T/technology, whatever it is, is great. Half the audience is texting right now. T/technology can go an hour without being petted. Just be honest.
  • You don’t need to tell the audience about how education helps people get jobs. They know. Since kindergarten most of the graduating seniors have heard about little besides the instrumental value of a degree. In fact, by now too many of them see the past four or five years as job training that involved parties but had damn well better to lead to a healthy bank balance, end of story. Why don’t you take the time to broach other topics, like the Jeffersonian business about education preparing the entire self to be a reflective citizen? Not too much, mind you, because you must avoid windy abstractions, especially when a sizable chunk of your audience is hungover, but if you keep it short, reminding your listeners that college does more than equip a person to earn money couldn’t hurt. History classes, pianos, poetry readings, overheated front-stoop squabbles over politics, and art museums really aren’t that bad. Just be honest.
  • OK, so maybe you leave the granular, street-by-street humanities-defending to people like Martha Nussbaum. (I know you dislike art history, until you don’t dislike it because disliking it makes people dislike you.) Perhaps you could talk about a larger cognitive practice, one that facilitates individual growth as well as aggregate material expansion in a post-industrial economy where organizations must be able to articulate, exchange, and evaluate complex ideas. I don’t mean science and math, which, like most politicians, you frequently commend. (As you should, because science and math are beautiful.) I mean that other support-beam of civilization: writing. Mr. President, your facility with language is the basis of your success. Were it not for that keynote address you gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention, you aren’t President in 2014; if the English language, a glory when handled with love and concentration, did not suffuse your entire being, you wouldn’t have been able to write that speech in the first place. Science, math, and writing (and its twin, reading) are meaningless without one another. But rarely does a public figure speak up for writing. Maybe you could. Tell the people how you got here. Just be honest.

Mr. Obama, you are one of the most articulate, cerebral men who has ever held the White House. Your presidency provides some evidence that mass democracy doesn’t always reward scoundrels and grifters. So come June, walk onto the stage in Anaheim and tell the people some concrete, grown-up truths.

Just be honest. A democratic nation that gives up on its public schools is no longer a democracy, or even a nation.

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One thought on “The Commencement Speech Obama Should Give, But Probably Won’t

  1. Pingback: Weekend Links: Stocks, Bonds, America on Loan | The General Reader

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