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OPINION | JEFF NASH: Rely on what you’ve learned

by JEFF NASH Special to the Democrat-Gazette | June 19, 2022 at 2:02 a.m.

Another commencement season has come and gone. Once again, no invitation for me to speak. I deserve to give a commencement address because I have heard more than anyone's share of them.

During my career, from private liberal arts colleges to state universities, I attended at least 40 of these ceremonies. As department chair at three institutions, I was required or strongly urged to attend commencement. I enjoyed dressing up in regalia, although mine seem plain compared to the guy with a degree from Heidelberg University (he had a sword and sash).

I heard academics, politicians, world leaders and celebrities speak. I witnessed gaffes, mispronunciations of local names and places, and endured the same speech from a university president so many times I could anticipate when the life-changing advice from a Marine sergeant was about to be shared with the graduates (can't remember what it was). Commencement addresses are easy to forget, as they are often full of vacuous platitudes and congratulatory advice.

I am retired now, and this time of year I often wonder what I would have said at commencement. Would my speech have been any less vacuous and platitudinal? Let's see. Here's what I would like to say:

A Rite of Passage from High School to College Graduate

Let me sympathize with you for enduring another commencement. You've had several already. I refer to those elementary school graduation ceremonies and that rowdy high school graduation.

Today, you are a college graduate. But what does that mean? For over 100 years our nation has been committed to educating all citizens in basic academic competencies so that they are prepared to fully participate in society. Historically, public education has been a spectacular success. In the 1930s around 25 percent of adult Americans had high school diplomas. Today it's well over 90 percent, although there has been a slight decline since the 1970s. And while the rates vary from state to state, close to a fourth of adult Americans have at least a bachelor's degree, about the same proportion as high school graduates nearly 100 years ago.

The college degree today is in many ways the equivalent of the 1930s high school degree. It functions as the minimal education for a decent job. The most glaring difference is that states and our nation do not pay for much of today's college degree. Over my career, legislative support of public higher education has weakened. Tuition and many varieties of fund-raising have replaced state appropriations, making it more costly to graduate.

Your degree is substantively different from the 1930 high school degree. Most of what is taught today in a college classroom was not even known then, and you have been exposed to technologies unimagined then.

You stand at a starting line, hopefully ready to move on, either to participate in the labor market, continue your education, serve in the military or some other agency, or to exist on the margins of society. Whichever path you follow and whatever your successes and failures, they will be influenced by social forces beyond your control.

You will begin your post-college adventure from an uneven starting line. Students with little or no debt after graduation get a jump-start on becoming solvent financial citizens. The major you completed shapes where you start, although research shows that the gap in earnings between technical and traditional liberal arts degrees lessens over time. The prestige of your degree-granting university also moves you forward or backward on the starting line. But there are even greater forces you will have to have deal with.

Mauro Guillen, in his book "2030," identifies trends that will affect your careers and your lifestyles. World population trends will influence economic opportunities as America grows older and African populations create industrial opportunities. An aging and tech-savvy segment of our population will exert an inordinate influence on social, cultural and economic activities.

An ever-more diverse population will complicate competition for employment and for accumulating wealth. The consequences of climate change will become more impactful on life, and, as Guillen puts it, "our cities will drown first." And then there's how cell phones and technology in general will continue to shape our personal and social lives. And how about what will happen when there are more currencies than nations?

Talk about a challenging future! But as Guillen reminds us, change creates opportunities, and your cohort of graduates will have much to contribute to dealing with the consequences of these trends.

Rely on what you learned in the core curriculum of your degree: think critically, read, write, and talk competently, appreciate the lessons of history, anticipate the consequences of policy and practice, channel your passions, speak out about what needs to change, and think abstractly at the system level. You won't be able to depend on the content you have learned. The specific skills you have learned will change.

Look skeptically at the promises of technology. Learn to conserve nature and preserve meaningful social traditions. Be prepared to address what Yankelovich calls "wicked problems," problems so complex and interdependent that there are no simple solutions, only the possibility of control and mitigation. Your future is fraught with wicked problems, perhaps more so than mine or my ancestors'. Yes, they coped with problems, but your challenge is wicked.

My wish for you is that you can keep your head above the waters of drowning cites, that you can manage to steer a course through a rapidly changing social and cultural worlds, and that your experiences include much happiness and a sustainable future.

Jeff Nash is a retired sociologist living in Fayetteville.

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