COMMENCEMENT DAY AT THE ETHICALLY-CHALLENGED UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, URBANA-CHAMPAIGN

May 16, 2015

A financial writer, Bill Bonner, addresses graduates:

“If you’ve studied the sciences or engineering – especially petroleum engineering, according to a study done by Georgetown University – maybe you’ll be able to earn enough money to pay your student debt. But most of you have wasted your money, with degrees in subjects that won’t help you understand the real world we live in or earn an extra dime in it. Many of you have actually spent the best years of your lives, and borrowed a fortune, to learn things that aren’t true. History, economics, government, politics – for every useful and truthful insight you may have learned, there are probably 100 more that were buried under claptrap.”

The university as we know it predates capitalism. It was invented a thousand years ago in Europe as a means of intellectual control – a system for licensing scholars by the church and the state. In that millennium, many of the greatest European spirits – from Erasmus to Marx – were driven out of the university. Erasmus, in one of his brief stops at a university – Cambridge, in England – writes, “There is a great absence here, everyone being away for fear of the plague. Of course, when everyone is here, there’s a great absence here as well.”

For largely accidental reasons, I’ve been privileged to attend and teach in some of the most prestigious eductional institutions in the US for more than half a century. What have I learnt? The truth of American philosopher John Dewey’s observation from a century ago, which my TV colleague Ron Szoke often quotes:

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

If I could advise my youthful self at my college commencement, I would begin with, “Stop thinking about tomorrow. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” – an editorial comment on the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel according to Matthew. (“The same words, in Hebrew, are used to express the same thought in the Rabbinic Jewish saying dyya l’tzara b’shaata (דיה לצרה בשעתה), ‘the suffering of the present hour is enough for it.’ It is also similar to the Epicurean advice of writers such as Anacreon and Horace — quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere [avoid asking what the future will bring].”)

I wish I could have taken seriously the revolutionary advice Matthew is commenting on:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” –Noam Chomsky