The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Some Real Advice For The Class Of 2012

Around this time of year, students graduating college are told how smart they are, how much they’ve accomplished, all the great stuff they’re about to do — “Oh, the places you’ll go!” Bret Stephens has other advice, and it’s probably the best advice any graduating student — especially the Class of 2012 — could get.

Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you. Through exertions that—let’s be honest—were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree. Now you’re entering a lousy economy, courtesy of the very president whom you, as freshmen, voted for with such enthusiasm. Please spare us the self-pity about how tough it is to look for a job while living with your parents. They’re the ones who spent a fortune on your education only to get you back— return-to-sender, forwarding address unknown…

Many of you have been reared on the cliché that the purpose of education isn’t to stuff your head with facts but to teach you how to think. Wrong. I routinely interview college students, mostly from top schools, and I notice that their brains are like old maps, with lots of blank spaces for the uncharted terrain. It’s not that they lack for motivation or IQ. It’s that they can’t connect the dots when they don’t know where the dots are in the first place.

Read the whole thing. It’s funny, and smart. Via Meadia has never agreed with every statement in any speech we have heard, and this one is no exception — but every graduating senior about to head into the labor market needs to reflect on what Bret says here.

Published on May 9, 2012 8:33 am
  • Anthony

    Reads like subtle critique on democracy and our schools – competence, community, and economy – the connecting of the maturation dots.

  • Anthony

    Also WRM, may I suggest Edwin Blashfield “The Graduate” as comparative symbol for Stephens 2012 graduates – Blashfield depicts young graduates being transformed…

  • BillH

    Bret Stephens is brilliant. But like many post-boomers, seems not to have a clue about the role of family in backbone development. I’m 80. I and my real boss drilled into our six from an early age, to do the best job they could at whatever chore they faced, endure whatever was thrown at them, and above all, turn over rocks and study what was under them, all of which I had learned from my parents, not at some stinking school. Those with kids drilled the same into their kids, and we helped. We’re all doing OK. (Even have one grandchild who dropped out of high school 20 years ago, but is self educated, and is positioned nicely with a major software developer in Utah.)

  • Kansas Scott

    I suspect most of your readers will enjoy the essay but it came across to me as too cute by half. He buried some sound points in some pointless slander of an entire generation because he’s met some simpleton representatives of that generation.

    Every generation has found the next generation wanting and it would appear that we are repeating that same mistake. Some will fail and some will fly and that sounds an awful lot like the kids with whom I went to school.

  • Kenny

    Bret Stephens nail it.

    Hopeful parents of kids in high school will read his column translate its meaning to their kids. Undewrstanding what he said could save them a lot of money and from unnecessary disappointment.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “Now to Fact Two: Your competition is global. Shape up. Don’t end your days like a man I met a few weeks ago in Florida, complaining that Richard Nixon had caused his New York City business to fail by opening up China.”

    Fact two and a half: This guy is an idiot. I guess he didn’t learn the Stolpher-Samuelson theorem when he was in college. Hard to think without facts. The word “competition” is no substitute for knowledge and understanding. We (American and European workers) cannot “compete” with dollar-an-hour Chinese workers nor should we be expected to.

    That guy can go to [whatever Mead's minions prefer to call the place]. Stupid ignoramous.

  • trevalyan

    I imagine any number of students would resent this silly article to the point of rage. Even Obama voters have enough foresight to admit that most of the damage to the economy occurred under Bush II. Fraudulent short-term thinking among the financial mavens explain the violent contraction that only bottomed out during the Obama presidency. I understand it’s the fashion to blame young people for the decay of society, but the structural problems that have led America where it is today are certainly the fault of previous generations- and now Generation Y is expected to started with the disadvantages of crippling debt and massive legacy costs.

    The article then proceeds to sneer that competition for students includes people who speak multiple languages and who have hard science degrees. I have an MD, and I’m willing to bet I know more foreign languages than Bret Stephens. Perhaps he should be worried that I would take his job? Even then, I could tolerate the mindless exhortation to improve if his next point didn’t immediately segue into how young people put absurd qualifications on their degree. Really? You mean, to the point where they can become editor-in-chief of JPost at 28? I’m certain Mr. Stephens was very modest about his own accomplishments at that age, but in an era where a number of graduates compete for shrinking job prospects, inevitably some people will have notable qualifications on their resume. It makes little sense to demand accomplishment in one breath and then denounce mentioning it in the next breath.

    The only thing more absurd than this article is the number of people patting Stephens’ back for it. There’s a case to be made against wasting time and money on questionable degrees, but Will Hunting was much more articulate about it than Mr. Stephens. I can’t wait until the dead weight of previous generations are finally sloughed off.

  • Eric

    “Now you’re entering a lousy economy, courtesy of the very president whom you, as freshmen, voted for with such enthusiasm.”

    Of course the economy is President Obama’s fault. The youth job market would have been booming under President McCain.

  • Jeff S.

    The most important observation Stephens makes is that our schools are still relentlessly pursuing their jihad against facts and hard knowledge, while promoting the vacuous “learning how to learn” canard. Stephens’ example of the Ivy League grad who didn’t know who was president in 1956 is a nauseating example of the results of progressive educational ideals.

    Hard facts are the alphabet of knowledge and wisdom, but hostility to them from the education establishment is evident in any random sample of school websites–both public and private.

  • thibaud

    #7 trevelyan nails it. Bret Stephens is a good writer and a decent editorialist, but this was a snide and sophomoric article laced with non-sequiturs about Obama, the military and its critics, and other obsessions of the author.

    Also a tedious one: “back in my day, we used to …” is a joke, a plank for a comedy riff like the old Marty Feldman/Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch.

    Of many WTF? moments, the most bizarre is the badmouthing of elite liberal arts majors by someone with … a liberal arts degree from Berkeley!

    As for the sneers at supposed resume puffery, the author should ask himself whether someone in today’s job market who presented the same level of training, intelligence and credentials that he offered ~25 years ago – as a recent BA with zero knowledge or experience of anything outside a Berkeley seminar hall – would even merit a phone screen from a major company like Dow Jones/NewsCorp.

  • Jim.

    Stephens makes a very good point that most people here are sloughing off– young college grads just starting out (or trying to start out) are punks.

    The best of them realize this, and buckle down to learn what they need to know (that they weren’t taught in college) to stop being punks. The soldier in his article seems to be one such. The complaining Florida man never did learn, it seems.

    College teaches puffery, and puffery produces punks. This needs to change. Internships are one way. Actual accomplishment (and realizing that you’re expected to provide that day-in, day-out, even in the absence of praise, recognition, or other positive reinforcement) is another.

    Look, every human being starts out ignorant. It’s the nature of reality. Sometimes families can teach you enough to correct some of this. (Schools usually don’t.) So to some extent, every generation suffers from this affliction. (This new Fatherless generation may suffer more than others, though.)

    Still, that doesn’t devalue Stephens’ efforts to beat the “punk” out of this generation. Far from it — the fact is he’s performing a task that’s been necessary from time immemorial. For that, he deserves our thanks.

  • Walter Sobchak

    The one thing we can be sure of about Obama is that no matter how long he serves as President, all of the Country’s economic problems will be Bush’s fault.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “A few months ago, I interviewed a young man with an astonishingly high GPA from an Ivy League university and aspirations to write about Middle East politics. We got on the subject of the Suez Crisis of 1956. He was vaguely familiar with it. But he didn’t know who was president of the United States in 1956. And he didn’t know who succeeded that president.”

    Does Mead find similar lacunae among his students?

  • Kris

    trevalyan@7: “I imagine any number of students would resent this silly article to the point of rage.”

    Sufficiently incoherent with rage to pen a sentence such as the following: “Even Obama voters have enough foresight to admit that most of the damage to the economy occurred under Bush II”?

  • jsmith999999

    Dido on Kansas Scott’s comment.

    “We think our Fathers Fools, so wise we grow;
    Our wiser Sons, no doubt, will think us so.”

  • Walter Sobchak
  • trevalyan

    #10 thibaud:

    Thanks.

    #11 Jim:

    As I said before, there are definitely many problems with the college system. Some people would be well-advised to do something with their lives before going into debt for a degree they really don’t need. But Stephens’ opinion piece is extremely vague, sophomoric, and self-assured, while clearly being at odds with how he had progressed back in the late 90′s. He’s not addressing the punk nerve, he’s just a punk that happens to be on top of the heap. He’s also a myopic hypocrite who’s not nearly as talented as he thinks he is: I knew Eisenhower stood against Britain, France, and Israel back when I was 12.

    If you want to see much better advice delivered by a non-punk, Tucker Max (of all people) delivers it to those looking into law school:

    http://www.itsuptoyou.net/why-you-shouldnt-go-to-law-school/

    #14 Kris:

    Feel free to substitute “vision” instead, but the terrible Bush economy was the primary reason for Obama’s election in the first place. It’s strangely gratifying to see you can’t deliver a more thoughtful criticism.

  • Estragon

    As the heroine of the piece, Stephens holds up a female West Point grad fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. That’s neoconservatism in a nutshell: female soldiers fighting Islamic maniacs in pointless, unwinnable wars.

  • Kris

    trevalyan @7 @17:

    “Even Obama voters have enough foresight to admit that most of the damage to the economy occurred under Bush II”.

    Foresight was indeed the wrong word for you to choose, and is “vision” really the best you could come up with after giving the matter more thought? More significantly, is that the only problem you find in that sentence? Let me help you out and rephrase it for you: “Even people stupid enough to vote for Obama are willing/able to admit that Bush is most responsible for the economic situation”. You don’t say! Even Obama supporters are willing to blame Bush? What a shock!

    But hey, whatever gratifies you.

  • Kris

    Bret Stephens:

    A few months ago, I interviewed a young man with an astonishingly high GPA from an Ivy League university and aspirations to write about Middle East politics. We got on the subject of the Suez Crisis of 1956. He was vaguely familiar with it. But he didn’t know who was president of the United States in 1956. And he didn’t know who succeeded that president.
    Pop quiz, Class of ’12: Do you?

    trevalyan@17: “He’s also a myopic hypocrite who’s not nearly as talented as he thinks he is: I knew Eisenhower stood against Britain, France, and Israel back when I was 12.”

    … Good for you. Now do you really think this is common knowledge among college graduates? And even if, incredibly enough, you believe that it is, how does that make Stephens a “myopic hypocrite who’s not nearly as talented as he thinks he is”?

    I’m starting to wonder whether he ran over your dog.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    Gotta know something about the 1956 Suez Crisis college graduates. Quick, now, who was president in 1906?