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An Open Letter to this Year’s High School Graduates

Dear 2015 High School Graduates,

This year, about 3.3 million of you will be tossing your caps up in the air, celebrating having made it through the gauntlet that is secondary education. About 66% of you will, in the span of a few short months, become college students. Many of you are excited about this, and you should be. For centuries, young people have been going to colleges and universities with the same attitude that settlers of the American West did in the 19th century (minus the genocidal tendencies, one would hope), an attitude of optimism and hunger. Students sat down at their first class ready scarf down all of the knowledge that they could with the aim of becoming wiser, better people, of preparing for a long life ahead. I felt this way back in 2001, when I entered my freshman year at a large public university in Illinois. But my experience teaching community college very recently leads me to suspect that very few of you feel the same way about your freshman year. I suspect that I know why this is.

College used to be a real marketplace of ideas, a place where different intellectual disciplines populated a bazaar in which they vied for the affection and interest of the students. Students were dropped off at said bazaar each August, encouraged to strike out and navigate for themselves. For a long time, each discipline was given more or less the same space in the proverbial bazaar; that is not so much the case anymore.

More and more, the 3P Posse (parents, politicians, and pundits) are pushing out merchants from the bazaar. States continue to cut funding to the non-STEM portions of public universities and community colleges. Universities and community colleges are consolidating or eliminating academic departments altogether. An increasing amount of official communication from colleges and universities espouses a mission of preparing students for careers. The message (at least to me) is clear: no time for finding yourself and trying to become well-rounded, get in, get out, and get in a job — preferably one that helps grow the prized sectors of the economy. Society is not interested in your overall well-being, just how well you are prepared to work (again, preferably in certain sectors).

Perhaps none of this is surprising to you, and that would just go to show me how out of touch I am. But I hold out hope that many of you are still looking forward to college as something more than just getting ready to work at a tech giant, an engineering firm, or what have you.

With that in mind, I give you, the graduating class of 2015, 4 things to remember as you creep into postsecondary life:

  1. Your parents, politicians, and business leaders are trying to reduce your college education to mere job training, slicing off and throwing away those portions of it that can serve to help you be a happier, wiser, more well-rounded and thoughtful person; don’t let them.

I hope that these words invigorate you enough to carry out the duty that is incumbent upon each generation as they begin their respective journeys. That duty manifests as a choice. This is now your world to either accept or reject, and change to your liking. That acceptance or change happens now, when your parents and their generation begin to hand over the reigns to you, and you decide whether or not the status quo is good enough for you. I will give you a hint; it is not, and it should never be.

Good Luck and Godspeed,

Mike Sturm

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Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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