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My Commencement Speech to KU Graduates
Do what you want to do – but have a backup plan
Everyone making a commencement speech will tell you – it’s very simple to say, but very hard to actually do -
Do what you want to do, do what makes you happy!
But in the next breath, those who are being honest will tell you a second thing: most of the time in life, you cannot do what you want to do for a living. In fact, for most of us, there will come many times in life when you don’t have any idea of what you want to do next.
Sometimes it’s helped by a calling (Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey).
Other times it’s helped by a lot of preparation.
And yet other times, after what seems often like waiting forever - it might result in a black swan event (an unexpected event out of the blue) (Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Black Swan).
Most of you will have to do many other things in life in order to make a living. Often these are things that you can build on later in life, but you don’t know it at the time.
They will sometimes be remarks that are made in passing, which can trigger an idea for you that, if you follow up, will make a complete difference. Or they can be jobs you don’t like doing, but which you apparently have to do. Later in life they will appear to be very significant, but when they come up now they are often an irritation, to say the very least.
If you don’t prepare yourself for multiple possibilities for the future, you might very well be left in the dark when the time comes to make that next step towards the future.
And also as you get older, when jobs can be tight and very hard to get, if you haven’t made that preparation earlier, it can be extremely difficult to do it later in life.
And that’s where your last four or five years at the university could – but probably haven’t – made a difference.
Kansas University studies and the debts you'll have to pay later
University work, as presently designed, is a very poor experience for many people. It doesn’t leave you with enough flexibility, while at the same time it encourages debt accumulation.
This article just came out, and the previous one a few days earlier:
It confirms exactly what I have indicated in this article! Things have to be done differently in the future.
At present, a college education leaves you with very little practical experience after four years. That was certainly true for me years ago when I attended a commencement ceremony. In the back of my head was the thought, over and over again, “What will I do next?”
Part of the time I thought that I had the world ahead of me with hardly a worry. But how wrong I was.
There need to be many changes at the university level, often with different and varied teachers. We need to use more teachers from the community, who may not have advanced degrees but who have a lot of practical knowledge.
You need to go back and forth between campuses
For example, you need to be able to go back and forth between campuses. There are things you can learn at K-State which you will never be able to get at Kansas University. Farming and horticulture is one of many examples. From Emporia you might find a special teacher there you will want to use, and you would also get a smaller town experience. And you might want to go to Fort Hayes, for online training and to develop future on-line courses.
There is also the possibility of including private schools, from Baldwin City and Ottawa to Southwestern College in Winfield, for an even broader view of college education.
At the present time, you can not do these things at KU, or any other Kansas school, to the best of my knowledge – which is to go back and forth at will, to really choose the courses that you want to take or try.
And because you can’t do it, your hard-earned money is partly wasted.
Useful and Practical Skills
You also need to develop practical and useful skills. This is part of the backup I mentioned earlier. I found that I had extremely useful typing and editorial skills, and I also had very good skills at putting things together, which was useful in the army. When I got out, and eventually came to San Francisco, these skills played a very useful role in keeping me alive for the first several years.
Moreover, I kept learning new things – my first job in San Francisco was with an engineering firm. Before that I had expressed scorn at engineering – but I soon changed my mind when I saw the kinds of projects these people were working on.
You need to acquire a number of different skills, which you can use as necessary, building upon all of them. But this is not what the present Kansas university education is all about.
There needs to be a complete revamping of the curriculum. Many classes you only need a taste of, not a full semester. I had to take math classes, but I never have used most of the advanced classes to this day.
On the other hand, some business classes I was disdainful of taking, yet I wished later that I had a basic knowledge of business when I really needed it.
I also needed basic medical training, among other things. The medical training I might need when traveling in less developed countries as well as for myself and the friends and family around me throughout my life. Of course, these courses weren't available at KU.
A lot of these classes could be condensed into 6 weeks or less. This is particularly true today, when online learning is becoming more popular.
And the following just came out, as well:
more on free courses on line, this time with Stanford:
As I have written before, digital libraries could revolutionize small towns:
And by the way, online learning should eventually decrease your debts, as it extends more deeply into all aspects of learning, and allows for more to be done on your own with the (online) help of other students who are going through the same thing.
It is also important to have older people at school. In your 40s to the end of life, if your mind is open, you have the need for new ideas. You may have the idea for a start-up company at the age of 50 or 60. Why is it, so many years after graduation, that I still see so few middle-aged and older people on campus?
The lifeblood of a campus is people of all ages. But, after all these years, I still don’t see many people of all ages at the University of Kansas. And many of the people I do see are university staff and professors.
Consider getting rid of tenure
Consider getting rid of tenure. Many of the professors, after receiving tenure, have their little sinecures and have no intention of branching further out.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. There are some professors who work very hard, and extend new things into their work constantly. Many grad students work very hard for really very little money.
KU should be more involved in other countries and in poorer parts of Kansas. Students and professors could create solar and all kinds of alternate energy, carry out teaching, learn new arts and music, and hear the stories of different traditions. Students and professors could work together between the different campuses. And these are just some examples of the things that need to be done. Classes and studies need to better reflect the needs of real societies today.
Professors presently go to different countries for conferences, but there often was never any real involvement by students in most parts of the world – and there still isn’t. We really aren’t helping the rest of the world to move toward the future in their own way.
Meanwhile, because we haven’t learned foreign languages well, and because we have very little knowledge of different cultures and traditions, we are falling way behind.
A few tidbits of wisdom
African culture, for example, is respectful of older people. You can learn a lot if you will take an interest in all kinds of different age groups.
If you are of a religious bent, learn from the various religions. All of them have special practices which can be important later in life.
Be respectful of immigrants and of people who have lived in this society for only a short time. They can teach you a lot, especially when it comes to learning from patience and observation.
This story, which just came out, is typical of what older people and immigrants can bring to a university:
Don’t think that, just because you have a degree, you are better than others. That’s far from true.
Be embracing of change throughout your life. If you become hard and rigid, you will find that new things will not open up for you.
Take an active role in reforming the university
Take an active role in reforming the university. A writer suggested recently that - regarding the regents – they were able to have the very best seats for watching football.
But we need different kinds of regents in office, rather than those who like to watch football. Form groups and take an active role in forming a different structure for picking the regents. And choose regents who care deeply about the arts, culture and traditions, engineering, science, and who especially have part of their roots and experience in other parts of the world. They will then care about a lot more things than having a good seat at a football game.
In fact, I suspect in the future we may have lots of smaller campuses in more towns, not bigger campuses in a few major towns.
The regents should be people who care about where the university system is going, how universities can be combined to present new things, instead of just carrying on in their current ways. They should have open meetings with people throughout the year in various cities throughout the state, and these should be videotaped for future viewing by anyone who was interested.
The end result is...
The end result is that you don’t receive that much of the education you really need for life's future work. And a great deal of the money you put into the university is for things you will never use. Meanwhile, the debt that many of you will have to pay off is tremendous.
Until you receive a much broader education, which covers all kinds of topics, and you can move between campuses to get what you really want – or want to try – KU is short changing you. And you should know it. At the administrative level KU is not just about campus politics, or getting the girl or guy in the next room to notice you – it’s about what you are going to be in the future. And it’s about what you care about in the future, which may impact many people’s lives throughout the world.
And it means more than you can imagine to keep the lower and middle classes going to the universities in the future.
Keep yourself as healthy as you can.
Do things for others throughout your life. This will constantly give you new friends and new interests. Your life won’t stagnate.
And finally: As Buddhists say, keep a beginner’s mind. Always be open to new things and new ideas.
I would like to hear from others throughout Kansas and the world, on the ways in which they would change the universities of this state so that they can adapt to the modern circumstances of the present world.
Go out from this campus with a clear mind, and see what you can do – not just for yourself – but for the world!
In keeping with my hope that the universities of Kansas will become more world-oriented, the illustrations are of different campaniles (bell towers) from around the world.