An Honest Commencement Speech

The future is not necessarily bright for recent college graduates. Students often leave college with enormous debt and mediocre education. If a university chancellor were to be honest with his students about the state of affairs, I think this is what he would say at their commencement.

Congratulations, graduates! You’ve worked hard to earn your degrees, and you deserve the lucrative, fulfilling life that was promised to you. Now you are probably expecting to hear a speech that motivates you—that puts stars in your eyes and fire in your hearts, that makes you see the world in a new way, and that helps you discover new opportunities.

But I can’t give that speech—not in good conscience. Instead, I am here to apologize. I want to apologize on behalf of the faculty, the administrators, the high school counselors and teachers, the media, and the politicians. We all lied to you. You will not be getting what you were promised, and for many of you the hard part is just beginning.

When you were in high school, you were told you would be going to college, and you didn’t question it. Your teachers and counselors all reassured you that college graduates earn more than mere high school graduates, and that college was a no-brainer. You accepted those numbers, partly because high schools don’t teach kids to scrutinize statistical claims, and partly because only lazy, unintelligent, unsuccessful people don’t go to college—or so you were told—and you didn’t want to be one of those.

Late into your junior year of high school, you started applying for colleges. You didn’t have any idea what you wanted to study, and even if you did, you had no idea what profession you wanted to work in after you graduated. How could you know? You were 17. All you knew was that your parents beamed at you with pride, for no one in the family had ever attended college before—you would be the first.

You asked your counselors for help deciding which colleges to apply to and which major to join, and in response they had you search your soul: “Identify your passions and pick a field of study that interests you,” they instructed. This would be the first of many times you heard the slogan, “Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” (the irony of this statement would dawn on you late into your college career when you started struggling to line up a job post-graduation).

You decided that psychology was interesting to you, so you researched and compared psychology degree programs at different colleges until you found some reputable programs at schools nearby. All these schools had attractive websites that sucked you in with prominently-featured statistics such as “85% of our graduates are employed.” Again without scrutinizing these numbers, you wasted no time applying.

Over the next few months, you started receiving some acceptance letters in the mail. You visited some colleges, and they wooed you with a slew of amenities—extravagant fitness facilities, luxurious dormitories, grand concert halls, a student center replete with shops, restaurants, and recreation—all of which make your college experience more expensive, but not more educational. Nevertheless, you were eventually drawn to this school, falling in love with its nineteenth century architecture and beautiful campus scenery.

And here is where you spent the next four years of your life. You were a good student, you kept your grades up, and now you’re graduating. No doubt you feel optimistic and prepared to start the next phase of your life.

But you’re not prepared. Higher education has failed you. It failed you from the very beginning, and for that, I want to apologize.

I apologize that, when you were a junior in high school, no one bothered to tell you that plumbers, electricians, steelworkers, and other skilled tradespeople earn as much or more than graduates with many popular four-year degrees. I apologize that no one told you about the massive talent shortage in the United States, with almost half of all employers reporting difficulty filling positions, mostly in the skilled trades.

I apologize that, when you were choosing a major, none of your counselors thought earning potential or job placement were important criteria in the decision. No one mentioned that, “although psychology is a noble, exciting field of study, a mathematics and computer science graduate with a salary at the 25th percentile will still likely out-earn a psychology graduate with a salary at the 75th percentile.” This is not to say that salary should be considered more important than your passions and interests, but it should have at least been brought up.

I apologize that politicians were complicit in this scheme by devoting massive subsidies to higher education and artificially suppressing interest rates for student loans (which is another form of subsidy for higher education). With this endless stream of subsidized income, schools could continue to offer unmarketable niche degrees like fine arts, social work, and counseling psychology.

I apologize that, when you were deciding which school to attend, the attractive websites never told you that their graduate employment rate of 85% was achieved by counting any and all jobs—not just jobs in your field of study or good-quality, full-time, high-paying jobs. I apologize that almost half of you will end up in jobs for which you did not need a bachelor’s degree; among this group, over a third will have unskilled, low-wage jobs like bartending or cashiering, and over a fifth will only find part-time work.

I apologize for the fact that, on average, each of you is graduating with over $37,000 in student loan debt, a debt that each of you will be paying roughly $350 each month to service for the next 21 years. Over one in ten of you will default on your debt, and you will be unable to get out from under your student loan debt through bankruptcy.

I apologize that all you have to show for taking on this burden is a level of general, cultural, and historical knowledge that is only on par with that of mere high school graduates in 1955.

In sum, I apologize that we—the education establishment—tricked you into going to college, choosing a low-salary, low-job-security major, taking on enormous amounts of debt to do so, and not even receiving a spectacular education. Graduating from college was supposed to be liberating. In reality, you’ve stepped into a trap from which you will spend a good portion of your adult life trying to escape.

For all this I am sorry.

Because commencement speeches are supposed to be about the future, though, I would like to offer some advice to help spare future generations from these problems:

If and when you have children of your own, teach them to question the idea that “everyone needs to go to college”; working in a skilled trade and obtaining a more technical degree are perfectly legitimate, respectable options.

Urge your children to consider more than just their passions and interests when choosing a major; earning potential and job placement should weigh heavily too, especially if taking on debt is likely.

Finally, scrutinize any politician who promises to make college “affordable” by subsidizing it. Colleges usually capture these subsidies and raise tuition instead of lowering it.

If we do all this, there may in fact be hope for students and our system of higher education. Thank you, and good luck.

An Honest Commencement Speech

We Need A Yes-Means-Yes Policy for Government

The concept of consent has long been an important justification for western democracy (i.e., governments derive their just powers “from the consent of the governed”), and most people in the west accept this justification when evaluating the authority of their own governments. They believe they must obey the government because society has somehow consented to its authority.

In order to consent to authority, though, we must first figure out what consent is. Many people gloss over this task, but one social movement that works diligently to define and promote consent is feminism. Feminists, through their advocacy of a sex-positive culture (removing unhealthy stigmas on sex), have thoroughly developed a standard of affirmative consent.

Affirmative consent policies (also known as “yes-means-yes” policies) generally redefine consent for sexual intercourse to include only enthusiastic verbal consent. Some policies even require that consent must be reaffirmed periodically throughout any sexual encounter—anything less could constitute rape. Colleges and universities are the most common adopters of such policies, but state and local governments have also passed yes-means-yes laws.

Although yes-means-yes policies sometimes use overly narrow or impractical definitions of consent, the policies have a noble purpose of preventing violence. Violence is bad not only in sexual relationships, though. If affirmative consent is an appropriate standard for sexual relationships, why not apply it to all relationships? What happens when we apply affirmative consent to the relationship between the individual and the state?

It soon becomes obvious that the relationship between the individual and the state is not consensual. Not one citizen ever explicitly and deliberately signed a “social contract.” And even if one did, no one explicitly reaffirms this contract on a periodic basis. In fact, such an action would be impossible, since most western governments were created before the citizens they govern were born.

Many people acknowledge those facts, but respond that social contracts instead rely on tacit consent. By performing (or not performing) certain actions, citizens demonstrate what can effectively be considered consent to the current governmental system. Examples of such behavior include receiving government benefits, or remaining within the country.

Libertarians have long argued against tacit consent, but how would feminism approach the issue? Let’s consider a hypothetical: A man asks a woman out on a date, and she agrees to go. He then picks her up in a flashy car, brings her flowers, buys her dinner at a fancy restaurant, and takes her to a movie. Dropping her off at home, however, he becomes irate when she does not invite him up to her apartment.

“Didn’t you enjoy the evening?” he asks. “I bought you flowers and dinner, and took you to a movie! Surely that has to count for something!”

It is true that the woman voluntarily went on a date with the man, and though she had the ability to refuse any and all gifts, still accepted the bouquet of flowers, the decadent meal, and all his witty compliments. But would you tell her that, given these circumstances, she now “owed him” for the nice evening?

Feminism teaches us that the man’s anger is unjustified, and most people would accept that she does not owe him any sort of sexual favors, despite accepting all his romantic gestures. Yet somehow the story changes when we replace the man with the state, and replace the woman with any individual citizen. Substituting schools, roads, and national defense for flowers, dinner, and movie tickets somehow renders affirmative consent an invalid principle. We “owe” the state because we received these benefits. Why?

The analogy is actually too charitable to the state. In some cases, you are forced to receive government benefits, such as retirement savings and health insurance. Would we say the man on the date is more deserving of sexual favors if his female companion couldn’t refuse to be with him? Quite the opposite—here any kind of consent would be questionable at best.

Even if we acknowledge that receiving government services does not indicate consent, one fallback position remains for social contract advocates: “You have every opportunity to leave the country,” they sneer. “Therefore, choosing to remain must be interpreted as your consent.”

Let us once again view this argument through the feminist lens: At the end of the evening, with the man and the woman still sitting in the car in front of her apartment, the woman refuses the man’s sexual advances. The man then locks the doors and responds, “OK, you can go. But first you have to pay me $2,350. Also, I’m friends with the owners of the restaurant, the flower shop, and the movie theater. If you refuse me, you will never be able to visit those places again. I’ll also spread nasty rumors about you! And finally, you have to have sex with me as if you had chosen to invite me up!” These are not random demands—they draw direct inspiration from the government’s conditions for renouncing U.S. citizenship.

The woman has two options: 1) She can have sex with the man, keep her $2,350 and her reputation, and visit those establishments in the future; or 2) she can have sex with the man, never visit those places again, become a social pariah, and her wallet will be over $2k lighter.

In which option does she truly, affirmatively consent to have sex with the man?

But let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt, and stipulate that they don’t charge you a fee, tax you, publicly shame you, and deny you certain benefits in order to leave. Let’s say it was free.

Where will you go?

Let’s say the man let the woman out of his car unconditionally, but not in front of her house—rather, in a dangerous neighborhood after dark. Dropping her off far from home is not necessarily a coercive act, but it does pose a risk to her. If she begged him to take her home, but he would not unless she agreed to have sex, would we consider her consent valid?

“But the world outside the United States is not a dangerous neighborhood,” social contract advocates might respond. In one sense they are right. Some countries (neighborhoods) are better than others. Likewise, the man could drop the woman off in a dangerous neighborhood during the day instead of at night. But would we now say she is able to give robust consent to having sex with him?

I believe honestly answering these questions shows just how silly and twisted the idea of tacit consent really is, especially in the context of government. Those who believe in affirmative consent should reconsider the institutions (such as the state) they often take for granted, and not just celebrate sex-positivity, but also politics-positivity. If we wish to be consistent, it is clear we need a yes-means-yes policy for government.

We Need A Yes-Means-Yes Policy for Government