Matthew Arnold’s Address to the Class of 2013

Commencement season always brings with it a lot of hand-wringing about the utility of a college education, liberal arts education specifically.  This year’s angst is more feverish than usual, given the dismal employment prospects of graduates unlucky enough to be handed their sheepskins during the Obama administration. The national dialogue is a good thing, though, because most of us never examine our assumptions about what it means to be an educated person.

The voice of her generation.

The voice of her generation.

Because we are a culture obsessed with labels, we tend to regard a college degree as just that, a label that tells the consumer (parent/ employer/friend) straight away if the product (student/graduate) is from K-Mart (community colleges), Costco (state universities), or Cartier (the COHFE schools). The labeling doesn’t stop there, of course.  Most proprietaries have Rent-a-Center mark, and if you look closely at marginal third- and fourth-tier independent colleges, you’ll see a Pier One stamp.

Woe to the student who’s the graduate of a TJMaxx (many, many institutions of different kinds bear this label): he may have stumbled into a place where the faculty is superb, the courses are thoughtful and challenging, and expectations are high. He may truly be “an educated person.” Consumers will never know him for what he is, for they will lose interest after they see his off-price label.

For me, the best definition of the educated person describes not the actual person, but what such a person does. No one said this better than Victorian rock star Matthew Arnold, who defined such activity as a

disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideals.

One prevailing definition of the educated person, however, seems to conflate disinterested critical acumen with technical expertise: “Major in something useful like marketing or computers!” Don’t get me wrong.  We’d be in a sorry fix without the legion of smart and talented accountants, nurses, actors, computer programmers and the like whose very real and very valuable specialized knowledge makes the world work.  Thank goodness for K-Mart CC and Costco U, for these are the colleges and universities whose graduates keep the trains running on time.

Meanwhile, another definition of “educated person” prevails for alumni of COHFE schools, especially to their liberal arts divisions.  Again, it defines not so much the person, but his exclusive opportunities:

  • the internships open only to students at his institution;
  • the recruiters from McKinsey, et al that annually descend on the career services office of his university;
  • the extra weight a graduate school admissions officer assigns his transcript;
  • the access to alumni clubs and networks that ensure the path to the top is reserved for those of identical branding.

The bookish grad of TJMaxx U longing for a shot as a gopher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux should check the status of his application for the cashier position at Barnes & Noble, because a Smith alumna has had that FSG job sewn up since the end of her sophomore year.


Mathew Arnold was a poet and essayist.  We would do well to consider what he had to say in both his poetry and prose.  His misgivings about the new and the old, the natural and the contrived deeply resonate with our conflicted ideas about education as well as the deep divisions and inequities within higher education itself.

So I’ll end this threnody on education and Commencement with a stanza from The Scholar-Gipsy, in the hopes that it will send you to the poem in its entirety.  Read it–Arnold will help you understand the mess we’re in today. Recent college graduates, he writes, are

Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
       Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will’d,
Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
       Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill’d;
               For whom each year we see
Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new;
       Who hesitate and falter life away,
       And lose to-morrow the ground won to-day—

Best of luck to the Class of 2013.

Not exactly what Arnold had in mind.

Not exactly what Arnold had in mind.

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