Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Graduation Speech I Have Not Yet Given

I’m glad to be speaking today at Keats College of the North, where five hundred English, philosophy, and history majors are set to be knighted and sent out into the Great Unknown.

Good luck.  You have probably wasted at least four years of your lives and are in debt, on average, about $40,000 dollars.  And by-the-way, your student loan rate will be doubled to 6% in June unless the Congress finds its courage.  Get used to the 6%.

 Don’t get me wrong.  I have a BS in English education, an MA in Literature, and a PhD in Philosophy with a concentration in literature.  I think everyone should be deeply rooted in literature, philosophy and history.  The current social media discourse indicated how vital this need is.  I have never lost my love of literature, especially poetry.  I’ve published my share of books and critical articles for the journals.  I just completed a course about Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” and his “Sonnets to Orpheus,” given by the Jung Foundation in New York.  I just finished an epic, book-length poem, “The Archetype of the Gun.”  The itch never goes away.

 So what you have learned at this fine college will likely be with you and nourish your soul for the rest of your life.  Well, that’s something.  You might decide to stand off to the side at cocktail parties raging against the inanity of Twitter and the utter insanity of Yahoo!, buying Tumblr because everyone knows the content on this platform is long but vapid and mainly pornographic.  Vent a little.  You will still have Keats and Shelley to keep you warm.

 I received my PhD more than thirty years ago.  I did everything right.  I aced my oral and written exams.  Wrote a blockbuster dissertation that no one read: “Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Three Catholic Novelists: Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor.”  I received a number of two-year job offers in Michigan, Washington, and Indiana.  Even then, full-time university positions in the humanities were beginning to dry up.  Then my son was born, and I didn’t want to drag a family around the country chasing short-term jobs with little prospects for tenure.  So I took a job with a media company and started over.  My first assignment was to research the health benefits of fish.

 That is no fish story.  And my lot was so much easier than yours is likely to be.  Recently New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg suggested, to the anticipated roar of disapproval, that high school students might be better off learning to be a plumber rather than going to college.  That seems good advice.  Having lived in the Bronx, I know that finding a plumber is harder to find than dope.

If you think that’s insulting, not the dope, consider the Op-Ed piece written a few weeks ago in the WSJ by Kirk McDonald, president of PubMatic, an ad tech company in Manhattan.  His piece tells the tale: “Sorry, College Grads, I Probably Won’t Hire You.”  McDonald introduces himself as your next potential dream boss.  “I run a cool, rapidly growing company in the digital field, where the work is interesting and rewarding.  But I’ve got to be honest about some unfortunate news:  I’m probably not going to hire you.”

 The bearer of bad news is certainly not suggesting that you have goofed off during your college years.  This is Keats College of the North, after all.   In a way, the fault, my friends, lies not in you but in the stars.  Or in the educational establishment that has not prepared you for a world where science, engineering, technology and math are king.

 But good news, McDonald has a simple way that you can beef up your resume, stand out from the crowd, and get in his front door:  learn computer code.  He doesn’t mean you need to become a programmer—God forbid.  McDonald is suggesting that “If you want a job in media, technology or a related field, make learning basic computer language your goal this summer.  There are plenty of services—some free and others affordable—that will set you on your way.”

 So instead of going to the beach this summer, “Get acquainted with APIs.  Dabble in a bit of Python.”  When you become acquainted with a couple of programming languages, move that skill to the top of your resume.  The world awaits you.

You might take some comfort in knowing that this prescription also applies to many who have been in the workforce for decades, including yours truly.  For at least fifty years, media executives tended to have a liberal arts education and that was quite sufficient.  After all, a liberal arts education usually ensures someone can write, research, analyze, and draw strategic conclusion.  And these abilities readily find a place in the business setting.

However, the disruption of the media space is unrelenting and anyone wanting to advance in the media field or even keep her job better enjoy a high Digital IQ and understand the technology and analytics that reside underneath that beautiful User Interface.  As McDonald nicely puts it, “Unless you understand the fundamentals of what engineers and programmers do, unless you are familiar enough with the principles of coding to know how the back end of the business works, any answer you give is a guess and therefore probably wrong.”

You’ll recall the first line of Keats’ poem “On First looking into Chapman’s Homer”:  “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.”  Hold that thought and that line.  It will make you spiritually rich.

But still learn code.  That’s where the earthly riches lie.

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