The commencement address has become part of the campaign trail. How better to showcase your candidate as a man with a vision for tomorrow than to feature him passing along some of his wisdom to the people of tomorrow, those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates going off with an average twenty grand in debt into a marketplace with few job prospects.
These days the man whose administration pays women less than men, which has been repeatedly accused of sexist treatment of its female staff and whose chief speechwriter was photographed groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, has taken to the campaign trail to warn about a "War on Women". And where better to sell the war on women than on campuses which are becoming more female than male.
There's something blatantly patriarchal about a powerful man arriving on a female campus promising to protect its graduates from that other man, but liberalism has long been immune from its own contradictions. Only Obama can protect women from Romney, when he isn't protecting them from being President or saddling them with massive amounts of debt.
The 57 percent tilt of female to male enrollment on campus has also meant a disproportionate share of student loan debt being amassed by women. The students profiled in the recent New York Times article on student debt are almost all female and if anyone has been fighting a war on women, it would be the entire system of academic loan sharks who trade mostly useless degrees for five and six figure debt.
The sheepskin was once a doorway to a privileged world of achievement, but diplomas aren't made of real sheepskin anymore, and the college degree has become as ubiquitous as tacky commencement speeches. Just about anyone who pays a limited amount of attention in school and is willing to take on a pile of debt can get a college degree from somewhere. It won't be worth much, but it will cost a lot.
Universalizing college has not universalized education; it has not made us a better educated country, only a dumber one. Universal education has led to dumbed-down education and meaningless degrees. The only way we could keep moving more and more students up the ladder was by making the ladder as short as possible. Promotion, populist education and educators who barely knew more than the students have taken care of the rest.
The primary purpose of a degree in many fields is to provide demonstrable proof to prospective employers that you aren't an idiot. A high school degree once served that purpose. Now not even a college degree does. But with a surplus of job-seekers, it's a useful way to winnow down the stack of applications to people who can analyze the heteronormative subtext of a detergent commercial and have few options for employment because of their massive student loan debt.
Treating college as the new high school hasn't benefited students who waste four years of their lives and pick up staggering debts which make it harder for them to buy homes and start families, but it has benefited the liberal arts infrastructure, which, despite the liberal spin, is just as good at handing out useless degrees with no career path as any for-profit college. And it has benefited the Democratic Party, which rightly sees college campuses as recruitment grounds and liberal-voter-training seminars.
The commencement speech is supposed to point students toward the future, but where exactly is the future? A generation snickered knowingly when Dustin Hoffman was told that there's a great future in plastics. Well plastics have been doing all-right in the 45 years since "The Graduate" was released. Much better than diplomas and angst-ridden graduates have.
Democratic presidents have told voters that manufacturing might be gone, but there would be degrees for everyone in the fields of tomorrow. Obama has tweaked that pitch to promising "Green Jobs" for all. But those degrees are being partly paid for with debt amassed with the country that has picked up our unwanted manufacturing jobs and built an empire out of them. While students amass their debt, the government amasses its debt, and the holders of that debt are the people who took up our old-fashioned non-degree jobs.
Manhattan, home to Barnard, its sibling Columbia, NYU, Pace, and dozens of others, has one leading line of work, the restaurant business. The restaurant business doesn't require a degree, just the willingness of pretty white people with student debt to wait tables at below minimum wage, and of some of the city's three million illegal aliens to work illegally in the back. The city used to make things, now it makes sandwiches for Chinese tourists going to see a Disney musical on Broadway. Students dissatisfied with the low wages are, according to the erratically reliable New York Post, working at strip clubs. Fidel Castro boasted, that in Cuba, even the prostitutes have university degrees. Adopting the socialist degrees for everyone approach means we can now say the same thing.
Colleges, are, unsurprisingly, the second-highest employer in Manhattan, followed by lawyers, hospitals and investment banks. This is not a unique snapshot; you can see similar things in London and Paris, and they are symptoms of countries whose centers have stopped doing anything except eating overpriced lunches, getting overpriced degrees, losing their money on bad investments, suing each other and then dying.
It's not much of a future for a student body or a nation, which is why commencement speeches, including the one by the Debtor-in-Chief, don't focus on such grim realities. Instead they play to the illusion that college is a gateway of opportunities, which it still occasionally is, but at a diminishing percentage. There is the usual advice about trying things, usually unexpected things, following your dreams and all the free-spirited pieties that are the antidote to "Plastics are the Future".
For those students not privileged enough to serve as the backdrop for "War on Women 2012", there are consolation prize speakers like Mayor Bloomberg, who traveled 500 miles to a state where no one had gotten sick of him yet, to speak at the University of North Carolina, Michelle Obama, who showed up at Virginia Tech, and Jill Biden who bored students at Borward College. Howard University had to make do with Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the best fit for a historically black school since Richard Simmons delivered the commencement address at Tuskegee University.
None of them will tell the students that the jobs are gone, that they were shipped overseas so that colleges like this could have more degree programs in environmental studies and transgender studies in comparative literature. They won't clue them in that these are campaign stops for the party that has bankrupted the country and whose only fallback strategy is to promise more debt for everyone. Their message will be the same predictably trite, "You can make a difference."
That's true enough, you can make a difference, but that's harder and harder to do in a country where the horizons have been chained down by a massive bureaucracy and where you have to fill out forty forms in triplicate for permission to do even the smallest things, let alone make a difference. Colleges don't exist to teach students to make a difference, they exist to turn out a generation of bureaucrats or aspiring bureaucrats who can be counted on to reliably turn out in defense of privileges and rules. If you want someone to tell you why you can't do something, there's a degree for that. If you want someone who makes a difference, you're probably looking for a college dropout.
Education has long ago given way to indoctrination, to political finishing schools where it's hard to learn anything worthwhile, but easy to learn the habits of intellectual snobbery. "I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses," went the old song. "Things are going great, and they're only getting better." These days all the teachers are crazy and they all wear dark glasses. Nobody studies nuclear science anymore, only the science of telling other people what to do because it's what best for them. There's no nuclear armageddon ticking away in labs, just a million community organizing Dr. Strangeloves who know that they have to destroy the nation to save its soul.
When the speeches are done, the obligatory jokes, the namechecks of the university president, the multitude of variations on "Reach for the stars, keep your shoulder to the wheel and go camp out near Wall Street to complain about corporate bonuses," then the students sweating under the hot sun, will walk away feeling oddly heavy and light at the same time. On their shoulders is a bundle of debt and the hopes of a nation. The future's so bright they gotta wear mortarboards.