COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS: “WHEN THE GOING GETS WEIRD…”
Some reflections and “pro tips” to complement Prof. Maniates’ commencement address (annotated text and video) to Yale-NUS College’s Class of 2020
And the infamous “Splash” video too!
Graduates and colleagues: Do you have additional pro-tips? Email them to be shared with others, or leave a public comment below.
Rough Waters: Q & A with Michael Maniates on his 2020 Commencement Address
Interviewer: At the end of your 2020 Yale-NUS College Commencement address, you promised to post some “pro tips” to your website. Before we get to those, let’s talk some about your speech.
Michael Maniates: My pleasure.
INT: To begin, why the elaborate rafting metaphor, from the beginning when you rush into your flat after setting up the rafts for the Class of 2020’s voyage, to the end when things get wet?
MM: Three reasons, really. The metaphor was familiar to the graduates from my lecture in their iteration of Scientific Inquiry 2 (a common curriculum course required of all students). I also was intent on wearing a life jacket and holding a paddle when processing in, and taking the stage fully adorned when my turn to speak rolled around. I knew I could make this visual component meaningfully memorable though, of course, that was before we learned that we’d be going virtual.
But the big reason, truthfully, was that I was struggling to write a speech that would show the Class of 2020 respect by speaking frankly to their predicament, to the gnarly challenges they face. But I didn’t want to be a downer – graduation is “supposed to be a happy occasion,” after all. And, let me tell you, the first few drafts of my talk were dark. Which, as folks who know me will attest, isn’t at all my style. The next few drafts went in the other direction: chirpy and raa raa and “you can do it!,” without any connection to how and why. That felt utterly inauthentic. I hated it.
I eventually returned to the rafting theme, which I had hit on but discarded when the graduation ceremony went virtual, and found that it worked. Anyone who has rafted big water will tell you that it’s hard, scary, and often uncomfortable, but that as you pick your way downstream with scrapes, bruises, or worse, you discover within yourself skills, confidence, and resilience that you sorta knew you had, but didn’t fully recognize.
INT: That helps me understand those moments in your speech where you assert that the Class of 2020’s “liberal arts powers” will be fully revealed when things get rough.
MM: Yeah, I really believe that. I’ve seen it again and again from working with liberal-arts students for almost 30 years. They don’t know how extraordinary they are, or how well their weirdness will serve them. When they hit the job market, they often wish they had a deeper well of accepted expertise, had selected a university that allowed them to chose their major earlier, or had followed the familiar path of job-ready specialization.
These feelings are understandable, common, and utterly foolish. Liberal-arts students are just 3% of all college grads in any given year and, generally speaking, they’ve been educated and approach problems differently than their peers. They succeed when they own their differences — celebrate them, in fact — rather than running from them.
INT: Wait, 3%? Really?
MM: Yes, isn’t that amazing? Liberal-arts grads are something special, and Yale-NUS grads even more so. If they stay true to their “liberal arts commitments” to a vigorous life of the mind; embrace of ambiguity, justice and compassion; the careful intermingling of disciplines and methodologies; and, especially, a humble fearlessness when confronting daunting problems, they will master the river.
Alas, our graduates too often overlook the power that derives from their weirdness. Or, indeed, the virtue of weirdness itself. It’s hard to be the odd one, and so very tempting to deny one’s essence in order to fit in with the pack.
INT: But isn’t the privilege and price of weirdness something your colleagues and you discuss with students?
MM: Only haphazardly, I think. I often wish that we spoke more intentionally, in class and elsewhere on campus, about the defining aims of the liberal-arts experience, about how this experience is meant, historically and today, to provide a vital counterpoint to the educational exaltation of specialization and efficiency. To produce thoughtful citizens who are drawn to working in common for the common good.
Mostly, it seems to me, those of us in the liberal-arts community boast about scale (we’re small), the breadth of our curriculum (we don’t let students major in a subject until two years in), the benefits of residential living, the research achievements of our faculty, and the job-placement rate of our graduates, as if these were ends unto themselves.
But there’s more to the story. The liberal arts experience is about cultivating weirdness. About producing useful irritants. About empowering people to ask the questions that need to be voiced, and to take responsibility for developing useful answers. There’s power there, and goodness too. And it resides in each member of the Class of 2020, a testament to their inspired effort these past four years, and to the unstinting dedication and prodigious talents of their faculty mentors.
INT: If your address was, implicitly, an invitation to aggressively acknowledge the special powers of liberal-arts grads, and Yale-NUS College students in particular, how could that happen?
MM: One place to start is with the power of story. The historical story of the liberal-arts experiment in the U.S., which inspires Yale-NUS College, and the stories of liberal-arts grads who discover and nurture their powers.
On this second point, here’s a true story: I had a “B / B plus” student in environmental studies many years ago, back in the U.S. She scored an internship with a big-time environmental consulting firm. Her first day on the job saw her joining a team working with the U.S. Clean Water Act. Her supervisor was shocked when he learned that my student hadn’t studied the Act in any detail. She’d only learned about it in a general way. Our college was too small to offer specialized modules on the particulars of key laws and regulations.
He was set to boot her off the team. But she stood up for herself, which must have been very hard in a room full of specialists, most of them older males. “Give me a few days to get up to speed on the Act,” she said, “and then let’s talk.” She drilled down in the particulars of the legislation, made novel connections to other fields, and asked all the right questions. Eighteen months later she was the youngest senior associate in the firm, and taking the organization in new, more socially responsible directions.
Was this because she was especially smart? Nope. Or somehow special? No: I have dozens of similar stories. It was because she understood going in that she was weird, she owned her liberal-arts powers, and she didn’t second-guess herself when specialists started throwing rocks at her.
Or, to use my rafting metaphor, she leaned into the rapids. She knew she was going to get wet. That it was gonna sting. And she didn’t shy away. Give me that humble fearlessness in the face of wicked turbulence, and I’ll show you someone superbly adapted to the days ahead.
INT: Humble fearlessness. Was Hunter S. Thompson an example of that? Is that why you led with him, despite his, um, “misadventures?”
MM: Well, Thompson was at times fearless, but I’m not sure I’d call him humble. He was surely a character. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as I said at the start of my address. But also one heck of a writer, devoted to his craft.
What I especially appreciate about Thompson is how he flipped “weird,” not just in the Rolling Stone essay I cited, but throughout his life. He saw the modern world as weird in the negative sense of the word, and posited a healthy version of weird as the antidote. If things are going to hell, in other words, don’t conform. Don’t fall prey to distractions and diversions concocted to comfort, at the cost of your soul. Don’t fit in.
Oh, and most important: Pay enough attention to know when things are going to hell. Don’t succumb to the “parade of package distraction that permeates modern life.”
The other thread in Thompson’s work that resonates is his frequent return to “fear and loathing.” In interviews, he speaks to his own fears and loathings as impediments, or worse. They sometimes drove him to escape rather than engage (hence all that alcohol abuse and drug use), as some of the links in the text of my address explain.
His writing makes clear that he understood fear and loathing as tools of manipulation and control. A fearful people remain acquiescent even when their shared prosperity requires useful irritants. And those caught up in hate of the other are blinded to deeper, structural dimensions of their discontent, blunting productive and compassionate movement forward. I touched on these ideas in my address, but they feel especially pertinent now, as we float downriver toward some pretty hairy rapids.
INT: If, as you say in your address, the next several years will be “like rafting down an uncharted river of wicked rapids, hidden vortexes, and gnarly surprise,” what advice do you have for the Class of 2020, other than “embrace your weirdness?” What are the pro tips you mentioned in your address?
MM: Embracing weirdness is a big pro tip. Three others come to mind, but I’d love to hear what others think: graduates, their parents and friends, faculty and staff from YNC — everyone’s invited to contribute. After all, that’s what pros do – they share ideas, warnings, tips and tricks for constant improvement.
Editor’s note: Readers may share ideas by sending an email to Prof. Maniates, or by leaving a comment below. These ideas will be compiled and shared on this site, and via social media, after receiving permission from contributors.
So don’t hear my tips as “the truth.” They’re seeds for brainstorming and exchange.
Tip # 1: Make the lean times good times. Your future self will thank you. Psychologists know that a preoccupation with wealth, job advancement, and the accumulation of goods is a strong predictor of unhappiness, low life satisfaction, and even early mortality. That’s hard to see in good times, when it seems as if everyone is living large at the mall or posh condo.
But we’ll not be rafting down those waters for a while. A smart response to the torrents upon us is to consider the rewards of voluntary simplicity, of how living on less and insulating our self-worth from our salaries can lay a foundation for enduring happiness.
Don’t let the lean times to come become a source of frustration, depression, or God’s way of telling you that you’re crap. If you do, you’ll miss the chance to experiment with new ways of living that elevate intrinsic goals over extrinsic values and foster enduring satisfaction.
Use your mad liberal-arts powers to at least inventory alternatives to the rat race, including new ways of approaching work (courtesy of my talented 2018 “AER” students). To this end, the syllabus from my seminar on sustainable consumption offers practical details and a tight reading list, and is available upon request. It could be a good starting point.
Seeing hard times as an opportunity to break free of a materialistic ethos that enraged Hunter S. Thompson is not, to be clear, an argument for involuntary simplicity, or for ignoring corrosive inequality and deepening poverty. But if you and I are going to stand tall against forces of injustice and deprivation in times of economic downturn, we can’t judge ourselves by how much we earn or buy in the lean years to come. That’s an emotional dead end.
Tip # 2: Find your cause and be open to unexpected success. I hate to be a downer, but in addition to the likelihood of lower salaries, it’s almost certainly true that most 2020 graduates aren’t going to land the job of their dreams. Not at first, and probably not for some time. You’ll have to take what you can get, and the pickings could be slim. The pro move here is to see work for what it is, a place where you sell your labor for the money you need, and to look for deep fulfillment outside of the workplace.
Sociologists have long known that a fulfillment strategy that reliably delivers is this three-step dance: 1. Figure out your “cause” (wildlife preservation, climate change, community gardens, food waste, green energy, workers’ rights, otters, child literacy, and the list goes on). 2. Find others who are working on it (or might want to). 3. Roll up your sleeves and join in. The so-called solidarity benefits are not to be missed, and can more than offset the dissatisfaction that comes from disagreeable employment.
But wait, as they say on those infomercials, there’s more! <– Editor’s note: prelude to plea below for humor. Scholars from Neo-Marxists to policy scientists know that moments of severe economic downturn are especially ripe for change. Paradoxical, perhaps, but true: Policymakers, freed from worries about undermining investor confidence (not a problem when confidence is tanking), become open to ideas and proposals that may have seemed too “out there” in more prosperous times.
Seeking fulfillment outside of work by struggling with others for something you believe in isn’t just a great strategy for personal meaning. These days, it’s more likely than ever to make a difference.
Tip # 3: Fight fear and loathing. If you don’t, who will? That last tip could be heard as something like “things only change during a crisis.” Don’t go there. While it’s true that you never want to waste a good crisis, it’s also the case that crisis is not always the friend of progressive change.
Rough waters often produce a consolidation of unjust allocations of power and wealth. The threat of vicious rapids around the bend can valorize expediency and elevate short-term thinking over wiser courses of action. The interests of future generations and non-human species can become subverted in deference to more pressing needs. Much good happens in the absence of crisis, and some pretty screwy social and political outcomes have arisen in response to crisis.
Most significantly, crisis can bring out the worst in humans, both individually and collectively. Under pressure, we sometimes go tribal, forming “in-group”/”out group” attachments and vilifying “the other” in an escalating succession of blame games.
Think about the racism and harassment emerging around the world amidst Covid-19, and know that we’ve just seen the beginning. Sometimes this fear and loathing emerges from the interplay of human psychology and social dynamics. Sometimes it’s fueled by the powerful or those seeking power. Sometimes we don’t know why it happens. Regardless, ugliness arises. It’s awful, or worse.
The pressing question before us isn’t if we’ll solve or adapt to the big challenges before us. One way or another, humanity will confront and cope with covid, climate change, and other monsters in the closet. We’ll get down the river.
But what will we become, individually and collectively, as we run the rapids? More compassionate and emphatic, authentically human in all the right ways? Or will fear and loathing triumph, reducing our personal and political lives to a parade of normalized injustices, insults, and abuses of power?
What will the future bring us? A thousand Desmond Tutus, or a thousand Donald Trumps?
The real pros on the river know that humanity can go either way. The future remains undetermined. A happy ending requires people of courage and faith, prepared to fight for what is good in humanity. Prepared and willing to oppose fear and loathing.
Just when and how is unclear, which means that this tip is less precise than the preceding two. But it is no less important. Be ready to stand against fear and loathing, in small ways and large, when the moments present themselves. Your training allows you to recognize those moments. Your liberal-arts powers provide the steely equanimity you need. Trust your intuition, your commitments to justice, and your suspicions of the easy answer and clever sound bite.
Know that others will follow when you lead in defense of that which is good in us all.
INT: Thank you. Here’s hoping that others expand on your tips and share some of their own. Anything else before we go?
MM: Yes. May I end with a plea for silliness and play? For humor that keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously? An overwrought seriousness sometimes becomes confused with competency and achievement, especially among the educated class, and that’s not good for anyone.
These are serious times, I know. But if we wall ourselves off from play and humor in our professional lives, we’ll lose touch with the creative juice that animates the liberal-arts experiment. Humor in particular, often self-deprecating and never at the cost of another, is magic. Shared laughter, like dancing or singing, grounds us while cementing community.
So, my closing request is this, Class of 2020: Tell a stupid joke every day. Or puns! Embrace the virtues of timely silliness. Cultivate your inner child and don’t be afraid to show it. A beginner’s mind, after all, is what likely will save us all.
That is what the surprise ending of my graduation address was all about. But it wasn’t easy to orchestrate. Critical questions loomed. Where should Rebecca (my wife) stand to stay off camera? What was the best trajectory for the propelled water? How was I going to keep a straight face heading into the final lines of the address?
Important questions, people!
My wife and I dealt with them through trial and error, and lots of laughter, as these three “pre-takes” illustrate. (NB: These are nicely combined into one video by colleagues at Yale-NUS College!)
A very special thanks to everyone who made my address possible, especially Jeannie Tay, Alyson Rozells, and Kevin Low at Yale-NUS College; Rebecca Maniates aka “super splasher;” and Stacey the cat, who ruined only a handful of shoots-in-progress of my address.
Props too to Prof. Chris Asplund for the use of his paddles, and Prof. Ben Olsen for coming through with a music stand.
And, of course, a massive thank you to YNC’s Class of 2020. I look forward to supporting you over the years in any way possible. Don’t hesitate to call on me, now and downriver, whenever I can help.
Let’s get wet.
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Last updated: 20 May 2020