Dear Grads: Hope you smelled the roses

The high cost of higher education and the race to compete internationally demand that students bear down on their studies. But that's not all that college should be about.

AP Photo/Josh Reynolds
Actress Ashley Judd, center right, holds an inflatable globe, as she sits with classmates waiting to receive graduate degrees from the Kennedy School of Government during Harvard University commencement exercises, in Cambridge, Mass., on May 27

Esteemed graduating class of 2010:

A wise man once said that it is best not to quote more than one wise man in a commencement address. So I won’t. In my day, speakers used Bartlett’s Famous Quotations and always came up with the same hoary collection of Emerson aphorisms. You kids can plug his name into Google. As for me, I’m taking the marketing approach.

For centuries, the triumph of college brand management has been the rosy afterglow you will be carrying after leaving these hallowed halls. It gets rosier with time. You may never have sung “Gaudeamus Igitur,” but along with “Pomp and Circumstance” and that telephone song by Lady Gaga, these tunes will trigger fond memories of your last halcyon semester. CSN&Y’s “Teach Your Children Well” does that for me.

Years from now, the development office hopes to leverage that warm and fuzzy feeling. So when you hear “nos habebit humus,” please don’t respond with “Stop callin’. I don’t wanna think anymore.” Be generous. (And, yes, that was both my age-inappropriate pop reference and my wise person quote. You may quit wincing now.)

Campus architecture also plays a myth-making role for college grads. Whether it is a cloistered chapel, a warren of urban classrooms, or a solid-citizen cluster of red brick situated on a pleasant hillside, your college’s look and feel should have embedded itself in your hearts by now. The alma mater feeling can’t come from distance learning. Even if you and your pals never punted on the Thames or sculled on the Charles – even if we’re only talking about being dunked in the “ag pond” or participating in a foosball all-nighter – you have accumulated great memories.

Why do I say that? Because they are your college memories. They always get better with time. Take your teachers. One day, even the most disagreeable will be seen through a soft-focus lens. They will all be Mr. Chips or Albus Dumbledore or the rumpled but wise John Houseman character from “The Paper Chase.” Trust me. You’ll forget that “C” in sophomore calculus and just remember the joy of differential equations.

A little over a decade ago, I worked with another reporter on an exhaustive look at a world-class university (I’ll let you guess which one). My assignment was to interview students. All had stellar grades, had done community service, and quietly acknowledged jaw-dropping avocations like concert violin or black-belt karate. I felt like a hobo. But several complained that the quest for excellence so central to their school was robbing them of life experience. One rued a lack of late-night talk sessions. Another worried there was no time for intuitive thinking or exploring unrelated fields or taking long walks.

These were the best and brightest. They had affiliated with one of the premier educational brands in the world. But were they just getting their ticket punched? Universities are powerful builders of human capital for the next generation. Yet in the headlong race for a more globally competitive generation, are we sacrificing serendipity?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for misspending youth or money. But higher education has never been only about grade point averages and networking.
From the formation of the first universities in Europe a thousand years ago, it’s been about being young and open-minded. It’s been about making memory. As Emerson said, memory “holds together past and present ... and gives continuity and dignity to human life.”

Yes, that’s two quotes. Best wishes and happy memories.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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