What Charles J. Wheelan Knows: 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said
An interview with Charles Wheelan on his unlikely advice to graduates.
When I read Charles Wheelan’s 10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, I mostly nodded in agreement. Originally conceived as a Class Day speech at Dartmouth College, Wheelan’s practical, real-world applicable advice ranges from “Marry someone smarter,” to “Don’t make the world worse.” It’s the wisdom of age combined with an understanding of the needs of his particular audience of new graduates.
Charles Wheelan is a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. He’s also the author of Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, and the forthcoming Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data. (January) His work has been published in the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal among other publications, and is a frequent contributor to public radio. He lives in Hanover, NH with his wife Leah, and their three children.
I also know Charles Wheelan as Charlie, because we grew up in the same home town, Northbrook, IL and graduated from the same high school, albeit four years apart.
John Warner: For a commencement-based book, you must set the record for telling your audience what they shouldn’t do, as 3 of the 10 ½ “things” start with “Don’t.” The first of those is “Don’t make the world worse.” In your fifth chapter (“I’m sorry”) you apologize on behalf of Generation X for screwing things up. I’m happy to join in your apology. I’m curious what you think went wrong: what has caused us to screw things up?
Charles Wheelan: I’m surprised this part of the book hasn’t gotten more attention. It’s one of the few “10 ½ Things” that commentators have asked about, but I think it’s a really serious point. For the record, I think it’s really the Baby Boomers who have demonstrated such poor public leadership. (I was born in 1966 and seem to fall between the Baby Boomers and Gen X.) In any case, there is a pattern of living beyond our means, both publicly and privately. We’ve promised ourselves entitlement programs we can’t afford; we’ve made tax cuts without spending cuts; we’ve refused to make any serious sacrifices to curb climate change. And on the military front, we’ve engaged in wars that our volunteer soldiers have to fight. What I see is a clear pattern of living large at the expense of younger generations, which has not historically been the American way.
JW: In Chapter 3, “Don’t make the world worse,” you say, “If you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have a college degree. (And the Ivy Leaguers can be the worst of all.)” You’re Dartmouth, Class of ’88 and presumably could’ve gone to Wall Street where you could’ve crafted the next “weapon of financial mass destruction.” What put you on a different path?
CW: I did go to Wall Street (though not literally) for a very brief stretch. I had an internship with Morgan Stanley in London during my junior year at Dartmouth. I found the work to be completely uninteresting. So I can’t claim any moral high ground in steering away from Wall Street, and to be fair there are a lot of jobs in finance that do make the world better, but I had no intellectual interest whatsoever.
JW: Why are so many people today still tempted by the “dark side?”
CW: I see two reasons why talented people end up doing work without much redeeming value (which, incidentally, they often don’t enjoy very much). The first is that many students decide that they will do something that doesn’t much interest them, such as corporate law, because they have convinced themselves that “down the road” they’ll switch to something more satisfying. But the switch doesn’t happen. And second, as I hint at in the book, there is no real objective measure of success in life, so many people use money as a proxy instead. As I state explicitly in the book, I have no aversion to making money, but I think it’s dangerous when people judge their success by their bank account because they haven’t given much thought to other things they’d like to achieve in life. The “dark side” tends to pay well!
JW: And yet, the overall tone of the book seems pretty hopeful about what this generation can do in the future, despite us screwing up the world and the darker temptations?
CW: There are a lot of talented and altruistic people. I’m amazed by how many talented students I’ve had over the years, by how much great work my academic peers are doing, and so on. And I believe most Americans have an altruistic side, if we can activate it. So it’s far too early to become cynical. But I do believe that we need public leadership to take advantage of this potential, and that leadership is shockingly lacking at the moment, in both political parties I might add.
JW: In Chapter 6, “Help stop the little league arms race,” you implore your audience to scale back the competitive spirit not just in youth sports, but academics as well. It’s a stance where I’m in agreement, but I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate. You and I grew up in a “born on third base” type of place, a median income of six-figures plus where 90%+ of high school graduates go on to some higher education. Our high school alma mater offers enough AP credits for students to matriculate to college as juniors, and each year names the “Outstanding” boy and girl of the senior class. People from Northbrook also often go on to upper-middle class (or better) comfort in their adult lives. The ethos of the place relies on competition, but – to extend the Cold War metaphor from your book – you want them to unilaterally disarm, why should they?
CW: All very good points. And we shouldn’t disparage much of what you describe, because one crisis in America right now is the lack of parental and community support.There was a NYT article a few weeks back about how family background is dividing America. Privileged families are giving their children more support and opportunity than ever while non-privileged families are not giving their children such opportunities. The education system no longer plays a “leveling” role; if anything, it magnifies the gap because of the inequalities in the system.
My emphasis in the book was more about discarding the unnecessary competition. Is there a way to preserve what’s good about AP History without having students focus exclusively on the grade? Can’t we play soccer without practicing year round and creating “all star” teams at a young age? In the book, I use the metaphor of making these things into “journeys” rather than “races.” I think that would create healthier students, who grow into healthier adults. I don’t think that would require ditching many of the things we enjoyed growing up in a privileged community, but perhaps some refocusing. But how does that happen? I’m not sure. I’ll admit that my daughter just joined a traveling soccer team in New Hampshire. So we haven’t unilaterally disarmed!
JW: What could universities do in order to reduce the frequency with which A- students show up to our offices in extreme distress over their “low” grades (as you report in the book)? Your previous employer, The University of Chicago, turns the competitive strides of the students into a game in the form of a scavenger hunt. Is this the kind of thing that works, or are we talking about a broader shift in attitudes?
CW: Many students do develop a healthy attitude on their own. Often having some broader world experience helps, or a serious non-academic interest. My sense is that the colleges and universities have relatively little leverage in the face of really powerful social pressures. For example, Dartmouth can—and does—tell students repeatedly that corporate recruiting is only one professional option, but that’s not the message students are getting from home in many cases. The most helpful thing that I’ve seen is to have alumni come back and talk about their own career paths, particularly if they have been nontraditional. This sends the message to students that some of the most successful and interesting graduates did not have the best grades, nor have they had linear, traditional career paths. Students do seem to respond to that.
JW: Your first “thing” in the book is to tell graduates, “Your time in fraternity basements was well spent. Your point is broader than fraternities, extending to the idea that friendship and personal connections are as important as school and grades, but given recent reports about some of the activities at Dartmouth fraternities, I wonder if you have any concerns about what’s going on in those basements.
CW: Yes! I explicitly warn in the book that alcohol abuse is one of the things that can seriously derail the lives of otherwise privileged people. In the book I make reference to a longitudinal study of a Harvard (the class of 1942, I think) and alcohol abuse as that cohort has aged is a serious issue. Meanwhile, at Dartmouth and most other college campuses binge drinking is the most serious social issue. Many students don’t have a healthy relationship with alcohol. In my view, the problem is compounded by the 21 drinking age, which precludes most college students from drinking in a normal setting. When I have my students over for dinner (as I did last night), we can’t have beer and wine with dinner. Instead, this weekend they will do multiple shots of hard liquor in their dorm rooms before going out because that is the culture that the current laws have induced. As a country, we need to revisit our whole approach to alcohol. And at Dartmouth, there is a lot of effort (so far not terribly successful) being directed at changing the drinking culture. Our former president Jim Kim, now head of the World Bank and an anthropologist and MD by training, began a national effort to address binge drinking.
But I digress. The “fraternity basements” point was about social connections. There is an emerging field of “happiness research” that has produced consistent and compelling evidence that one of the most powerful drivers of happiness and well-being is our connection to other people. Good friends are important. A healthy marriage is important. Being part of organizations and the community matters. In fact, once you have sufficient income to meet your basic needs, these social connections seem to matter more than anything else. In the book, I explicitly point out that the benefit of the fraternity basements lies in the camaraderie, not the libations!
JW: As a whole, your message to these graduates is to focus on the journey, rather than the destination. In the book, you detail how this has led you to both success and happiness. I tend to follow the same philosophy and am pleased with the results, but how do we know we’re not just lucky?
CW: Well, there is always some luck. It would be naïve to pretend otherwise. We’re healthy, well-educated, reasonably talented, and so on. These things present options and life opportunities that not everybody has. But by thinking of life as a journey, it completely redefines success. There is no “finish line” and therefore no disappointment when you don’t get there. Instead, the journey idea encourages you to find a passion and pursue it. By definition, that means you are going to enjoy what you do every day. Of course, the people who change the world and create great things also tend to be pursuing a passion. (I don’t think Steve Jobs was in it for the money.) This all seems very obvious to me, but it seems more uncommon that one might think. It certainly seemed a worthwhile message to try to impart to new graduates.
John Warner tweets from @biblioracle.
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