What's Tony Thinking

A Commencement Address You Won’t Hear


‘Tis the season for commencement addresses. Here’s one from a prof at University of Virginia who took on what is the pervasive ideology on elite college campuses these days.

Professor Robert Parham first expresses a concern for the spiritual/ mental health of his students, who are deeply pessimistic about the world and the future and often told they are responsible for the mess.

“Speaking of states of mind: I’m worried about yours. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among people your age in the U.S. are skyrocketing. I myself lost a student to suicide a few years ago—an experience I wish on no one. I’m here to tell you that I think it’s partly our (your professors’) fault. We, along with others, have been feeding you a distorted view of the world and your place in it, and I think this has caused a considerable part of the existential angst you all feel.”

Essentially, students who have been successful enough to find themselves at a place like UVa. or Columbia or MIT have been told that this is a sign of privilege, an indicator of their membership in the oppressor class. Yes, there is value in critiquing social power, and in sticking some pins in the inflated or entitled view of some of those the world counts “successful.” That said, it seems a bad idea, even a suicidal one, for any society to denigrate achievement, excellence or distinction, and the effort put forth to attain it.

Parham continues, speaking of the cognitive dissonance, students must somehow manage:

“You’ve been lied to. You’ve been told by the media, social networks, and not least your professors, that this fantastic world we live in is evil. Not only that, you’ve been told it’s your fault. You’re too racist, too greedy, too white, too privileged, not sufficiently attuned to the plight of the marginalized. It is not enough to be non-racist, they say; you must be anti-racist.

“Anything less than that, and you’re complicit in evil. Some of you are better by default due to some accidents of birth; some of you are worse. Small wonder you feel suffocated, anxious, and depressed. Any human, weighed down with this responsibility and guilt, would be just as down. The cognitive dissonance of being told colonialism is evil, American slavery is uniquely evil, that wealth and the markets that enable it are evil, while going to school at a top-tier U.S. institution built on ‘Monacan land’ using slave labor would incapacitate anyone.”

As a prof in the McIntire School of Commerce at UVa., Parham devotes some time in his address to describing the basics about money and capitalism, namely the capacity of capitalism to create wealth and to enlarge the pie.

“Without fail, at the end of the [intro] class a few students tell me that the content of the course was diametrically opposed to what they had been taught so far. Prior, they had class discussions about the exploitative nature of the market system and its inherent unfairness; the evil and greed of corporations; and the fight of exploited workers against oppressive capitalists.

“I point out to them that these paradigms imply a zero-sum world in which wealth can only be created by taking it from others, whereas they live in the positive-sum world of markets, in which wealth is created by exchange. Markets have deposited a magic wand in their hands, which allows them to freeze moments in time, observe what is currently happening in foreign lands, and conjure loved ones for a face-to-face conversation out of thin air. Kings would have given half their kingdom for such a wand, but now anyone can have it for the low, low price of $69.99 per month. Or about five hours of student work. This is how we got wealthy.”

While I think the huge gap between the super rich and everyone else is not a healthy condition for our society, Parham makes an important point about an economic system that is too often reflexively denigrated. Capitalism has its problems, but it’s predecessor, feudalism, and its putative successor, socialism, haven’t got a great track record.

Lastly, Parham waxes ironic in discussing how he doing on his University required “DEI goals for the year” as a faculty member.

“I’m one of the most diverse faculty members here (a refugee, veteran, immigrant, person-with-above-average-melanin, and the proud owner of the only mezuzah at McIntire), and I aspire to include all of my students and give them a feeling they belong.

“Yet, possibly the thing most diverse about me is my opinion in the next point: Diversity is great, inclusion is amazing, we should all feel like we belong here, but the only interpretation of Equity I’ve had rigorously defined is stock equity in a company. The main meaning of the word I could find seems to be adjacent to equality of outcomes, which I hold to be anti-liberal and deeply misguided.

“My DEIB goal for 2024 is to help abolish the DEIB establishment at UVA.” Note: the “B” standing for “belonging.”

I hope this guy still has his job.

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