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Double click: Season of graduates

June 24, 2012

"If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right."

A quote referenced by Steve Jobs in his commencement speech delivered at the 2005 convocation at the Stanford University. Rated as the best commencement speech in recent history, it includes the lessons of life learnt not through academics but from first hand experiences.

Steve Jobs – like numerous other great achievers – never graduated from college. In fact, he dropped out of college in the first six months and embarked on a mission to self educate himself and the rest, is history. In fact it became the future never envisioned before Steve Jobs and his unbridled genius.

So should Steve Job’s academic path be set as an example for youngsters in junior school? Should we support our kids if they do not aspire for high academic degrees and instead want to sample life till they find their true calling?

Last week, sitting through the commencement of my first born, from Ryerson University in Toronto, I felt my heart would burst with pride and emotion. It was one of those moments that you dream about as a parent while you work hard to raise them with the right values. You weather their growing pains, support their aspirations and try to sustain their needs as best as you can, all the time praying with all your might that they remain on the straight path. And when their successes crown them, you forget that there was ever a trying moment.

Success however has different outlines for different people. Mostly though, it is measured in terms of financial ease which in turn is believed to come only after reaching certain academic targets. But the rapidly changing, digitalised world of today has opened up so many avenues of success that the road does not necessarily include high degrees of education to ensure money and success. Look at Justin Bieber!

My newly graduated offspring had many times questioned this route, arguing through her four years of study as to why a degree was such an essential requirement for societal acceptance. Every year thousands (or should that be millions?) of graduates go out in the world in the hope of finding their dream job, making big bucks and living a good life. How many of these attain their dreams is hard to say but harder still is to gauge how many will be happy when they do reach their milestones.

At the ceremony last week, as I saw the young graduates enter the Ryerson Theatre in a single file to the sound of bagpipes, these were fleeting thoughts before my proud emotions got the better of me. But it does bear thinking on whether we overly emphasise on the formula of success as outlined by privileged societies. And in doing so have we snatched the carefree happiness from the younger generation by pitting them against one another to compete for top position?

Where does happiness feature in the formula for success? Why is it presumed that happiness will come automatically after achieving financial stability and societal acceptance? Just like ethnic communities are stereotyped by those who don’t belong there, the literate class has typecast successful people based on their academic credentials.

One English teacher’s commencement address this season, to a graduating high school class in Wellesley (Boston, Massachusetts) has become a global, You Tube sensation because of his unique spin on the perception of graduation. “You are not special,” he began, stunning the audience with his hard-nosed message. “You are not special, because everyone is,” he said, implying that they had just joined the ranks of thousands others. He advised them to make more of life than just running to reach standardised milestones.

“One can’t help but wonder if mass shepherding high school graduates to college is simply herd mentality,” my newly-graduated probed the need of a degree to be happy and successful.

Education has become a material signpost which enables the bearer of degrees to be included in a select circle of literate elite. And as universities up the ante to admit students, exhorting heavy financial costs so that students may earn a ‘receipt’ to show for their academic achievements, it bears thinking whether we have warped the idea of success and happiness.

But as I may ponder on the material worth of higher education, am I prepared to accede if my other children decide to forego it in favour of an alternate vocation like, say, plumbing? I don’t think so. And many others like me wouldn’t have the guts either to defy the norms set by the learned elite.