Back in the 1980s, when he was a professor of religious studies at Brown University, Jacob Neusner sent an article to the student newspaper. It was a commencement address he knew would never be delivered, but which he believed needed saying anyway.
Neusner, a noted scholar and the kind of no-nonsense professor that most students avoid like the plague, lamented the erosion of standards in higher education, not only among students but in the ranks of faculty, who he said could restore academic excellence, but won’t. Or anyway don’t. It is the kind of complaint that simultaneously offends and resonates with professors.
you for a world that does not exist, indeed, that cannot exist. You have spent four years supposing that failure leaves no record. You have learned at Brown that when your work goes poorly, the painless solution is to drop out. But starting now, in the world to which you go, failure marks you. Confronting difficulty by quitting leaves you changed. Outside Brown, quitters are no heroes.
was excellent, why you could take pride in routine and slipshod presentation. Most of you, after all, can look back on honor grades for most of what you have done. So, here grades can have meant little in distinguishing the excellent from the ordinary. But tomorrow, in the world to which you go, you had best not defend errors but learn from them. You will be ill-advised to demand praise for what does not deserve it, and abuse those who do not give it.
gave was all that was demanded. When you did not keep appointments, we made news ones. When your work came in beyond the deadline, we pretended not to care.
When you were garrulous and talked to hear yourself talk, we listened as if it mattered. When you tossed on our desks writing upon which you had not labored, we read it and even responded, as though you earned a response. When you were dull, we pretended you were smart. When you were predictable, unimaginative, and routine, we listened as if to new and wonderful things. When you demanded free lunch, we served it. And all this why?
wonderful things. When you demanded free lunch, we served it. And all this why?
did not want to be bothered, and the easy way out was pretense: smiles and easy Bs.
“College has spoiled you by reading papers that don’t deserve to be read, listening to comments that don’t deserve a hearing, paying attention even to the lazy, ill-informed, and rude. We had to do it, for the sake of education. But nobody will ever do it again. College has deprived you of adequate preparation for the last 50 years. It has failed you by being easy, free, forgiving, attentive, comfortable, interesting, unchallenging fun. Good luck tomorrow.”