A What to Society?

What had been a mild mental fog thickened into a cloud of confusion over our heads and the commencement speaker continued, saying, “You have been granted a special gift. You were allowed to go to college instead of working, or raising children. Never forget this. You owe a debt to society, one you must pay back, a dept to the community that let you go to college.”

The woman sitting beside me didn’t just bristle, she dang near turned into a cross between a porcupine and an echidna. She’d worked a part-time job off campus, plus an on-campus work-study, plus earning two scholarships in order to go through school. I think I might have heard something about “I don’ owe society nothin’.”

Behind me, one of my friends intoned, “If we have a debt to society, what do convicted criminals have, huh?”

In case you hadn’t guessed, none of us were pleased with our commencement speaker. At least she didn’t go over time. As it was, we barely got the ceremony finished before it started to rain. Ah, the southeast in the spring.

The speaker went on to a short but notable career in politics, then became an activist, and I think was institutionalized at some point due to a slow-onset mental illness. I hope the person found a way to cope. For us, the speech sort of summed up a lot of what we thought of our four years in the college – off-base, out of touch, and something best left in the Ivy-covered Halls. (The school went through several major administrative foul-ups and shakeups and a few other things during our tenure. And the Biscuit Lady really retired for certain our junior year. We spent breakfasts our senior year in mourning.)

A debt to society? For being able to go to college? If anything we had debts to our parents, banks, the donors who made scholarships possible, and our work-study bosses who let us do overtime. Not “society.” My classmates from Eastern Europe had some pungent things to say in various Slavic languages about the very thought. We might owe the great cloud of people who made Western Civilization so open and prosperous, and the women who had made our college an academic power, but not “society.”

I suspect some of my class agreed with the speaker, though. I’d collided with three of them, one head-on, the other two indirectly. The indirect collisions had led to agreements to disagree and détente, since we had things such as music in common. The direct collision caused me to resign from an honor society and to ignore the other person. She refused to be ignored, so I ignored her and her friends harder. She went on to become a social justice activist. One of the others became a music therapist, if memory serves. The other runs a co-op thrift store and last I heard, she and her husband were fostering two special-needs children. They would likely agree that we had an unearned privilege and needed to pay it back, then “pay it forward” in socially approved ways. The years may also have rubbed some of the idealism off since then, too. Or perhaps not.

As you can tell, that graduation speech still rankles. We were polite, no one stormed out, no one yelled in protest. In truth, most of us were just ready to leave campus. Even those who loved the place were tired. We had places to go, jobs to start, and the like. I have not returned to any of our reunions. The timing is not ideal for someone tied to an academic calendar, and the distance doesn’t make it an easy trip, either.

The last time I thumbed through the mailings from the college development office, my class had the lowest per-capita and total donations of any graduating class to date. I’ve got a good idea why.

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25 thoughts on “A What to Society?

  1. There used to be a line said about people who had served their time in prison concerning “they’ve paid their debt to society”. 😆

      • I confess to often viewing school as a prison, but from that viewpoint your “debt to society” would have been paid in full on graduation.

        While I’ve often viewed college as a lot of wasted time and money (not always, but the majority of graduates don’t use their degree, and frankly would have been better off spending four to eight years OTJ training in their eventual career, incidentally earning money, than paying for a degree they don’t use). I have never viewed it as something you owed “society” for.

        • In fairness, with the level of career switching that is probably necessary these days, a lot of OJT may be wasted to some degree.

  2. I always hated the claim that released criminals had “paid their debt to society”.
    They haven’t.
    Their victim hasn’t been made whole. And the larger society darn well hasn’t received restitution for the initial damage done, much less the costs (including opportunity costs) of the conviction and incarceration.
    The released criminal *owes* a debt to society. One they can likely never truly repay.
    .
    As to the college of yesteryear, I kind of agree with the expressed sentiment, but would phrase it entirely differently. More like, “You have drunken deeply from the wellspring of Western Civilization, and have assumed the duty of passing along this received wisdom to others. Society is never but one generation from a decent into barbarism, and it is the responsibility of every one of you to stem this blood-darkened tide as best you may.”
    Which is, admittedly, not at all what the speaker intended.
    Not to mention that such a statement would be sadly inappropriate for colleges in the modern milieu.

    • Personally, I think it rather depends upon the crime and any restitution. Some crimes seem so heinous nothing can pay the debt they owe, others I think the jail term was inadequate to recompense society, and others have me nodding my head and thinking yeah, they’ve paid their debt.

  3. *shudder* K, that is a really stupid abuse of the notion of a debt to society– and warped in a predictable way, so the person talking about that ‘debt’ is entitled to your work!

    (We DO owe something– just like in camping, leave it better than it was when you got there. But that doesn’t match the speaker….)

  4. I did feel something was owed to society. But that was more something to be paid by maintaining full employment. I have a focus on effectiveness. How do you make sure that time and resources are spent usefully?

    My answer is that if people are voluntarily paying for services, that is a far better measure than if some hippie put a non-profit together. An engineer, for example, can do a tremendous amount of good simply by working diligently on something not at all sexy.

    I’m a lot more cynical these days. These kids I see these days talking about giving back don’t even know if society has really done well or poorly by them. This volunteerist fad has prospered because colleges reward it on applications, but it is not clear to me how much of a ‘favor’ college is.

    I’ve also heard someone make the observation that volunteer charity was originally a church activity; that mainstreaming it this way means that US college students are accustomed to spending a lot of time and energy outside of schoolwork, and that this isn’t a great fit for graduate school work.

    I have a suspicion that volunteer work done for some vague ‘good’ purpose, that is not done in the name of Jesus, is evil. That said, I have met people who think what they are doing is in the name of Jesus, who are pretty clearly being driven to it by inner demons.

    I may just be feeling really bad right now.

  5. That’s bad. There’s other BS that is popping up too much at commencement speeches. When I attended a cousin’s college graduation ceremony* their speaker used that horrible “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” bit. Ugh. I hope the speaker at mine didn’t, but I was already halfway to Yellowstone when the ceremony was held.

  6. Sigh… You must have graduated in the 90s… That was a prevailing sentiment during those days. And no, you don’t owe society ANYTHING. You EARNED everything you have.

  7. Speaking for an earlier generation, here.

    My father served during WWII. So had all the men I met who were his contemporaries. Every. Single. One.

    The public schools I attended varied in quality, but at least they taught long division in third grade. (They don’t now. It was fifth or sixth grade when our kids went to school, and I suspect by now they just say, “Oh, use your calculator.”)

    I went to the University of Texas at a time when you could get a first-class education there (though you could also avoid it if that was your choice), any graduate of a Texas high school could attend, and tuition for in-state students was $100, which even people who were working their way through college could manage without getting a bank loan.

    I feel I owe a lot to the previous generation, who defended our country and this system. Maybe that’s not the same thing as “a debt to society,” but it feels like it. I can certainly understand the adverse reactions from people who feel they’ve been screwed by society (with outlandish tuition fees, going or sending their children to worthless public schools, etc.) but I don’t, personally share their sentiments.

    • The public schools I attended varied in quality, but at least they taught long division in third grade. (They don’t now. It was fifth or sixth grade when our kids went to school, and I suspect by now they just say, “Oh, use your calculator.”)

      No, it’s worse. They show you five different ways to do it, have you try to do it with ALL of them so you never get comfortable with anything, and half the ones that the kids’ parents would recognize they have them doing backwards. (THere’s been several points when the girls are learning math from sheets that I say “Yeah, I get what htey’re doing, but as long as you show your work I don’t care if you used the “right” method.)

    • Margaret, those words would have been far more appropriate, and true, and probably have been more true, because anyone who used the college library had met a WWII combat vet (paratrooper), and there were several Vietnam and Korea vets on the faculty and staff, and at least one Desert Storm vet. Alas, we got “a rising political star and US Representative” with a chip on their shoulder. Looking back, I’m not surprised they ended up going the direction they did later on.

  8. I recall our commencement speaker was a journalist of renown within that industry; and instead of words of encouragement, we were subjected to a political lecture, not too different from yours, and more bitchy about the current administration (which was actually headed by an effective female President.) Every one of us there had a sour expression; while we International Studies graduates scowled openly, since this was not the time or place, and we knew she was merely taking advantage of a captive audience to vent her spleen. Nobody really lingered afterward, only long enough to take graduation photos, then left to celebrate elsewhere.

  9. On about the third reading, something bothered me about this essay.
    All who read this are in some ways, deep ways, beneficiaries of Western Civ, of Judeo-Christian ethics, Greco-Roman philosophy, and Anglo-Saxon Law. And ingratitude is poison to the soul. Dennis Prager and Dale Carnagie agree on the point.
    So what’s wrong here? The speaker and his ilk are claiming credit for what they did not create, and indeed, what they try to destroy. They are claiming a payable debt–as if the guy who damages your car to get you back on the road claims credit for Otto’s engine and the petroleum refining process, as well as Goodyear’s rubber, the blast furnace, and the open hearth furnace.

    The problem isn’t that we owe a debt. It’s the people with the nerve to present a fraudulent bill.

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