Advice to Graduates: Past Performance is Not a Guarantee of Future Returns

It’s the time of the year when most people graduate from whatever school they’re graduating from.  This is a hypothetical graduation address, this week aimed a college students.  I’ll take on the high school students in a subsequent post.

These days college–especially undergraduate studies–is a long, expensive undertaking, usually accomplished by a large amount of debt.  (Come to think of it, what in our society is accomplished without a large amount of debt?)  And yet, in spite of the long-term obligations that come with it, people continue to put a great deal of stock and effort in a college education.  Why is this?  Most of you know the answer: because jobs and careers opened up by a college education have a higher level of compensation than those that don’t, at least overall.  College seen in this way is an investment, and I’ll come back to the financial analogy.

One thing I’ve noticed while walking the halls of Old Kudzu (“Old Ivy” is more appropriate for places Up North which are not appropriate to speak about here) is the “first in family” thing about college.  There’s a great deal of emphasis on those people who have broken the multigenerational custom of living and dying for a college athletic program without having stepped foot on campus except to head to the football stadium.  As you would expect, an elitist snob like me doesn’t have that experience.  I come from a long line of “college men” whose main problem wasn’t going to college: it was getting to the place you’re at today, i.e., graduating.  Today that’s another obsession of our educational system.  We’re told that our graduation rates are too low, with the implication that those who don’t walk the stage don’t walk the golden path of success in life.  But somehow my ancestors were successful in spite of that fact.

One that actually did make it to the end was my grandfather, Chester H. “Chet” Warrington, who graduated–after giving his parents much heartburn–from Lehigh in 1912.  He’s there on the right, before he actually made it through.

Even though he graduated from the birthplace of Tau Beta Pi, engineering’s highest honour fraternity, he wasn’t much of a scholar.  There have been many changes in the whole meaning of a university education from his day to ours, and one of them is how much more competitive our system–in and out of academia–has become.  In those days college was largely the province of the well-heeled, and the “Gentlemen’s C” was not a dishonourable result.  (I would say that the “Gentlemen’s C” is still very much alive and well on campus today, in spite of the changes!)

But we, as we do with just about everything, have pushed the whole business of academic achievement to the limit.  It’s surely frustrating to most academics that people who aren’t very good students actually have a successful life in this world, as my grandfather had.  It’s even more frustrating that, after all of the glow people put around academia, the money goes elsewhere.  So we’ve had a drumbeat, of late, of how important it is for people to have very high grades, and to correlate (at least in our minds) those high grades with success in life, and ultimately to try to rig the system so that those who do well in an academic setting will be afforded similar success afterwards.

But life neither starts or ends on campus.  And sometimes the reality of life wedges its way onto campus.  A good example of that happened in one of my classes last year, and the life lesson it taught bears repeating.

One of the courses I teach is Foundations.  First question some ask is “Foundations of What?” There are many “foundations” courses on campus to introduce students to a wide variety of subjects, but mine is the Foundations course par excellence: it concerns the design of foundations for real structures such buildings, bridges and the like.  This past year my students convinced me, for their design project, to enter the American Society of Civil Engineers MSE wall contest.  An “MSE” wall, for the uninitiate, is a Mechanically Stabilised Earth wall.  If you’ve driven down the interstate and seen newer walls flanking the roadway, usually with fancy decorations, you’ve probably seen an MSE wall.  The fancy decorations, however, have nothing to do with that: behind the front of an MSE wall is a network of grids and meshes by which the earth behind the wall actually helps to hold it up rather than just trying to push it down.

In this competition, the students build a large wooden box with a removable face.  They then put an MSE wall entirely built of kraft paper and tape behind it and fill the box with sand.  Removing the face, the moment of truth comes when the wall either holds the sand in place, leaks a great deal of sand, or collapses with sand on the floor following.

The class divides itself into two teams, using an electronic sign-up system.  When the team compositions were finalised, the “buzz” around the class was that one team was made up of the “smart” people and the other wasn’t.  I was unconvinced that it was that rigged; years in the private sector and engineering practice gave me the gut feeling that the outcome would not follow the conventional wisdom.

It didn’t.  When the removable panel was in fact removed, both walls held, but the “smart” team had the scarier moment as their wall bulged and leaked considerably.  Conventional wisdom took another hit.  But the whole point of an educational system is to learn something, and there’s a good lesson here.

There’s a great deal of emphasis on the value of intelligence these days.  It’s almost an obsession, really, and permeates our whole system, from child rearing to the educational system itself and ultimately to the credentialling system that marks the road to the top.  Raw intelligence, however, is only one piece of the puzzle.  That intelligence has to be properly applied to achieve the best results, and that application includes two things: an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating and the willingness to put the effort in to attain the goal.  Those two elements are frequently lacking, and I speak from experience: the lack of those two elements have led to many of the mistakes I have made in life.  Although there’s a great deal of talk about including “real life experiences” in an academic course, to be honest time constraints and the same lack of understanding in academics lead many such efforts to fall flat.

Even with the political clout that our financial system has these days, it’s still necessary for those selling financial products to make this disclaimer (or one like it): “Past Performance is Not a Guarantee of Future Returns”.  I think that should be placed somewhere, or at least watermarked, on every diploma issued by institutions of higher education.  Those of you who have finished the course of study can be justifiably proud of what you have done.  But you and the society you live and move and have your being in need to understand that what you’ve done isn’t a guarantee that what you do subsequently will have the golden touch.  The society that believes that and promotes accordingly is itself heading for a fall.  It was the hard lesson that Ch’ing Dynasty China found out the hard way the century before last; we will follow suit if we do likewise, our fall being at the hand of the same Chinese (with others) who did learn the lesson.

Graduation is a time of celebration, but, as the Latin root notes, it’s just another step in life.  The education doesn’t stop here, and by that I don’t mean the continuing education requirements that permeate our professional credentials.  Making the education work is the new task, and in many ways it’s as important–if not more important–than the first.

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