The Graduation Day Question

It’s that time at universities when faculty have the privilege of meeting the families of students we have known for several years.  It’s a time of celebration, transition, and that “dreaded” question from family members….. “so now that you have a college degree, what are you planning to do with it?”   The implication of course, is that the primary purpose of a college degree is for “job preparation.”

As a parent of a recent college grad, I can certainly relate to the relief (the kid finished!) and the anxiety (now what?) that parents experience.  Most of us parents with recent grads are smart enough not to ask the “now what” question on graduation day.  We know that we will have other opportunities to explore this sensitive issue, especially since most college grads end up living back home for a while.  It is often the uncles and aunts (who don’t see the grad very often) who ask the dreaded question.  This can be a moment of tension and awkwardness, since most graduates really don’t know!

The “now what” question is especially difficult for my students.  I am the faculty adviser for the Sustainable Food and Farming major at the University of Massachusetts.  My students feel called to grow food or be involved in some aspect of the local and regional food system, but often have not yet clearly identified a particular career.  Our recent graduates generally find themselves working on local farms, managing community markets, or interning with non-profit advocacy or community development organizations, while they explore opportunities in the local food system (here are a few examples).  It can be rich and rewarding work – but really difficult to explain to “Uncle Robert and Aunt Sue.”

Inevitably, when Uncle Robert learns that our student transferred from her original major of Biology or Environmental Science into Sustainable Food and Farming, he will look at the graduate with a confused look on his face, and say something like “so you want to be a farmer?”  After a short pause, he then says “Can you make any money doing that?” And finally, “isn’t farming hard work?

Of course, this uncomfortable experience is not unique to agriculture majors.  Any recent graduate who is not a business major or pre-med may be able to relate.

So you want to be an anthropologist?   ….a writer?   ….a community organizer?  ….an artist?    ….a philosopher?”“Can you make any money doing that?”  

Many people have a relatively shallow understanding of the purpose of higher education.  Certainly we should expect college to prepare students to be employable.  But we should expect much more from a college education than simply to be prepared for an entry level job in some corporation or business.  College should help prepare students for both a livelihood AND a rich and satisfying life.

The questions, “what will you do with your college degree?” and “can you make any money doing that?”  are the wrong questions to ask a recent grad.  While certainly understandable, a thoughtful uncle or aunt might consider trying to start a more meaningful conversation with a different question.  Here is the one I suggest…

“So, how do you plan to be of service to your friends, family and community or perhaps the larger world?”

Yes, I suggest Uncle Robert ask his big question not about career or money but about service.  There is plenty of sociological research, native wisdom, and just plain common sense that support the basic fact that people who live for service have more fulfilling lives than those who live their lives to accumulate consumer goods.  This is such a fundamental truth of human existence that the bible quote (Timothy 6:10) “the love of money is the root of all evil” is a cliche.  We all know this to be true, yet Uncle Robert still feels compelled to ask “any money in that field?

So I ask all the “uncles and aunts” and other family members of recent grads to please try to “raise the bar” and challenge the recent grad to be more than just a money earner.  This is your chance to join Plato and Aristotle (really) in placing the human experience within a larger context, which the ancients called The Great Chain of Being.  The chain starts with the divine (God) and progresses downward to the angels, stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, humans, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.  Get it?   —  This 16th century picture depicts the Great Chain.

Today we understand that The Great Chain of Being as a rough approximation of a natural hierarchy (which I’ve written about here earlier).  The lesson we can take from this powerful visual metaphor that goes back over 2500 years is that all aspects of the universe are interrelated in a specific way.  The short version of the interrelationship rule is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”

That is, the “lower” levels find purpose in the “higher” levels of the hierarchy – but the “higher” levels are dependent on the “lower” levels for function.  As a human, I look for function at the “lower” levels (animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals).  AND (this is the critical lesson)….. as a human, I look for purpose and meaning in my life at levels of complexity “greater than myself.”  That might be in friendships, family, community, Mother Nature, or perhaps the divine.

This is where Uncle Robert’s big question comes in……  “So, how do you plan to be of service to your friends, family and community – or the larger world?”  This is a question rooted in a deep understanding of human experience (going back to Plato and Aristotle).  It is challenging and respectful….. and much more interesting than “any money in that field?

Why not give it a try with a recent grad?

And finally, congratulations to all of the graduates of the Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.  If you are interested in the major that prepares students for BOTH a livelihood and a rich and meaningful life, check out the Sustainable Food and Farming major a UMass.  Please note that jobs ARE important and I’ve written about finding good work here.

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