In a recent article for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Edwin A. Locke, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Maryland at College Park and a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute wrote an imaginary letter from parents to their children graduating from college. Professor Locke was concerned about what graduates have fundamentally learnt in college.
"If you want to lead a successful life, our most urgent advice to you is to reject your professors’ assaults on reason and individualism. It is your capacity to reason that is your most sacred possession".
"That two broad themes dominated most of your courses: that human reason is unreliable and dispensable, and that the individual is subordinate to the collective."
"You will hear the statement that self-sacrifice is the noblest ideal for which any American could strive. The truth is exactly the opposite."
I have taught at University of South Florida for thirteen years and believe that most of my colleagues all over America and I make a positive difference in our students’ professional and personal lives. This is my less cynical version of the letter.
Dear John and Jane:
We wish to congratulate you on graduating from college. We hope during your four years of college that you have learned how to work smart, not hard. You can work in a minimum wage job for the rest of life for 24 hours a day, and people will say that you are working hard. But, it is working smart that is going to make your life better. We hope that you will use some of the ideas that your professors taught you in the classrooms or in the hallways. If they emphasized living a principle-centered life as opposed to a life centered on self, society, religion, money, spouse, pleasure, friends, family and you think it is bad advice, forgive us for disagreeing with you. Principles do not change from situation to situation. If you are centered not on principles but on individualism, it is going to bring depression and despair. One of the most common psychological reasons (excluding chemical imbalances) for depression and anxiety is self-absorption.
If your teachers taught and exhibited compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence, and you think it was a waste of time, please forgive them!
Your professors taught you not what to think but how to think. What to think is going to change as time passes by but how to think is a skill that you have hopefully learnt and will keep on learning.
We hope they also emphasized the importance of free will, a staple and fundamental principle in most religions of the world. However, we have been all given a different set of circumstances – our genes, upbringing, socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, society, handicaps, looks, chronic illnesses and yes, relatives. These factors are an integral part of your life. Ignoring their negative or positive influence on your future is like putting your head in the sand; but the key to your success is how we use our free will to go beyond our set of circumstances to lead a content life.
If you want to lead a successful life, be sure that you lead a balanced life – work, recreation, relationship, friends, religion, time to self, personal growth and volunteering. Work is an important part of your life, as you will be spending more than one-third of your waking hours at your job. Why not enjoy it as opposed to looking forward to the weekend? Find a job you love that brings joy to you and the people around you!
Be sure that you use your own judgment based on principles in solving problems. Many times, you will not be able to influence the things that concern you. You need to accept that and spend your time on working on things that you can influence. Also, work on making your areas of influence larger so that you continue to grow. Still there will be situations that you will not be able to influence, and we hope that you have gained the wisdom to recognize what you can and cannot influence.
We hope those people who gave the commencement address to you did reinforce the truth that you take care of yourself first and then the people around you. Nobody is served by sacrificing yourself for others; it is a sure way to run ragged and resentful. In the commencements we have attended, the speakers frequently talk about societal responsibility, but nowhere as Professor Locke may lead you to believe, did they ask you to do it at the expense of self!
Self-sacrifice is the most misinterpreted virtue. Self-sacrifice is about forgiveness and compassion. Forgiveness and compassion are the only road to inner peace. Maybe it is the "me" syndrome that half the marriages end in divorce and our children end up as victims. We hope that you will not perpetuate these myths. As some may lead you to believe otherwise, considering the good of the society is not any form of communism but an essential constituent of a civilized society.
Therefore, John and Jane, we want you to hold two ideas as absolutes. These are not the same two absolutes – reason and individualism, as those of Professor Locke but at the same time are not polarized to his.
First, use your judgment based on principles and you will not have to assess and reason every situation on an individual basis.
Second, understand that your life is not just about you. It is about you and the interconnectedness we share with all people of this world. If you find any situation in your life, whether it your wedding or a death of a loved one, a birth of a child or a fatal disease you just found out about, your job or a night-out with friends, it is the interconnectedness with other people involved you desire the most.
We are social animals and nobody until date has denied that except for a few serial killers. Next time while you are going to work in your car, think about the number of people involved in making it possible – from the assembler in the plant to the supplier of tiny car-radio switches, the mechanic in your neighborhood to the dealer who sold you the car, the people who designed the road you are traveling on to those who put the road signs. As you go through the list further, you will not stop wondering how interconnected we really are.
Do not idolize individuals whether it is Gandhi – a proponent of socialist freedom through self-sacrifice and persuasion, Lenin - a proponent of communism through collectivism and revolution, or Ayn Rand – a proponent of capitalism based on individualism and reason.
All individuals have flaws and they may even violate the very principles they profess. Blind following of such individuals can lead to disappointments and tragic consequences. Just look at the case of Ayn Rand, a symbol of capitalism. She is the same person whose own desire to denounce Soviet Union (her birthplace) atrocities made her a puppet of McCarthy, a modern day witch-hunter and as close to a dictator independent-America has seen. These are contrary to the two absolute ideas of individualism and reason that Professor Locke, a senior writer at the Ayn Rand Institute, leads you to believe. But, through such actions during the McCarthy era, was Ayn Rand meeting her own individualistic needs and was she reasoning that participating in a witch-hunt at any cost was all right? We bet our every capitalistic dollar we spent on your education!
Love and Welcome to the Adult World, Mom and Dad.
Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Franklin Covey Co, 1989.
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1997.
Susan Jeffers, Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway, Fawcett Books, 1992.
Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler, The Art of Happiness, Riverhead Books, 1998.
Autar Kaw, "Parental Advice to College Graduates", Opinion
Editorial, The Tampa Tribune, June 13, 2000, Guest Column, St.
Petersburg Times, June 11, 2000, last accessed at