Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The best parts of Melissa Harris-Perry's commencement speech to Wellesley College graduates are truthful and worth listening to

Melissa Harris-Perry
I like great commencement speeches, mostly because I never went to my commencement. I was actually ashamed that I got a degree in English because my father essentially said it was a worthless degree and that I was a failure for getting one. I'm not mad. It's just the truth. It's what he honestly believed, and seeing as I didn't have a job right when school finished, it's not like I could prove him wrong. It took a decade before I gathered enough work experience to have a career that can support me into retirement. Here's another truth: I don't feel like a failure anymore. I feel lucky to have my job with benefits and a pension, and I clawed for everything I've accomplished (tooth and nail) to get to where I am (firmly planted in the middle class). I also feel sorry for those who are entering the workforce today, because good jobs are drying up. America is not the land of opportunity it was forty years ago.

There's a lot of truth in my life (that's the one thing that has always come in crystal clear and 20/20) and all the people in it have never held back. I remember when my cousin came to visit and after she met me (eleven years old at the time) she asked grandma "Why is their family so ugly?" More truth I suppose; kids tell it like it is. Just recently someone I was helping asked me, "What is your degree?" (I assume they were impressed because I'm smart). I responded "English." They immediately said with disgust and contempt, "How did you get this job then?" I was amused because even a person that doesn't have a job can have contempt for me. But you know what? I am smart. I have an above-average IQ, and I'm thankful for it.

Maybe I could have gone to an Ivy League school. I'd like to think that had I been given the opportunity, I could have been on the Dean's List of my choice of major at Cornell. But I went to Sarah Palin's alma mater, i.e. the University of Idaho. And as soon as school was done, I packed up my things and just drove home to try and struggle with the big question of what to do with an English degree that my father said is useless? Well, I can say from experience that as useless as it was, living in Idaho Falls, Idaho (population 50,000) made it even more challenging to find work that wasn't minimum wage. It's a right-to-work state so there's no unions and the "job creators" there believe that profits should be made off the back of slaves. Because of living in Idaho Falls, Idaho, I will always be a democrat. I've seen economic injustice first-hand. I spent years working retail, sometimes holding three jobs, and trying to build a resume so chock full of experience that I could land a career.

But this post is not specifically about me or the challenges I have in my life. It's not supposed to be about whether or not someone chooses to mock me for trying to showcase credentials I feel I've earned through study, trial and error. Nor is it about how people misjudge me all the time because they think my life is easy when in fact it's the opposite, and I hide it really well.

This post is about Melissa Harris-Perry and what she had to say to graduates of Wellesley College in May of 2012, and it's every bit as great as what Steve Jobs had to say to Stanford grads before his death, because it holds nothing but truth. For those of you who don't know, Melissa Harris-Perry is a political scientist and MSNBC television host and she urged the crowd of students to be ignorant, silent, and thick. That sounds awful, right? Well, not so much.

Here are a few choice quotes:

"But even as you accept your hard won degree, I encourage you to embrace the reality that you know almost nothing."

I personally feel that I know almost nothing. I just wish others felt the same. I try to explain things that I do know and more often than not, I get cut off mid-sentence by someone who acts the expert and then the conversation is ended. Days later I find out they actually knew nothing and just didn't want to learn from the likes of me. In every single case, I want to point out that all of these people that cut me off have been men.

"Standing in a library reminds us of our own limitations. It encourages us to remember that we don't know everything, can't predict every outcome, and don't even know all the right questions to ask. I will never fill a cavity. It is pretty unlikely that I will ever speak Mandarin. I am certainly not going to decode anything in the DNA chain. But thankfully, graciously, the universe provides an interdependent web of other fantastic women who will. Remembering our ignorance, embracing our ignorance, allowing ourselves to accept a posture of ignorance compels us to keep learning."

"So remember, ignorance is not your enemy, only complacency with ignorance is to be resisted. Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you stop signing up for life's hard classes. Remember to keep forming hypotheses and gathering data. Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity ferocious. Keep groping in the darkness with ravenous desire."

I don't understand why people get to an age where they choose to stop learning. I've actually heard, "I know how the Earth came to be. This is what I believe and you're not going to ever change my mind." All I've got to say to that is "Wow. You learned everything before you were twenty and now all you want to know is how to save money for retirement and pop out some kids." I've never stopped learning. Each day I try to fill my mind with something else. I ravenously read newspapers, read science articles, and search out anything and everything about stocks and the financial market. I guess at the age of 41, I know enough to say in the humblest of ways "I actually know nothing, but I'm willing to learn if you teach me."

"Silence can help to soothe one of the voices that you would actually like to be quiet more frequently. It's what Jay-Smooth would call your 'internal hater.' That little hater...the hater sits on our shoulder and tells us, 'sit up straight,' 'omigod, you have a lisp,' and 'why are you talking?'

"Thick is the only thing worth being. Thick women make fools of themselves all the time because thin women stand on the sidelines. They're critical; they're removed; they're barely committed. Thick people pitch tents in a park with the belief that social action can change an entire international global system of economic injustice."

"Thin folks believe every critic is a 'hater.' Thick folks can hear critique without crumbling. Thin leaders stay the course no matter what the evidence sat. Thick leaders listen, learn, and correct."

"Thin women look great in bikinis. Thick women look terrific in history books."

I love that last line more than anything.


  1. Getting a degree in anything these days does not guarantee a job - or a job that lasts. I'm proud you've joined those of us in the middle class :) Not a bad place to be. And when Jordan's world is plastered all over TV, movie screens, and children's back packs, I guess you can wave that English degree in some faces and show them what its worth. Of course, talent and intelligence doesn't need a degree to prove itself either.

    That was a good speech.


  2. Another thought-provoking post, Michael and I'm glad (as I imagine you are:) that you didn't let the words of your father drag you down :)

  3. You stop learning, you stop growing. No one ever knows everything.
    Any degree is a challenge. Be proud of yours.

  4. I can relate to the Dad problem. Mine used to be negative like that too, but he's mellowed with age. Degrees seem to be good for getting promoted if you already have the job. Just think if you continued to a masters or PHD you could be an English professor. Then you could work in one of those fancy universities.

  5. Everyday I see how much more I need to learn. It never ends.

  6. She is one gorgeous woman with obvious intelligence and wit; you can't go wrong with that combination in a great motivational speaker! And I have to agree that last line is fabulous!

    To be perfectly honest, I would be proud of my children, no matter what degree they earned (whether it was in English or basket weaving or biochemical engineering) My sister was an artist and earned her degree in Fine Art. Everyone told her she wouldn't find a job; my parents and I sat at her graduation with giant smiles on our faces and were proud as hell of her. I want the same for my own kids; I want them to find a major and job that they love and that fulfills them, and I want them to know no matter what they choose to be in this life, I will be proud of them.

    In my life, there is someone close to me who earned a plethora of degrees from Ivy League schools, but he is one of the biggest morons you'd ever want to meet. I certainly wouldn't want to hire him, ever. It is my personal belief, school can only get you so far, but it's your willingness to keep on learning and having a strong work ethic that makes all the difference in the world.

  7. I generally have a hard time taking Melissa seriously (any main-stream media personality for that matter), but she's got a point here. I can never know everything there is to know and I'd be an idiot to think that I could. The best I can do is live with what knowledge I have - and if I need more, I'll go get some. Maybe this is why I'm a writer - I love to write about what I don't know. :)

  8. Can you imagine the look on my parents faces when I came home and told them I wanted to study insects. Yeah. I got that look.

  9. I didn't go to my college graduation because I went to my high school one and that was boring enough. No commencement speech will ever top Rodney Dangerfield's in "Back to School." "It's a jungle out there--stay home!" Words to live by.

  10. @Elise: That's both sad and funny at the same time. Insects, however, are fascinating.

  11. My art studies were even more maligned. As well, my dad said women didn't need to go to college. See what I had to deal with. I just turned him on MUTE.

    Well-spoken, Michael.

  12. A degree in English opens far more doors than a degree in art. I know this from firsthand experience; Mrs. C. has a degree in English. I've never had a potential employer ask me if I had a degree.

    Like you, I never intend to stop learning. I try to learn something new every day. Unfortunately, at my age I forget TWO thing every day so it's only a matter of time until my brain is an empty slate.

  13. That speech sounds awesome. Personally, I never got a degree. But I'm still sending my kid to college.

  14. The data shows that, overall, people with a degree in English tend to be more successful than other degrees. Which is not to say that someone with a degree in English is more successful than, say, a doctor, but, if you have two people in the same field and one has a degree in English and the other has some other degree, the chances are that the person with the English degree is more successful. Even if the other person has a degree in that field. So, well, English haters can just chew on that.

  15. To me she sounds a little tough.
    About you - - - I would not be ashamed to have graduated in English. I took English as an optional and I wish that it was my major.

  16. Michael, you are such a beautiful person. I LOVED speaking with you at that writer's dinner and I find your perspective on life fascinating. And I do think you're brilliant--and it is because you thirst for knowledge and are continually learning. I *wish* I had a degree in English! If I were to go back to school, that is what I would major in. :-)

  17. I often feel this way with my career field. I have a Masters degree in Public Administration, but the field I work in is lower on the salary scale when compared to other fields. I don’t care about this because I know I do good work, but sometimes I wish people respected what I do more, or that we were better compensated. When I feel this way, I have to remind myself that it shouldn’t matter what others think. So long as my family and I are comfortable and we’re happy, I’m happy.
    I’m trying to emerge into the published world myself, and I respect that you have already pushed through the tension the world has pressed against you. It’s inspiring and I hope I can fare well like you.

  18. People think an degree in English is worthless? Hey, I majored in journalism with a history minor, so we're talking very unemployable. But somehow I've managed to stay employed and can tell you that many employers are frustrated that they can't find college-educated workers who can spell, punctuate, or write so much as a coherent letter.

    In all honesty, there have been times when I've emotionally beaten myself up for not majoring in something more practical with a higher earning potential. But these days I look around and see people who did everything right with their education, skills and financial planning and seemed to be headed for an easy future. But now they're unemployed and desperate. This speaks volumes about our lopsided economy and how bad life for the middle class has become.

    By the way, I've also worked around enough executives in fancy companies to tell you that their own degrees and backgrounds aren't anything to brag about. They got to the top by who they knew and who they played golf with. And that's no exaggeration.

  19. @Michael: Thank you so much for the kind words. You really cheered me up.

    @Morgan: I think you are the most awesome redhead on the planet. You heard it here first.

    @Munir: Thank you for saying so. Your comments are always so thoughtful.

    @Andrew: ...

    @Matt: Thanks for visiting.

  20. @Helena: I've observed the same thing. We really should get together sometime. I think we have a lot in common and it'd be great to have someone to bitch with that shares my same frustrations in life LOL.

  21. I was going to skip my college commencement. Then my uncle (who was living in Oregon at the time) told me he was making a special trip down, and everyone in my family just had to go...

    At least my math professor (whose final was at about the same time as the ceremony) was understanding and let me take my final early. (Needed to take that final as I needed that class to actually graduate.)

    English is not a useless degree. (None are, but that's just an opinion.) Have you seen this:

    The trick is to learn to ignore the "haters". Because when people speak, it's about them. Even if they're talking to you.

  22. You caught me on a bad day. Life is hard. Nothing is guaranteed. When it's good, enjoy it.

    Looking back, I knew nothing when I graduated either. I still feel I don't know a whole lot. I loved learning, too.

  23. Great post, and I have to agree on most points in the speech, especially the part about always learning new things in life. Anyone how believes they know everything by the age of 20 (and I know people like this) actually know almost nothing. Thanks for sharing, and it's great you stuck by the degree you wanted to do:)

  24. Michael my dear, someday we really should get together. I'd love it.

  25. I want to major in English when I go to college. When people ask about my plans (which they are wont to do, me being in high school) and I tell them, they look uncomfortable or upset or surprised or something. Like they expected a higher calling for me. What with my big brain and all. ;) But an English major, I think, will feel those four years (and maybe beyond) with hard work of the variety that I love to immerse myself in.

    And I loved the speech. Especially the bit about your Charlotte towards the end. The most important people in your life are not going to be perfect. And you should love them for it.

  26. I have a degree in English too and my dad and yours seem to have a lot in common. Thanks for sharing this video, made my evening blog rounds worthwhile.

  27. You are NOT ugly. That kind of burned me up reading that.

    Michael, you are smart, witty, and overall just an awesome person. Even if we disagree, I always learn from you. Learning is lifelong, and I'm always surprised by how I'm still changing.

    People who close their minds are the ignorant ones. And you know, I have an English degree too. So they can just kiss our intelligent asses.

  28. I love this speech and the last line is perfect. I need to learn to be thicker.

  29. Thanks for sharing Melissa's wisdom Michael. I like the standing in the library one--it is nice to be grounded yet know we are connected to so many other smart and creative people.

    Enjoy your weekend.

  30. Hi Michael - what a great and interesting post .. I've kept it unread, so I can come back and listen to Melissa Harris-Perry's talk .. she looks a bright spark.

    Anyone who does extra learning and continues to grow, keep an open mind and be gentle with life .. is so worth it - good for you.

    All the best - Hilary

  31. Hi Michael .. I just listened - and she's a very good speaker .. giving all the options and I loved her thoughts to those 'kids' starting out ..

    Cheers Hilary

  32. Very inspirational. Thanks for posting!