What is the true meaning of a college degree?

Though it has now been nearly a month since my own graduation ceremony, these past few weeks have been filled with reflections on transitions and conclusions. What, if any, are the differences between my “self” one month ago and now? If there are none, then why is it that we, as a society, choose to recognize these moments of transition with such significance?

As I have struggled to redefine my sense of self in the wake of shedding one of the primary sources of my identity for the past four years, a student — a Harvard student — , I thought back to my graduation ceremony and the final words gifted by those chosen to guide me through this transition point.

They were classically beautiful graduation speeches, using personal narratives to exalt virtues of perseverance and self-sacrifice, urging students to embrace their mantle as the next generation of world leaders, and to recognize their responsibility to change the systems of injustice that surround those less fortunate. These were rousing notions that the entire crowd could easily nod along to, unanimous in their agreement that there are indeed problems in the world and that students could use the drive and expertise cultivated through years of hard academic work to continue to achieve and find actionable solutions.

That is certainly what many people want in a graduation speech, a ten-minute encapsulation of the of school’s supposed values, meant to justify the thousands of hours and dollars spent on a liberal arts education. But part of the reason why it felt so easy to nod along to was the familiarity of these themes, the fact that we have heard them over and over again at every point along our academic journey. Was that the point of a graduation ceremony? A final concluding paragraph that restates the thesis of our college applications, switching around a few words to make it seem as though the college experience was an invaluable part in reaching these same conclusions?

For me, though those with their career paths already laid out before them may have wanted to hear these sentiments validating the single-mindedness that defined their academic experience, it did not feel like the incredibly goal-oriented, competitive, and ambitious students who were about to graduate from Harvard really needed to internalize the virtues of doing, of achieving, of imposing their view of how the world should be onto the reality they perceived. It did not feel like this was what I, as an incredibly goal-oriented, competitive, ambitious, and stuggling Harvard graduate, needed to hear.

So, after re-listening to one of my favorite graduation speeches, David Foster Wallace’s This is Water (which if you haven’t heard yet, you should definitely go listen to), I was inspired to write my own hypothetical version of a graduation speech that I wish I, and others who shared this unyielding sense of uncertainty, would have been able to also hear.

The Zen Master’s Parable

A great martial artist knelt before his master. For sixteen years, he had devoted everything to his training, sacrificing friendship, family, and sleep in his quest to reach the pinnacle of martial arts achievement. And today, he would finally receive his black belt.

Before handing him the belt, however, the master revealed to him that there was to be one more test he must pass.

Confident that none could best his fighting skill, he stood up, assumed his stance, and said only “I am ready”.

But the master sat down. “You must answer the essential question. What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the student earnestly replied, “Why, the end of my journey. A well-deserved reward for all my hard work”.

Silence loomed as the master searched the student’s eyes. “You are not ready”, he announced, “Return in one year”.

The student resumed his practice reinvigorated, single-minded in his drive to discover the significance of the belt.

A year later, he returned to the master, his confidence restored.

Again, he was asked “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

“The Black Belt is not a reward for myself, but a signal to all others of my distinction and mastery in our art”

The pause was short. “You are still not ready”, the master replied, “return in one year”.

Devastated, the student returned to his room in tears. But, unwavering in his commitment to the practice that had gotten him so far, he spent the next twelve months diving even further into his technique than ever before, pushing himself past all the limits that he had previously judged insurmountable. And yet, on the morning of the ceremony, he awoke to find himself no closer to an answer.

Defeated, he again found himself kneeling before the master.

“What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

After a long sigh, he finally gave in. “I don’t know.”

The master let out a small grin. “Finally, you are ready to receive the Black Belt and begin your work.”

It may seem heavy-handed that this is the story I chose to share. With 1600 of us seated here about to receive black belts in anthropology, sociology, folklore and mythology or whatever art form we have dedicated the last sixteen years of our lives to, the parallels are obvious. But while our professors may be Zen masters, as far as I can tell, there is no cryptic question we must answer, no final test we must pass. Today, we will walk out of this yard with college diplomas. And although it is not required of me, I can’t help but find myself meditating on the question posed by the Zen master: What is the true meaning of a college degree? And why is asking the question so important?

Now, if you’ve begun to speculate on the nature of the neat little bow I am about to wrap on top of my college experience, a journey I assure you was full of trials and tribulations, overcoming limits I previously thought insurmountable all culminating in the confident orator you see before you today, let me warn you: I am not the Zen master. I have no answers to endow. Instead, I offer a question: What is the true meaning of your college degree? I offer only this question because try as I might, I still can’t seem to formulate an answer any better than the martial artist’s.

Viewed one way, a degree is certainly a well-deserved reward for all the years of hard work: the college applications, SAT prep, and extracurriculars in high school. Viewed another way, a college degree is a signal to others that we’ve worked hard, we’re smart, and have a level of mastery in our field. But, after I shake my dean’s hand and see my name in fancy calligraphy next to this school’s crest, is anything about me truly different than in the moment right before? We ascribe so much significance to these rituals, these seemingly discrete moments along the pereptual timelines of our lives. Yet, looking back on the continuous state of change that has characterized my college experience, why is this the moment we have universally decided to be a “good enough” indicator that it is now time to move on? If being handed a degree doesn’t reflect a moment of actual change in my ability, then does my desire for a reward, this validation of my efforts, indicate that this whole time, I have been working for the right to call myself a Harvard graduate, under the guise of wanting to gain the knowledge which that title is supposed to represent?

If the one expository writing class that I took freshman year has taught me anything, it’s to look to the text, yet the text seems to provide two very distinct ways that we can interpret the story of the martial artist. In one sense, the story does offer a clear answer — when the marital artist replies “I don’t know”, he is admitting that the black belt in itself has no inherent significance apart from that which we give it. There is no end goal in the quest for knowledge, and we must be cautious against confusing mere symbols with the substances they are supposed to represent. This, I think, is a fair interpretation that we should take to heart, one that would make a compelling section answer, final paper, or speech at graduation. But I think this type of clean-cut answer misses some of the complex beauty in this Zen parable.

Like the martial artist, we have trained for years in the art of institutionalized education. Since the day we first learned to open up a book, it’s been imbued into the very fabric of how we understand the world; if we just search hard enough and think long enough, we can answer any question that might confront us. The quest for knowledge may be a lifelong journey, but we can undoubtedly make progress. If we commit ourselves, each step brings us closer to that famed horizon of true understanding.

Clearly, adopting this attitude has reaped rewards. It’s been that unadulterated drive, that ambition, that has gotten all of us to where we sit today, objective successes in almost every definition of the word. Yet, here I stand before friends, family, and teachers at a black belt ceremony of my own, and it feels like I’m walking away with fewer answers than when I walked in.

So what does it mean that I have no good answer to the Zen master’s question? Maybe, what we can learn from the parable of the martial artist is not that the black belt has no significance or that I must train harder in order for its true significance to be revealed to me, but that I have misunderstood the very essence of the question being asked.

In attempting to formulate an answer, I too, had sought refuge in my training. When presented with the question “What is the true meaning of a college degree?”, the outline of a seven to ten-page paper with a strong thesis statement and supporting paragraphs overflowing with words like ubiquitous, pedagogy, dichotomy, and Marx instinctively began to form in my mind’s eye. I saw an economic perspective I could approach the question from, focusing on the marginal returns of investment in a liberal arts education, a psychological argument about the value of signaling and social capital, or some philosophical critique on the epistemology of significance. But all of these approaches arose from the same basic instinct within me to create a safe and easily-digestible way of dealing with the terror life has taught me to be associated with not having an answer.

Harvard has given us unparalleled training in the realm of academic questioning and answering, but in a world void of such clear binary notions of true or false, honors or non-honors, passing or failing, limiting the notion of “successful” questions to only those which have “successful” answers reduces uncertainty to a temporary inconvenience and restricts the creative potential of our questions to effectuate long-term change. Throughout most of our academic careers, we have been able to lean on so-called objective measures of success to guide us through the well-trodden path that is middle school, high school, and college. While the horizon still bounds the limits of our vision, we can look back at all the steps we have taken and be assured of our progress.

Yet as we draw closer and closer to the end of that academic path, the forest thins, and an open field of uncertainty reveals more and more of itself beyond the tree line. As the waypoints of success that we have leaned on thus far fall away, how we choose to interact with the space in front of us can only be guided by the nature of the questions we ask.

A brilliant professor here at the Divinity School, Charles Hallisey, once proposed to our class that there are two fundamental ways to interpret a question like that of the Zen master’s: academically or self-reflectively. At first, the martial artist approached the question academically, using his previous knowledge to build towards a well-defined conclusion about the purpose of the belt that diffuses the tension between known and unknown by breaking the vast empty space of the unknown into smaller, more classifiable parts. In coming to the conclusion that the belt was a signal of competence, the martial artist reached to that which he knew about linear progress and achievement, theories of belts and adornment, and commonalities among all others that wear the belt.

But, I argue that in his final answer, the answer that brought a smile to the Zen master’s face, he interpreted the question self-reflectively, resisting the temptation to make sense of the unknown by looking for parallels in that which he did know, and instead, allowed his knowledge to become truly vulnerable. Rather than fill up the unknown space with projections of that which he considered to be solid, he made peace with the void, and fell into a space that did not form in spite of that tension, but because of it.

Now this is not to say that academic questions can’t be posited in a way that reduces our certainty. Galileo’s questions about celestial observations surely raised doubts about the Copernican model of the universe. But it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between the type of question that asks “Are really certain that the sun revolves around the earth?”, and the type of question that asks “What does it mean if mankind is indeed not at the center of the universe?”. A fundamental difference between the processes of breaking down assumed certainty from a place of strength and opening ourselves to uncertainty from a place of vulnerability.

As we approach the point at which the path of educational success meets the clearing of the world beyond, it’s understandable to reach back into the world that we know in order to deal with the world that we don’t, to extrapolate from our previous data points, take as straight of a trajectory as possible, and keep marching towards that horizon. But there is something lacking for me about the world of possibilities that comes from such a singular definition of progress. While this way of mapping the world may be appealing in both its beauty and consistency, its strength comes from its unyielding, unhesitating nature. I look back at the path that I have forged, and despite wanting so badly for the beauty of my path to be defined by its unyielding consistency towards an end goal, I can’t help but notice all the sharp lefts and switchbacks, the times when I just seemed to be walking in circles. I look back and I am unsure I have ever really given myself the space to question the significance of the horizon I so long for. By approaching all questions with the intent of fortifying my own knowledge, I have begun to realize that I might be limiting my exploration of the infinite possibilities outside of that which I may already understand. I have been bound to the traditional notions of self, progress, and success that have been most effective in helping protect my own intellectual insecurities from the uncertainties I have faced in navigating the world thus far. But what are we left with when we leave behind our conceptions of progress, our norms of experience, and our classifications of truth? Where does that leave us? It leaves us at the point at which self-reflection can begin.

What changes the moment that we receive our degrees has nothing to do with our own levels of knowledge or validation, but everything to do with the way in which we understand ourselves in the world. No longer is there the expectation that every question we are faced with must be answered in 7–10 pages with sources cited in MLA format, nor are there section participation grades for your internal dialogue. No one can determine for you against some objective criteria whether your approach to the big questions of purpose and meaning maximizes social impact, minimizes personal risk, or maintains perfect internal validity.

So, when your friends and relatives undoubtedly ask you at some point this weekend what it is that you’re doing next year and how it fits in with your larger life ambitions, I am not asking you to throw away all the intensive work you’ve done in figuring out what plans best fit your own criteria of success, only that you take a moment, a real moment of self-reflection before launching into that prepared three sentence summary you’ve undoubtedly heard yourself give hundreds of times, and be vulnerable to the possibility that the question need not have a right answer.

For all his skill, it wasn’t ultimately his practice or prowess that earned the martial artist his black belt, but a turn away from that space that he found so comfortable. If you are at all frustrated over the next few years at your inability to find clear and concise answers to the questions you find yourself asking, whatever you do, my advice would be to not stop asking them. And instead, consider whether you are judging a fish by its inability to climb a tree, a self-reflective question by its inability to reduce uncertainty. Ask yourself whether holding that tension between past and present, strength and vulnerability, certainty and uncertainty is the force restricting your movement towards the promised destination beyond that which we can see, or whether it is only at the point where solid and space meet that defines that very horizon.

From the very outset of this speech, I conceded that I had no answers to offer, so instead, as you go about this week celebrating this momentous occasion with those you love, I leave you only with this question: “How much meaning can I find in a college degree? And why is asking the question so important?” Thank you.