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Anatomy of a Graduation Speech

At the UW Department of Philosophy’s 2018 graduation reception, entrepreneur and social change advocate Nick Hanauer (BA, Philosophy, 1981) spoke about the enduring value of a philosophy degree.  Through footnoted phrases, see how his speech reflects Hanauer's own experiences. 

I am so pleased to be here and profoundly flattered to be asked to speak to you today. But sadly, I doubt I was invited because of my significant contribution to modern philosophical thought. 

Portrait  photo of Nick Hanauer

Nick Hanauer

Truth be told, I was not a model student. I horsed around in college a lot. I had a very good time. I should have worked harder. If I had to do it over again, I would have paid closer attention and been more attentive to my readings and my assignments and my professors. But if I could do it all over, one thing I would not change is my choice of a philosophy degree. In the end, it turned out to be very useful, and it helped make me successful1.  Today, I thought I would outline some of the ways in which it helped me and should help all of you.

From my perspective, philosophy is at its essence the direct analysis of ideas, and the discipline of learning how to think. And thinking, it turns out, present political circumstances excepted, is a very, very useful real-world skill. The ability to think precisely, doing serious analysis of complex ideas, and then translating those ideas into method and action, is hard to do well. Few people are good at it. I do not know if there is a better preparation for these skills than a degree in philosophy.

So, what does philosophy do for you in life? Everything, it turns out.

First. Philosophy is just objectively hard and prepares you for other hard things2. If you can read and understand Wittgenstein, Kant, Heidegger, and AJ Ayer’s words, then you can read and understand anything. Honestly, nothing you encounter in the work world will approach the obtuseness and complexity of books like Ontological Relativity & Other Essays. For the rest of your life, everything you are asked to parse will seem like Cat in the Hat.

Second. Philosophers know how to listen, and to respect and understand different points of view3. Philosophers pay close attention to other people’s ideas, and are aware of the profound differences between what different people in different time and space think and believe. Which is not to say philosophers believe every idea is equal or equally good. Some ideas are pure nonsense, or are sensible sounding but upon deeper analysis, still nonsense, or are truly evil and corrosive to the common good. Philosophy teaches you how to sort the wheat from the chaff.

...people who have unusual command of words and ideas are always the people that change our culture and the world.

Third. Philosophers are analytical. As I mentioned before, philosophy teaches us how to parse complex ideas and arguments. It allows us to break a narrative down into its components and analyze the validity and truth of sub claims. Life can be profoundly complicated, and these analytical tools are among the most powerful and useful that one can have at one’s disposal.

Things are complicated. Figuring out what matters4 is one of life’s most important skills.

Covers of books by Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu

Books by Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu

Fourth. Philosophy teaches skepticism. It turns out that just because someone says something doesn’t mean it is true. This is particularly important when examining what powerful people say. We humans are both socialized and evolved to accept the narratives, stories, and explanations offered by elites or the dominant culture. Human civilization, in fact, relies on shared narratives. But those narratives are most often designed simply to enforce the status, privileges, and power of those elites. Philosophy teaches you how to see and understand that, and ideally, offer alternatives.

Finally, philosophy gives us power. When we look around the world, our eyes see light reflected off atoms, and it is easy to assume that this is what is important. But almost every important aspect of human civilization is not made of atoms or light. It is made of culture and that culture is made of ideas. Our economy, our democracy, our money, our laws, our religions, and social norms are all simply ideas that exist in our shared imaginations. Even the products that we use every day are simply frozen ideas. Those ideas in turn are made out of words, and those words are made by people. And thus, people who have unusual command of words and ideas are always the people that change our culture and the world5. The ability to change human culture is what we experience as power — and power can be used for ill or good.

When I reflect deeply upon what the discipline of philosophy taught me, it is that. When I reflect on the things I am most proud of — like my work to change conventional thinking about wages6 and raise the minimum wage to $15 for example — I am struck by the power of words and ideas. You may think of the $15 minimum wage as a policy. It is not. It is an idea made out of words, made by a small group of people who were good at that.

You graduates all go into the world at a very interesting and challenging moment in American history. The American idea is very much in flux. Our society is changing fast, and it remains to be seen whether this will be for better or for worse. You all have been taught a distinct and special set of skills that gives you the ability to influence the outcome of that. I hope you will do your best to make it better. 

Learn more about Nick Hanauer’s work in this Department of Philosophy interview, or check out his most recent TED Talk about the dangers of economic inequality.  A video of his Department of Philosophy graduation reception speech is viewable here