Read the speech that helped to shape my perspective on education, sales, and life in general.

Many years ago, a high-school girl competed in a state speech competition for members of the forensics club. Participants competed for the best original speech as well as for the best speech written by someone else.

This young girl chose a speech entitled “Curiosity and Discontent: The Value of a College Education.” It was originally delivered by Charles Brower, executive vice president of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, Inc., to the members of the class of 1957 at the freshman assembly at Rutgers University on September 16, 1953.

It’s incredibly difficult for adults to stand before a group of people and deliver a presentation. Imagine a shy, 16-year-old girl in that same scenario. She prepped carefully—not only on her delivery, but on reading a speech written by someone else. She had to deliver a message that rocked the crowd and also make it believable as her own. She was competing to win.

Ultimately, she came in second. Was she disappointed? Of course. Did she keep competing? You bet. Did she internalize the message? Yes. In many ways, it directed the course of her life. And by now you’ve probably guessed that I was that shy, 16-year-old girl.

I kept a hard copy of that speech. It took me a long time to find it online. (We didn’t have the internet then.) Now I’m sharing it here for all of you to read, internalize, and pay it forward.

Why? What relevance could it have today? Lots. Especially for those of us in sales, as well as those just beginning their college education. I’ve read lots of amazing commencement speeches, but it’s rare to find an address to college freshman. (I haven’t researched how rare.)

Reading it now reminds me that my life has always been about curiosity. And yes, some discontent. I hope it sparks the same in you.

Curiosity and Discontent: The Value of a College Education

I take it that we already have your money by now, and if I wind up by convincing you that you shouldn’t go to college at all, you can’t get your money back. 

The subject of “The Value of a College Educationis one that might very easily put us all to sleep—and I assure you that it would not be the first time that I have dozed within these hallowed walls of Kirkpatrick Chapel, anesthetized by a dull speaker on a dull subject—although it definitely would be the first time that I put myself to sleep! 

Yet the subject—dull or undull—must be of importance to you. Most of you are around 17, 18, or 19. Insurance actuaries would give you a life expectancy of around 50 years. 4 years is 8% of 50 years. Thus, you are investing 8% of all the years you have left. 8% is a good return on anybodys money—it ought to be a good return on anybodys investment of life. 

I am not sure that we had very much sense when I went to Rutgers. I am absolutely sure that you fellows average more stability and intelligence than my generation did. And I am not telling you this to please you or make you feel good. I am not guessing. I know because I hire young people every day. There are screwballs, of course. There are men who take some pride in referring to themselves as “crazy mixed-up kids.” But the average man of your generation is a very solid sound citizen. 

I agree with Lester Pearson, head of the U.N. Assembly, who says that those who criticize the younger generation are usually too old to set them a bad example. The last time I stood in this position was in June, 1925, at my class day exercises. I read the class prophesy. I can no longer remember any detail about it—I cannot even remember what I prophesied for myself. I studied physics. Today, I know nothing of physics. I took advanced mathematics, and today my wife has to help me keep my checkbook straight. The only thing I remember about Calculus was that I had to hand in my final examination, “The Evolute of a Cissoid.” I know a cissoid is a figure eight, but I have no idea in the world what an evolute is. 

I am trying to make a point here. Unless you are one of those devoted and fortunate souls who knows right now that he wants to be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer or a chemist or a minister—unless you know right now what you intend to do, and save every day’s little teaspoonful of knowledge toward that great goal—you will probably forget almost everything you learn in college

What, then, is the use of investing 8% of your remaining life in learning things you won’t remember? What can college do for you? I’ll tell you—and if you will remember only this—you will remember something worthwhile. College can increase your curiosity and discontent. I’ll probably repeat that once or twice before I’m through—so I might as well repeat it once right now. College can increase your curiosity and your discontent. And if it does this, it will have been worth the investment of those precious years! 

Now, while I am limiting most of my remarks to those who are not sure what they want to do when they graduate, the rest of you had better listen, too. Because it may be that you only think you know. My insurance man graduated from Rutgers in Agriculture. Two of the best writers in my company graduated from law school. And I myself was determined to be a school teacher. In fact I was one, and stopped only because I developed a prejudice toward eating. 

The advice that one generation gives the next one is always ignored. Then, as the next generation ages, it says to itself, “By Golly, that old fellow had something!” So it hands along the same tried and true and trite advice, and it gets well ignored in its turn. And this is probably a very good thing. Because the skepticism and independence of youth, the desire of each generation to find out for itself, makes for an interesting thing called progress. Whether the thing that we call progress is worth a hoot or not is for others to say. I only say that it is interesting. And I also point out that I expect my advice to be ignored, just as I ignored the advice of the old men, and as the youngsters that come after you will ignore yours. 

I said that College could increase your curiosity and your discontent. I did not say it would reward you in any other way. I do not believe it will make you richer. I know that there are books of statistics showing that the college graduate is richer than the non-graduate. He lives in a better house, travels more, owns more cars, reads more books, stays married to the same woman longer, sees more shows, is more likely to own his own home. But none of these statistics and none of these books can prove that college did it. It is quite likely that the type of man who is going to be successful anyway goes to college. But he might have done just as well had he not gone. No one will ever know. It’s the chicken and the egg business. 

Let’s get back to curiosity and discontent. Those are the two things that a baby is born with—although he has to develop a little ability to get about the place before he can exhibit his curiosity. 

But any toddler is a bundle of curiosity and discontent. He wants out. He wants up. He wants down. He pulls everything off the table, gets the pots and pans out of the cupboard. He pokes a nail file into the electric socket and blows all the fuses. He eats things he shouldn’t eat and lights matches. He turns his parents’ hair gray with a constant tide of questions. What is this? Why is this? What makes this? Who says so? If I do this, what will happen? This curiosity and discontent is born in all humans. 

And—granted some equivalent in brains—it makes the final difference between great men and mediocre men. 

The man who does not lose his curiosity and his discontent is almost bound to be successful. The man who does lose them is almost bound to remain on the level he had reached when he lost them. 

I will not bore you with a long list of the world’s great, and final proof that I am right. Just name your own great man. You will find that he combined a vast curiosity with a great discontent.  

Take Lincoln, if you wish. Napoleon. St. Frances of Assisi. Charles Dickens. Martin Luther. Columbus. Their only two common denominators are curiosity and discontent. Take our own Selman Waksman, whom I consider a truly great man. Did not his Streptomycin come from overwhelming curiosity about antibiotics, combined with a burning discontent about mankind’s constant defeat by disease? The curiosity alone would not have been enough to hold a man in a laboratory for more than 40 years. Discontent alone would not have kept him there either. They had to both be present. 

Now we have shown that curiosity and discontent are the great motivating forces toward individual success and human progress. And we have shown that all mankind is born with these two factors aflame in its breast. What happens to people? What puts the dimmer on curiosity and discontent, until millions of them finally develop a mere cow-like existence, grazing on the morning headlines, and chewing over old tired second-hand opinions. What makes people feel like this recent quatrain: 

“There goes the happy moron 

He doesn’t give a damn 

I wish I were a moron 

My God! Perhaps I am.” 

It’s the same thing that happens to the baby—the social group cracks down on him. Just as most mothers will stop the child from pulling out the pots and pans because it is too much trouble for her to put them back—so the town, the village and the neighborhood discourage any discontent and any curiosity that tends to be greater than the comfortable average. The social group pretends that progress is either evil or funny. All rich men got rich by being money-grubbers. Inventors are crack-pots who wear thick glasses. Artists all starve in attics. Professors are all absent-minded. A boy or girl who tries in school to learn something is a “grind” or a “brain.” You who still have your discontent and curiosity alive know exactly what I mean. 

But now you have moved into a new neighborhood. Leonardo Di Vinci is your neighbor, Shakespeare is just across the street, Galilee and Sir Isaac Newton will be glad to go over their experiments with you, as will Hertz and Boyle and Pasteur. All the great men who ever lived are here, waiting to arouse your discontent and curiosity anew—so that never again in your life will you be satisfied with your lot and the lot of humanity—never again will your curiosity permit you to sit idly by while a question remains unanswered that you might find the answer to. 

Just for fun, I circulated a questionnaire through my company, asking people why they went to college, what they expected to get out of it, and whether they got what they wanted or not. Nearly 80% of the people who answered admitted that they went to college mostly because their friends were going. They had nothing much in mind. They didn’t expect much, and most of them did not get much. 

But here and there is one who wanted to increase his curiosity and his discontent. None of them say this, of course. They say they wanted to “broaden their horizons,” “get a better appreciation of the finer things of life,” “To get more self-confidence,” “To absorb new ideas,” “To gain perspective,” “To train my mind.” But they meant the same thing. One expressed it even more explicitly; “During the war,” he said, “I was lucky enough to work with men like Bill Donovan, Allan Dulles, and David Bruce. They had something that I knew I didn’t have. I knew I didn’t have it and could never develop it without more exposure to history, literature and languages. I never realized how stupid I was until I had to work with these men!” There is curiosity and discontent at work! 

A great number of the men who went to college without any reason for going also answered that they got little or nothing out of it—and several said that if they had it to do over again they would not go at all. Which proves perhaps that college cannot really do anything for you—it can merely give you the opportunity to do something for yourself. 

One man gave as his reason for going: “A blonde in my High School biology class was going so I went along.” And what did he get out of college? Not the blonde, because she married a local orchestra leader. This apparently has no significance, but it breaks up an otherwise dull section. 

An interesting thing comes out of the answers of the men who did not go to college. Although they do not say so directly, it is obvious that all of them think they missed something very important. So that is another little thing college can do for you—free you from the illusion that you may have missed something. 

And now that you have started, it is rather important that you finish. One of my friends was being interviewed for a job with the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency some years ago when they used to hire the famous psychologist John Broadus Watson to talk to applicants. The psychologist asked, “Did you finish college?” 

“Yes,” my friend said, and started to tell him where and when. But Watson interrupted him. 

“I don’t care where you went or when,” he said. “I’m only interested in whether or not you finished college. To me one of the chief values of college is that it establishes the work habit. A man who has demonstrated that he can finish the things he started already has a great advantage over those who cannot.” 

And I’ll give you one more good tip—get off to a good start. Professors are human beings and can be impressed. If you knock their eyes out the first few weeks, you can coast a little later without too much penalty. But if you coast for the first few weeks, you might never get the professor back on your side even though you had a mind like Einstein

There was a young man entering Columbia who was scheduled to take an intelligence test. He got to the right building all right, but instead of walking into the door of the big hall where everyone else was he opened the door next to it and blundered into a professor’s office. 

“Sir,” said the student, “I have come to take my intelligence test.” 

“Young man,” said the professor, “You have just taken it.

Just remember those two things—curiosity and discontent. I am trying to drum them into your head so that long after you have forgotten me, you will say—I am still curious, I am still discontented—therefore, I am happy. For happiness itself, it seems to me, is discontent with the possibility of overcoming the thing that causes the discontent. 

You have, in effect, paid 8% of your remaining days to sit down for four years at the greatest intellectual banquet ever spread before man. Don’t sit through the banquet eating peanuts and popcorn! 

One more thing: Don’t devote the next four years to getting ready to live. Live now. You will never be more alive than you are at this minute, and you will be a whole lot deader long before you cease being vertical. Treat yourself to new friendships. Don’t lock yourself up in a room, or in your mind. Develop a little fun and a little trouble. Find something to be enthusiastic about, find something to be indignant about. Then do something about both. Don’t wait to live—for life moves away from you one hour every 60 minutes and one day every 24 hours. 

If you got anything out of this, I am glad. If you didn’t, I’m glad anyway—because it gave me the opportunity of meeting you all and wishing you … Good Luck! 

(Copyright © 2003 EBSCO Publishing)

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