Commencement speech

My department takes its graduation reception more seriously than do some others. We provide food and wine for a hundred (and what with the faculty, graduates, and graduates’ large families we usually get almost that many in attendance) and we induct the graduates formally into the appropriate Greek society. There is also a commencement speech, and this year it was my turn to give it. It was very hokey, as I think it’s supposed to be, but some of the parents asked me to put it up on the web. So here it is.

Colleagues, parents, and above all students,

I want to begin by praising you – the students – for something you probably didn’t even know you’ve done. In the course of your 4 years here, Pomona’s rank in the Princeton Review’s list of “happiest campuses” dropped from #1 to – and this news is just out this week – #14. That’s a Pomona-specific stat of course, but relevant to all of you: I believe it is possible to say that in the last four years the 5 C’s at large have become a substantially less happy place. This is, surely, undoubtedly, a sign of intellectual, spiritual, and emotional health. Not that we don’t want you to be happy. We do. But we don’t want you to be “happy.” We don’t want you to be “happy” in the sense that Arizona State seems to be happy (and for any of you who haven’t yet watched what Jon Stewart did to ASU last week when they refused to give their commencement speaker, Barak Obama, an honourary degree, you should hie yourselves immediately to youtube and find out, if only for the smug pleasure it will provide you.) To return to the point: high levels of happiness often go hand in hand with disengagement, and correlatively a decline in happiness is likely a mark of open-eyed awareness of what happens in the world. I feel sure that Pomona’s drop in this ranking is a sign that the student body in the whole 5 C’s, over the course of your 4 years here, has become less concerned with its own pleasure and its own future, and more concerned with justice and injustice, at home and in the world. The over-representation of Religious Studies students in such groups as the Workers’ Support Committee, the Stand With Staff initiative, and Challah for Hunger, I adduce as evidence that insofar as you have achieved some level of happiness, it has been hard-won, and arises not from shutting your eyes to the problems that exist in the world but from acting well. Such happiness is always mixed with restless vigilance.

But of course there are many ways of acting well. And I would like to suggest that this question – the question of the ways there are of acting well – is the governing question of the discipline in which you have majored. It is possible that some of the parents here – and maybe even some of the students – are wondering why on earth you chose to major in Religious Studies. I know in any case that many students graduating today across the colleges who haven’t taken our classes have avoided us because they think we are outdated, irrelevant, dogmatic, anything but useful. Nothing could be further from the case, and I think that one reason why this is so is precisely because of what I’ve just said. Religious Studies borrows many of its texts and methodology from other disciplines – from philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, politics, and literature – but reads those texts and applies those methodologies in order to consider the whole range of answers to the question: how should people comport themselves? what should they care about? what are their obligations? how have these questions been answered over time and through cultures? And the reason we call ourselves a secular department is not because we don’t take religious answers seriously, but precisely because we take seriously the entire range, rather than just one particular set. Perhaps it is this that has drawn many of you to the field. And I hope that you have begun to build answers for yourself, a critical process that, I also hope, will continue the rest of your lives.

I think that in a speech like this I’m supposed to offer advice. I only have two small things along these lines to say. The first is: when you come to consider how to live well, do not embrace practice at the expense of theory. Over the years I’ve heard many graduation speeches where students say: why were we reading books here when we should have been building houses in Latin America? I hope you all do build houses in Latin America – or the equivalent. But I also hope you keep reading. To read, reflect on, criticize, and converse about the greatest books is not nothing. It already makes a difference in the world. Critical discourse is as necessary to human life as food and shelter, and you are in a unique position to practice it, preserve it, endorse it, live by it, and pass it on. Sometimes it seems to all of us like books just obfuscate, like everything would be simple if only we could break through to some kind of clarity or immediacy. But this, like most simple ideas, is only partly right, and mostly wrong. In actuality, the complicated truths tend to be truer.

The second thing is: do not sacrifice the present for the sake of the future. In this context I always think of one particular story that came out of – of all things — the Milgram experiments. You will remember that these were experiments performed in the 50s to see whether people would administer damaging electric shocks to other people under the coercion of scientific authority. When they questioned what they’d been asked to do – won’t this hurt him? should I really do this? – they were all told: there will be no permanent damage to the tissue. And many of them took heart from this and went on to administer what they thought were almost lethal doses of electricity. An independent few, however, refused, and of those who refused there was one, in particular – and as it happens he was a professor of the Old Testament – who offered what seems to me the essential articulation of that refusal – he asked: what about impermanent damage to the tissue? The subjects who had gone on to higher levels of shock had been doing what we all do so often: thinking of the long-run, thinking of the ultimate consequences, in this particular case of the boon this scientific experiment would provide for our collective knowledge. This man, in distinction, knew that causing short term pain for long term gain is an inadequate morality. Surely his training in Religious Studies had something to do with his ability to see and state this truth. I think of him often when the people around me, my students, and even I, try to grasp the wood and forget the trees, reach out for the grand future while days pass with no kindness, or laughter, or play – or indeed, books.

Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the century before the birth of Jesus, is most famous for formulating what is (or should be) the watchword of doers the world over: if I am not for myself, who is for me? and if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when? But Hillel also formulated the watchword for thinkers, and it is this: Do not say when I have leisure I will study, for you may never have leisure. That is to say: keep reading, and don’t let the long-run eclipse the short-run.

That, then, is perhaps some of what you can do for us – some of the methods by which you might consider bearing your added riches in trust for humankind. But I want to close with a word or two about what you can expect us to do for you. Please do not forget that we remain here for you. Do not hesitate to write an email about something you’ve read, to come back and visit, counting on us for a meal – maybe even a bed – and, the main thing, please rely on us, for as many years as you like, for letters of recommendation, for to write letter after letter is, if not entirely our pleasure, our solemn and binding duty. When Ole Golly tells Harriet, don’t be missing me because I don’t miss you, she tells only a partial truth. We all depend on one another. You will move on and find new friends and mentors, and we will have new students, eternally young, and will be excited about them in the same way we are excited about you. But some things persist. If you need us, we will be there.

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4 thoughts on “Commencement speech

  1. Not to make light, but since you started it:

    //It is possible that some of the parents here – and maybe even some of the students – are wondering why on earth you chose to major in Religious Studies.

    You know three years later, I am teaching at math at a Jewish day school because I’m woefully underqualified to teach J.S. here and I wonder: why on earth did I choose to major in JS?

    Of course, the rest of your speech does a pretty good job of answering that question.

    //But some things persist. If you need us, we will be there.

    And thank the appropriate deity (or lackthereof) for that.

  2. Pingback: why hello, Real World « Now What?

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