Remarks for New College Graduates
Brattleboro, Vermont - June 18, 2000
It has been my privilege--or misfortune, as the case may be--to have attended more graduation exercises than any other person on the face of the earth. And every one of them has reflected--in one way or another--a fundamental tension that seems to be inherent in the nature of commencement.
One thing is coming to an end, which means that something else is starting.
The proper stance towards the thing coming to an end is celebration and congratulation. We want to be easy, and smooth, and comfortable, and sweet-smelling. But, as important as the thing is that’s coming to an end, it is not as important as the thing that’s starting. And with respect to it we need something other than comfort and celebration. That’s where the tension comes in.
For commencement speakers it takes the form of contradictory desires. One wants, and wants sincerely, to compliment the graduates, to tell them how hard they’ve worked, and how much they’ve accomplished, and how smart they are. But, at the same time, one wants to take one more shot at them, to keep on trying, as we’ve been trying over these past years, to make sure that their commitment to an educated life has sunk in so deep, that it can never be eradicated. This is a particular instance of the age-old struggle between courtesy and honest speech. And, if one believes in both these fine principles, what is one to do?
I have to confess that it came to me some time ago-I’m really not sure how it happened--that though courtesy is one of the grand features of life, it is not as important as the truth. If there come times when comfort and courtesy have to be sacrificed in order to tell the truth about something important, then we have to tell the truth, and let courtesy take care of itself.
So, I am obliged to tell you, though it may induce some discomfort among you and among your loved ones, that receiving the diploma you’re going to get in a few minutes does not mean that you’re educated. The reason is that education is not something you get. Rather, it is something you live. No one of us can say that he’s educated on the basis of what he’s done up till now. The test of education is what you will do tomorrow--and all the tomorrows after that. It is a test that you can never finally pass, but one you must never allow yourself to fail.
The other discourtesy I have to shove right up in front of you today is the truth that an educated life is not an entirely comfortable life. It is marked by unease, so much so that if you ever reach the point of not being uneasy, you can know that you have abandoned the life of education and gone off down some other path.
The reason for this unease is that virtually every action of life can be performed in an educated way, or a mis-educated way. What this means is, if you’ve given yourself to a life of education, that every time you do something, you have to stop and ask yourself if this is the educated way. And that can be a pain in the neck. There’s an educated way of building a bookcase, and a mis-educated way. There’s an educated way of reading a book, and a mis-educated way. There’s even an educated way of kissing a girl, and a mis-educated way.
And what are the educated ways of doing all these things? They are the ways that take into account, as well as we are able, all the secondary effects of our actions, and all the long-term results. We can’t, of course, know what all these effects will be--another reason for our unease. Trying to figure them out leaves us perpetually confused. But, the faith of education is that if we do try to figure them out, we will not fall into the pathetic misery that flat-brained, thoughtless action always brings upon us.
The most direct discomfort most of you will experience if you try to live an educated life will come from the conflict it will throw you into with those who worship money. And a truth you will have to face is that they are a majority in your society. To opt for the educated life is to consign yourself to a minority that is always under attack by those paying service to that odious, crass, vulgar metaphor: the bottom line. And this discomfort will be made all the more sharp by the recognition that you, too, like money.
It’s nice to have enough money in your pocket to walk into a restaurant and buy yourself a sandwich and a cup of coffee. It’s nice to surround yourself with pleasant things, and to get a pretty dress now and then. It’s nice to drink your tea out of a china cup instead of from a styrofoam cup. But, there is a line, very easy to step over, that can lead you out of the educated life and into a life of money. And you step over it when money stops being a tool of life and becomes life itself.
Those of you old enough to remember a time when the Bible was read will recall there’s a verse in it which tells us to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but only that. I wish it was a book more read in the ADP than it is.
A correlate discomfort to that imposed by struggle with people who care only for money comes from having to deal with those who care only for the present. Living completely in the present, with no genuine interest in anything that might happen six months in the future, or after the next budget is approved, is an intellectual disorder that causes immense misery of the sort that seldom gets reported on the Dan Rather Show. I have to warn you that if you live an educated life you will come progressively to care more and more for the shape of history and less for the immediate status of that puny thing known as the self. And this will get you into lots of fights, and if you fight bravely, will leave you with notable scars. I realize you may not know what I’m talking about by saying this. But, stick it away in the back of your mind, and when you get into a battle with somebody who wants to sacrifice valuable things for the sake of short-term ease, it’ll resurrect itself.
I’m falling into a pattern, which is an uneducated thing to do. So, I’ll add just one more discomfort and leave you to supply the rest. This one has to do with people who believe that works of the imagination are not real. They may pose a greater threat to the educated life than all the other forces I’ve mentioned. A guy who thinks that Hamlet is of no account because he didn’t bother with the tedious process of biological existence is not exactly the kind of person you want to drive to California with. If we get too many of that sort, they will crush the spirit of learning more effectively than the scions of Wall Street.
Several years ago in England I visited Owen Barfield, a writer whose works I can recommend to all of you. The day before, in Glastonbury, I had bought his little book, Saving the Appearances, in which he discusses the imaginative life and how it has come under attack in recent years. During the course of the conversation he alluded several times to a point he had made in the book--that there is an alliance between the unimaginative mind and the hard heart. The generation that has just passed away probably understood that better than we do, and expressed it perfectly in the famous couplet from W. H. Auden:
Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face And the seas of pity lie locked and frozen in each eye.
Of all the duties an educated life imposes upon you, the first is to resist allowing a dull mind to seal up your heart.
If you do, through all the tomorrows, manage to be faithful to the education you have worked toward here, then you will have had, not a life of comfort, but a life of honor--and you will acknowledge our right--because we have taught you as well as we could, and cared about you, and labored with you, and hoped for you--to expect from you, as we do, only the best.