"You will find that the truth is often unpopular and the contest between agreeable fancy and disagreeable fact is unequal. For, in the vernacular, we Americans are suckers for good news."... ...Adlai E. Stevenson, Commencement Address, Michigan State University, 1958.
Commentary of the Day - May 23, 2004: To the Class of '04 (A Commencement Address Not Given). Guest commentary by Robert McHenry.
(Once again this year the invitations to speak at commencement have gone astray in the mail, with the usual consequence that unfortunate seniors from Bowdoin to San Diego State must make do with second choices. Here, however, is an approximation of what I would have said, had the United States Postal Service still been an arm of the federal government and not the hapless “private” enterprise it can't quite manage to be.)
Hail, Class of 2004! Ave, as they used to say in Latin, which some of you will recognize as the name of a dead language once spoken somewhere near Europe. I will omit the usual pretense that I am an alumnus of this institution, or one just like it, and that I have therefore some understanding of what your private lives on campus have been like. I don't know, and to the extent that they have involved popular music, recreational drugs, and ennui, I don't want to know. I'll just note in passing that those phenomena, contrary to what you may believe, are as novel as art students dressing in black.
Similarly, I decline to describe for you the bright future that awaits you, and about how you, the chosen ones, are the makers and leaders of that future. To the extent that such commencement boilerplate is not tautological, it is meaningless.
Rather, I should like to tell you what, in my opinion, ought to have happened in the last four years. It won't take me long to do so.
First, you should have learned to read. You chortle, perhaps, at the suggestion. By "read," of course, I do not mean the mere capacity to "decode," as your elementary-school teachers no doubt enjoyed calling it, written English. This skill, sometimes labeled "functional literacy," is needed for filling out job applications and filing your tax returns, for working out where the #36 bus goes, or for navigating the TV Guide.
No, by "read" I mean something a good deal more challenging. To read, in my meaning, is to enter into the thought of another. It is to meet ideas on their natural playing field, the printed page, and not turn away. It is to feel sympathy for vivid fictional characters, to follow and occasionally challenge logical or moral arguments, to imagine worlds written of thought never seen. A word for this kind of response is "thinking." Naturally, not every piece of writing invites or can support this degree of engagement, so you will have to have read some real books in order to practice and hone these skills. Harry Potter isn't one of them; nor is the undisciplined jumble of impressions that makes up ninety-nine percent of consciousness to be confused with thinking.
Second, you should have learned the outlines of human history. Again, by "human history," I mean something other than the usual schoolroom business about the names of Columbus' three ships or that Henry the Sixth had eight wives. First, human history is vastly more than a succession of dates and dynasties and conquests and proclamations. It is, above all, a story about a peculiar species of animal that, unlike any other known to us, developed culture and institutions and something called knowledge. These animals learned to speak and then to write and thereby to create and to transmit information and ideas from one individual to another and from generation to generation. They learned to count and to measure. They learned to build and to cultivate. They learned to kill with enormous efficiency. They learned to behave badly and well, which is to say they learned to think about their own behavior and to label some of it virtuous and some vicious. They learned to think, eventually, about the whole universe and to propose theories as to what it is and how it came to be. Is this not astonishing? How has this happened? What have been the consequences? What is it, in fact, that constitutes history? Is it going somewhere? You should have some ideas along these lines, based on having read -- there's that word -- some of the best of what we have believed we knew about these things from the beginning of thinking -- there's the other one -- down to today. In short, you should have a general idea of who we think we are and how we got to this point. Ideally -- and I know just how far I am pushing -- you should have developed an appetite to know yet more. If you have learned to read, the means to satisfy that appetite is at hand.
Third, you should have begun to sense, however vaguely, how you may fit yourself into this grand story. At bottom this means deciding, explicitly or by mere default, whether in fact you are going to be part of it or not. A harsh and cold-blooded superhuman observer of the course of history might well conclude that most individual humans have served only two purposes in the large scheme of things -- they have functioned as economic units, workers and consumers, and as temporary repositories for their particular tiny segments of the general gene pool. Others, however, have made themselves felt, in their own generations and, like ripples in a pond, in succeeding generations as well. They, composed in varying measures of the privileged, the educated, the creative, the willful, and perhaps the crazy, are the reason that there is history and not stasis, development and not endless repetition, "progress," if you will permit that poor, battered, disrespected word, and not mere pointless change.
If you can read, and if you have read, a little, at all well, you have some idea of where we have been and what we have done so far. This means that you have also some idea of where we have not been and what we have not done yet.
I don't challenge you to do it. I don't even dare you. I just mention that it is the only interesting game in town. By comparison, everything else looks pretty paltry. Your choice.
© 2004, Robert McHenry.
Robert McHenry is an American encyclopaedist, editor, and author who was vice president and editor in chief of Encyclopædia Britannica from 1992 to 1997.
The IP comments: Well said Mr. McHenry. It's a shame that those invitations were lost in the mail.
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