News Michael Berube -- Marlboro College Commencement Address
Good morning, everyone. And congratulations to each and every one of you. I mean the parents and other family members, of course- this event is mostly for you. So congratulations on having a brand new college graduate in the family! Take pride in your accomplishment today. For the graduates, this is like one last lecture before the real fun of the day begins.
No, I hope that's not entirely true. But I have to admit (to the graduates) that I didn't appreciate my own commencement. Can it really be twenty-seven years ago? It seems like only twenty-six years ago. At the time, I thought it was "ceremonial" in the sense that it was a foregone conclusion. I mean that I didn't think there was any real drama to it all- it wasn't like my graduation from college was going to be some nail-biting, buzzer-beating affair that kept my family on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if in fact I would manage to graduate at the last possible second. But then, guess what? One week before graduation, I received a notice that I was ineligible for the ceremony because I was three credits short of a degree. This came as quite a shock, and after a frantic visit to the registrar, I learned that one of my professors had mistakenly given me an R in my medieval literature course. An R! So I had a couple of As, a B plus, and an R. Can you imagine what that did to my grade point average? I came in with something like an H minus for the semester.
It turned out that "R" stood for "residence credit," which is what graduate students received in those days. So I had to track down my professor and explain the mistake and ask him to sign a change of grade form, and of course he was one of those very senior and very distinguished people who are not only intimidating in person but who also tend to leave for their summer homes immediately upon turning in their grades, and . . . well, everything turned out all right in the end, though I really did wind up running down corridors and having anxiety nightmares and all the drama I wanted. So my first wish for you all today is just this: I hope your day and your whole week is blissfully free of drama. Let the ceremony be ceremonial in the best possible sense.
Of course, it's not that easy, is it. Everyone knows that you are graduating in the midst of what is probably the most severe financial crisis in 75 years. It is not a time for commencement speakers to be chirpy and upbeat. But it's not as if we're looking at the imminent arrival of the apocalypse, either. I recently came across someone remarking that we've produced a lot of apocalyptic fantasies in the course of the past century, and they all tend to be pretty spectacular- nuclear catastrophes, ecological catastrophes, biological disasters, invasions from outer space, wars with self-aware supercomputers, and even a stray comet here and there. "So," my friend said, "if civilization winds up collapsing because of credit default swaps, I'm going to be really disappointed. It's terribly anticlimactic. We're not even going to get zombies."
Well, I'm going to make two predictions this morning. The first is that the end is not in fact near, and that civilization is going to be around for quite some time yet. The second is that you will emerge, as graduates of Marlboro College, into what will be the most exciting, the most complex, and the most challenging century in human history. I know there may be some of you who think it'll be hard to top the twentieth, and even harder to top the fifteenth- the Renaissance, the printing press, trans-Atlantic voyages, the encounters with the peoples of the New World, the rumblings of what would become the Reformation. No question, the fifteenth was a big one. But the twenty-first is going to be amazing- and daunting. From the advances of bioengineering to the imperatives of sustainability, we will be facing challenges our ancestors could barely imagine- and we will have to meet them wisely and creatively, that is to say, with the faculty of the imagination.
You might wonder what role the liberal arts will have to play in all this. People wonder that all the time: does it make sense to get a liberal arts education in times like these? Is it practical? Why, it was just a few months ago that a New York Times headline declared, "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth." I don't know how many of you saw it, but if you didn't read that article this time around, don't worry- it'll come back. In fact, I think I remember the exact same essay being published ten years ago, only then the headline was, "In Flush Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth." Because we were in the middle of a robustly globalizing economy and a vertiginous dot com boom- who in their right mind would choose to get a liberal arts education in times like those? And now that the people in the advanced financial sector of that globalizing economy have plunged us all into crisis, the humanities have to justify their worth. So don't worry- when times are good again and the economy is humming, and everyone is back to work and happy about it, people will still be wondering, why bother with a liberal arts education.
Now, of course the liberal arts aren't just the humanities, as you well know. A liberal arts education must include training in the physical and social sciences- otherwise we'd wind up with a nation of adults who don't understand economics or evolution. I am especially fond of the words of Edward O. Wilson, the famed biologist who grew up in an Alabama steeped in religious fundamentalism, who tells his fellow believers, "surely a loving personal God, if He is paying attention, will not abandon those who reject the literal interpretation of the biblical cosmology. It is only fair to award points for intellectual courage." As Wilson knows, we need people of broad mind and wide learning who can understand both the importance of biodiversity and the varieties of human diversity. We desperately need such people. When you look at it that way, an education in the liberal arts isn't merely practical- it's indispensable.
The liberal arts teach people how to think deeply and reflectively about the good life, the good society, and the very idea of the "good." The liberal arts acquaint us with the history of how humans have thought about such things, thereby giving us all a richer and more complex language in which to speak and with which to think. The liberal arts do their work by encouraging us to think of lifelong learning as an integral part of a good life, they encourage us to believe in the value of the examined life, and they encourage us to believe that nothing human should be alien to us. The liberal arts do that work by combating every kind of parochialism, reminding us by way of a plenitude of human counterexamples that any one of us might be wrong or only partially right.
I want to stress this last point, because it has become something of a truism that the liberal arts teach us how to understand "difference," in some kind of generally tolerant way. I don't think that's always true; we all seem to wind up, do we not, with different ways of understanding difference. But I do think the liberal arts help us to grapple with the stubborn fact that some forms of difference might be unresolvable, and that some kinds of conflict might be intractable. This is the abiding dilemma of our time: how to develop and how to maintain pluralist societies that include people who aren't pluralists- some of whom don't even like pluralists. This requires extraordinary suppleness of mind, and a willingness to think in ways that don't immediately reach for easy resolution. It requires what the poet John Keats famously called "negative capability." But don't get me wrong- I'm not saying that every problem and every form of difference should be left unresolved. We also need people who can solve technical problems and who can defuse conflict wherever possible; we need people who can figure out how to get clean water to everybody on the globe. That would be a good start. But this century will be- indeed, it already is- a century of profound political, intellectual, and moral challenges. We will be- indeed, we already are- faced with conflicts between reason and faith, east and west, north and south. We need people who can think about complex human dilemmas in appropriately complex ways. We need people devoted to the idea of lifelong learning. We need people like you.
Hm. It may sound as if I'm asking you to take on some really difficult tasks. But I think you all can handle it. I understand that you've already accomplished a number of difficult tasks. I'm especially impressed by the Plan of Concentration, which seems to me to ask each of you to own your work and your ideas in a way that I find all too rare in college life- especially in large universities like mine. I've spent the past twenty-five years of my life teaching at places like the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois, and Penn State. These are fine places, no doubt; and while I've had some quite wonderful students at each university, I know there's something about the small, intense, liberal-arts college experience you just can't duplicate at a large university. And we try! Penn State has a very rigorous, small honors college with terrific students, and I've kept in touch with my honors students over the years. It's telling, however, that they almost always open their letter by writing, "I don't know if you remember me, but I was a student of yours. . . ." I think of this as the mantra of the student who's graduated from a large university. Because even though I've had these students in small seminars of twelve or fifteen, it's not like what you've done in developing and completing your Plans of Concentration with your advisors and sponsors. That kind of close, ongoing intellectual relationship with professors is something you can have only at a place like Marlboro. That's an exceptional thing; treasure it. Stay in touch with your sponsors and mentors over the years- I hope you'll remember them for the rest of your lives. And I'm pretty sure they'll remember you.
I also want to say how impressed I am that Marlboro has a Clear Writing Program. I have something of a professional interest in this, being a teacher and writer. But I can honestly say that just as I didn't quite understand the importance of my own commencement when I was a student, I also didn't quite understand how important good writing really is. Of course, I understood it immediately when I began teaching freshman composition, and I could see just how unclearly some students write; but since college I've also worked for attorneys, for journalists, for advertising agencies, and for editors and publishers in the magazine and book trades. And I have to say that clear, compelling writing seems to be a good thing in almost any profession. If there are any attorneys in the room, you know especially well what I mean: imprecise, obfuscating legal language is nobody's friend. A well-written brief, a well-written decision, can actually change the world. The law, I think, is a career in which clear writing turns out to be wonderfully practical.
I believe it is customary for commencement speakers to close by offering the graduates a bit of advice, some worldly wisdom. You know, something like don't forget to use sunscreen. My advice may be a little less practical, in that I'm going to suggest a way of thinking about the rest of your life, as you experience it from this point on. Having just asked you to save the world, I want to add that you don't have to do it in the next six months. Some things in this world- indeed, some of the most important things in this world, like love and patience and wisdom- can take decades to develop and mature. It comes as a shock to many of us that learning how to handle triumph or happiness can be as difficult as learning how to cope with sorrow or disappointment. (It's a shock because it's so counterintuitive.) I think here of the words of one of my own mentors, a friend who was commiserating with me about the fact that I had injured myself in aikido class while trying to learn how to fall without getting hurt- a very useful skill, I assure you. He said: "Michael, you can't get this right the first time. Or the second. You know what they say in aikido? The first thirty years are just practice." Well, that's certainly true of teaching, as well- and of learning. And of living. The first thirty, forty, maybe fifty years or so, we're still trying to figure out how to do it. And for those of you who are exceptionally ambitious, or precocious, I have some sobering news. No matter how quick a study you are, you can't make it go faster- you have to go about the business of living, day by day, year by year, hoping gradually to expand your horizons, hoping that your training in how to think will help you assimilate new experiences and think new thoughts, hoping also to learn from your mistakes, and hoping not to make the same mistake too many times, hoping that you will always encounter this extraordinary planet, and all its extraordinary inhabitants, with an open heart; with intellectual curiosity; with negative capability; and with magnanimity, greatness of spirit.
I know- that's a lot to ask for. But then, why not ask a lot? This is commencement: we're only getting started. And now, from this point on, we have to get to practice.
Thank you, and good luck to all of you.
ABOUT MICHAEL BERUBE
Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he holds appointments in the Department of English and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. He is the author of six books to date: Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Cornell UP, 1992); Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994); Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996; paper, Vintage, 1998); The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1998); What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and " Bias" in Higher Education (W. W. Norton, 2006) and Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities (UNC Press, 2006). He is also the editor of The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (Blackwell, 2004), and, with Cary Nelson, of Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (Routledge, 1995). Bérubé has written for a wide variety of academic journals such as American Quarterly, the Yale Journal of Criticism, and Modern Fiction Studies, as well as more popular venues such as Harper's, the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and the Nation. His most recent book, The Left at War, will be published in 2009 by NYU Press.
Life As We Know It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 1996 and was chosen as one of the best books of the year (on a list of seven) by National Public Radio.