Commencement season has come and gone yet again. It's a time when secondary schools, colleges, and universities are filled with the celebratory sounds of happy, and sometimes relieved, students, and campus landmarks are the backdrop for proud smiles and family photographs. It is a time of joy and satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment and completion, and as the appellation – commencement – suggests, it is a time of new beginnings.
As an academic department head and as a university vice president, it has been my privilege to greet pleased parents, congratulate graduating students, and confer university degrees. The latter is somewhat similar to the denouement of a marriage ceremony, where one intones the academic liturgy, "On the recommendation of the faculty and by the authority vested in me by the Board of Regents (or Trustees), I confer on each of you, the degree Bachelor of Arts/Science." It is a solemn and important bit of pageantry, which is why so many commencements ceremonies include Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1as the processional and recessional.
Some forty years ago, I was fortunate to deliver the valedictorian's address at my small, rural Arkansas high school's commencement. Alas, I made every oratorical mistake any young, overly earnest speaker could make. I waxed on interminably about the uncertain sociopolitical consequences for the U.S. global position after the fall of South Vietnam, our twenty-year commitment, and an enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure. In a trite homily, I also extolled my fellow graduates to embrace our class motto, to aim high, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. I even shared an old fable about excellence. My audience set patiently, but they were undoubtedly relieved when I stepped away from the podium.
Having learned my lesson, since then, when I have been asked, I have only delivered brief, always brief, commencement remarks. A commencement speech is not the time for long and meandering stories with uncertain platitudes, nor is it a time for polemics on bedeviling societal issues, however tempting both may be. The commencement ritual is a valedictory for students and a celebration for families, not a bully pulpit for either administrators or speakers. All commencement speakers should remember the twin, cardinal rules of speaking to a captive and restive audience – be funny and be brief, and when lacking in wit, by all means, be brief.
Even if one's own, beloved mother is attending, looking on with adoration and hanging on each deliberate and reasoned phrase as if it were an ex cathedra pronouncement of cosmic significance, few others really care what you say, as long as you say it with levity and brevity. Save its length, the world did little note nor long remember much about Edward Everett's two hour stem-winder at Gettysburg, yet Lincoln's brief but elegant remarks still echo across the years.The annual, viral circulation of the Wear Sunscreen commencement essay by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich proves the rule that wisdom is best leavened with levity. Trust her on the sunscreen.
So Many Books
Sometime after that ill-fated high school commencement address, one of my small town teachers encountered me and asked a pointed, life-changing question. Why, the teacher wanted to know, was I in such a desperate hurry? That I was in an intellectual hurry was not in question; the data strongly and unambiguously supported that thesis. I was the child who ravaged the local libraries; as Francis Bacon put it, I was swallowing some books whole, eating others in great chunks, and slowly savoring others.
For a small town boy, books were an entrée to world of exotic places, novel ideas, and fascinating people. In them, I had found science and mathematics, literature and philosophy, history and culture, and most importantly, I had discovered an enduring passion to learn and to know; I had found purpose in life. (See Eudora, You Got the Love?and Transforming Lives via Public Higher Education.)
Along the way, I had also acquired a few emotional scars from poorly considered attempts to share my passion for books and ideas. I was the lad who tried to start a conversation on Greek philosophy at halftime of a high school basketball game. (Red alert; red alert! Shields are down! This was a bad idea, a really bad idea, a branded me for the rest of school Bad Idea™)
As I learned to my boyhood chagrin, there is no time at a basketball game where a discourse on philosophy – of any kind – is welcome, not warmups, not timeouts, not halftime, and definitely not during the postgame celebration. Nor is it wise to gesticulate wildly in the school hallways while expounding on the beauty of the fundamental theorem of the calculus. Knowledge is not wisdom. Trust me on this; it is almost as important as the sunscreen. However, I digress.
Following the teacher's penetrating question, I was dumbfounded, filled with a cacophony of inchoate thoughts. There were so many deep and abiding questions unanswered, and there were so, so many things worth knowing. I had a lifetime ahead of me, yet I knew a thousand lifetimes would not be enough to explore and understand. Finally, desperate to fill the expanding silence, I blurted, "There are so many books, and so little time."
The teacher and I stood there, mutually nonplussed by the emotional intensity of the question and my passionate response. I have thought about that exchange many times over the subsequent forty years. It was, in retrospect, the last great lesson I learned from a wise teacher, for it forced me to think deeply about why learning mattered so much to me.
Follow Your Passion
For each of us, the bright arc of sentience burns so briefly, a small light in the great and enduring darkness. If we are fortunate, we add a bit of new insight to the great mosaic of human knowledge, passing it along to a new generation. Books and writing are our transgenerational gifts.
If I have learned anything, it is that one must thoughtfully and deliberately seek and find one's intellectual passion, then commence pursuing it joyously and without reservation. Those who succeed in doing so are blessed indeed. Oh, yes, and remember the sunscreen, especially if you read outside.