Below is the text of an excelent commencement speach given at Moravian College this year by Gary Olson. He was selected, by the senior class, to deliver their commencement speech. This was passed onto me in an e-mail.
The following remarks were offered on May 13, 2006).
President Rokke, Pam Rokke, honored guests, faculty colleagues, friends, parents, lovers of the graduates of all sorts, the folks who’ve cooked, cleaned and taken care of the graduates and their surroundings for four years, including preparing today’s ceremony, and especially, Moravian’s Class of 2006.
A few of you might recall the last time I spoke at commencement my mother sent along some unsolicited advice, as mothers will do. I’ll share just one line again because it’s timeless. She wrote, “Gary, you might remind the graduates of your own mediocre undergraduate record. If you could make something of yourself, surely anyone can and that will give them confidence! Heed my mother’s wisdom.
Before proceeding with some brief observations, I want to acknowledge that the Class of 2006 has been blessed with a college president who’s been a keen and steadfast advocate for unhampered discussion and free inquiry on this campus. I know that perhaps better than most because my presence on the faculty requires that he demonstrate that commitment on a regular basis. Pres. Rokke, as you retire today — and I don’t make a practice of this — I salute you. Now, let me extend one final opportunity to defend academic freedom.
As a faculty member I watch our freshly tasseled graduates stride across the stage each year and invariably ask myself: Have we satisfied our responsibility to these young people?
It’s my sense that colleges like Moravian are among the few remaining U.S. institutions where human relations aren’t mediated through an impoverished bottom line “marketspeak ethos” where everything, including education, has been transformed and reduced to a commodity.
We are a fragile sanctuary where students can critically ponder what should be the ends of society as opposed to college impersonators that merely train students in means to serve ends prescribed by others.
We aspire to do what Howard Zinn, the magisterial American historian, describes when he writes that for many people, “There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness – embedded there by years of family prejudice, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio and television.”
My conceit is that a few of these occasions, these moments of secular grace, have occurred here — even in a classroom. And that these epiphanies have elongated into a moral clarity that you will draw upon later. It’s my fervant hope, more than a firm conviction, that you’ve internalized three of these revelations:
First, you’re critical thinkers, skeptical citizens. As we said in the 60s, even vegetarians know that sacred cows make the best hamburger. Thanks to your liberal arts education you now possess what the late Neil Postman described as a “built-in crap detector. ” You don’t accept an idea as authoritative merely because it’s been around a long time, someone important uttered it, or because someone feels it strongly. You submit received opinion to respectful but ruthless analysis. You demand evidence. Indeed, you know that doing anything less would be a sign of disrespect for the idea, for the person asserting it and for yourself. (1)
You’ve read Noam Chomskey and you realize that “…citizens in a democratic society should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for more meaningful democracy.” (2)
For example, today you recognize the need for a doublespeak glossary to decipher the proliferating thought police euphemisms and oxymorans in circulation. Just a few of the buzzwords providing cover for abuses of official power abroad and the erosion of our democratic principles and civil liberties at home include:
1) The USA Patriot “Improvement” Act. Translation: One nation under surveillance.
2) Operation Iraqi Freedom. Translation: Somehow our oil got under their sand.
3) And my favorite environmental catch phrase: Healthy Forests. My decoder ring says: No tree left behind.
While you search for your old copy of George Orwell’s prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, you refuse to surrender your intellect to fear-mongering. Starved for someone to speak “truthiness” to power, you cheer on Steven Colbert as a satirical and righteous antitode.Of course, all this healthy skepticism makes you cantankerous, difficult citizens to govern. But doesn’t our democracy desparately need more difficult citizens?
Second, you’re cosmopolitan, no longer ethnocentric. You don’t judge other cultures as wanting because they differ from your own. You’ve acquired this perspective from many sources: From exposure to our magnificent choir’s stirring world music at Vespers to studying post-colonial literature and religions of India on campus, to gaining an appreciation for ecology in Peru’s upper Amazon with Prof. Bevington and observing the European Union up close in Brussels with Prof. Lalande.
You celebrate different cultures but you know that a “traditional culture defense” can’t justify crimes against humanity. Of course, Muslims shouldn’t be made scapegoats for terrorism and Islamophobia is unconscionable bigotry. But neither should misogyny, honor crimes, battered wives, and barbarism be rationalized through a patriarchial rendering of the Koran or any other text.
Likewise, you’re aware that our own society is hardly immune to religious extremism. It ranges from the fundamentalist Puritanism complicit in the genocide of indigenous peoples of North America to today’s “theocrat wanabees” in Washington. These guys believe they’re reading God’s blog each morning. And guess what? It conveniently corresponds to their dreams of global domination.
Third, you’re more compassionate. You realize that claims to be neutral in this world usually means siding with the oppressor. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu states it, “If you are in a situation where an elephant is sitting on the tail of a mouse and you say, ‘Oh no, no, no. I am neutral,’ the mouse is not going to appreciate your neutrality.” (3)
And when your own government or its proxies trample on human rights, especially then, your sense of compassionate world citizenship easily trumps pious recitations of knee-jerk nationalism. Because you don’t suffer from moral amnesia you know that war is terrorism, with a bigger budget.
You grasp that a cynical Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” reading of human nature is routinely invoked to rationalize power and privilege.
And you’re now willing to entertain the proposition that differnt socioeconomic arrangements can offer an auspicious setting for other human capacities to flourish, including empathy, compassion, social solidarity, and dare I suggest…love. You know, as Erich Fromm asserted, that love is the only rational answer to the problem of human existence. (4) And you want this loving attitude to flourish because you’re internationalists. You have a special connection to this country but you embrace your sisters and brothers around the globe because your liberal arts education has put you in closer touch with these different members of the same human family.
Well, have I answered my question about meeting our faculty responsibilities? To be consistent, I suppose we must await the evidence. We hope you’re more critical, more cosmopolitan, and more compassionate.
Please also understand that committed teachers care about the world, in part, because they care so deeply about you, you who are about to make your own way in that world.
I began with a few words from my mother and I conclude with a few verses from another senior citizen, Bob Dylan:
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young.
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the the winds of changes shift,
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young.
On behalf of your proud teachers, know that we desire long, safe, productive, and passionate lives for you. And know that today you have my deepest gratitude for inviting me to experience my own deeply treasured moment of grace. Thank you.
(Gary Olson chairs the Political Science Department at Moravian
College, Bethlehem, PA. contact:firstname.lastname@example.org)
1) See Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2003), Chapter 7.
2) Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: 1989), p.1.
3) As quoted in Robert Jensen, “The Myth of the Neutral Professional.”
(unpublished paper, n.d.)
4) Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Perennial Library Edition, 1974),p.111.