Across the nation commencement speakers bid the graduates, “Go forth and change the world” or “make a difference.” But should you want to change the world?
Some of you will remember that radio-telephone distress signal of old: “Mayday, Mayday.” It had, alas, nothing to do with the “merry month of May.” Our seniors, who have all learned a lot of French, will recognize the call right away: “M’aidez, m’aidez!,” Help me, help me!
All over our continent, there are the same weekend events this month: commencements and graduations. Those organizers who think of this day as a beginning for you, as launching you into a new, the so-called real world, will have the printer put “Commencement” on the program. Others will interpret this ceremony as the entering into a higher kind of being, by the bestowal of the degree (gradus in Latin) of a Bachelor of Arts, in fact, of the Liberal Arts, and for them, it will be a graduation.
For us, your tutors, this day also has two aspects. Yesterday we were to each other, by the custom of our college, Mr. or Ms. From today and forever after, you will be to us Joan or John, and eventually we too will be given our first name. (To be sure, I’m in fond communication with certain alumni of my first graduating class, that of 1961, who cannot bring themselves, silver-haired though we’ve grown together, to call me Eva. —Well, we’re working on it.) This first moment, this transmutation from the style of cooperative respect between tutor and student to the affectionate familiarity of mutual friendship, is always poignant to me, and I think also to the alumni in their first hour.
For the tutors, too, there is a beginning—the beginning of an absence. Last week in Annapolis, the seniors I’d been with in seminar commenced not being on campus—gone off into the world. I went there on Sunday to meet a fellow tutor, and we confessed to each other a sweet nostalgia—“nostalgia” because those quondam-seniors were still such vivid ghosts, “sweet” because it is the way of our college that we don’t become estranged from each other through the phases of our lives. Be you known to us as undeflectable paragons of virtue or as irremediable scamps—when we see each other again, we’ll be, so to speak, on the same page right away, some page of those great books we’ve read together, in the midst of that lifelong, uninterruptible conversation we began here. And the truth is that our post-graduate friendships don’t much depend on actually having known each other. Sad to say, I know very few of you, but who doubts that we can be in the middle of satisfyingly significant talk within minutes of having met, not least because Annapolis and Santa Fe are—what a miracle!—Siamese twins living two-thousand miles apart.
But back to the mayday distress call. All over the country, speakers who accepted the invitation to talk to you on this last and first day, feeling as touched and honored by it as I was, soon began to agonize (somewhat as, to compare small matters with large, seniors do about the choice of their senior essay topic) about a fit subject for this great moment—one that alumni-about-to-be, the chief addressees, will find congenial and that our honored guests can listen in on with interest—the parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles who made all this possible and the brothers and sisters and childhood friends who put up with it all. (I won’t specify what there was to put up with, but I can imagine.) So we call for aid on whatever power will come. As for me, I remembered a recent conversation, actually with one of our graduate students. I’ll transcribe it from my memory, abbreviated.
Student: “How will my St. John’s education help me to do what I want?”
Me: “And what’s that?”
Student: “I want to change the world.”
Me: “For the better?”
Student looks totally abashed; I’m a bit abashed as well, for being a smart-aleck. But he took it well, and the ensuing conversation was illuminating to both of us. At this point, I want to assure you that at a thousand schools this May speakers will be alluding to this conversation. They will bid the graduates “Go forth and change the world,” or alternatively, “Go forth and make a difference.”
I say, let us have a little last-moment language tutorial. Let us, Johnnie-fashion, analyze the sentence “I want to change the world.” But no, it’s not a real class conversation because in a St. John’s class you and your tutors were committed to making the best possible sense of what the people around the table and the books on the table were saying. But I, in all candor, will try to show that “I want to make a difference, I want to change the world” aren’t very sensible sentences. So here goes.
This announcement has three parts: first, I want; second, to change; third, the world.
So, first, “I want.” “I want” is about me, and if what I want is to be a “difference-maker,” it’s about my self-satisfaction. Recall yourselves as Juniors, when you struggled with Kant on morality. No one expected you to get it all. (In fact, there are some books we ask you to read largely so that you can reread them later in life, on the logical hypothesis that you just can’t read them for the second time unless you’ve read them for a first time.) As regards Kant, this much may have stuck: He thinks that doing right is not doing what you want but what you ought, and that, in fact, the only proof of your doing as you ought is that it hurts some, that your mere wanting is thwarted. So when it’s the world I’m planning to change, maybe “I want” should yield a little to “I should.”
Second, “change.” Why exactly “change”? There are many others modes of action beside this current mantra. There’s protecting and maintaining, activating and fulfilling, restoring and reviewing. Talk of mere change is just terminally vague babble—vague promise and vague threat. Its antidote is specific thinking expressed in adequate language. That very requirement, thoughtfulness and its articulation, was an explicit aim of the Program, to which you devoted the last four years.
Third comes “the world.” It’s a big space in which to thrash about. In choosing it as the venue of my action, I’ve pretty much committed myself to the silliest of all maxims of action—another current mantra. It goes: Only if x happens, can y occur. Filling in the most common variables for this formula: “Only if the world changes radically, can little kids learn to love reading,” in other words, never—guaranteed. The implied lesson is: Forget about “the world”—stay local and avoid stymieing preconditions.
And now the usually missing fourth part to the saying “I want to change the world,” namely, “for the better.” Your four years with us were, I think, above all intended to give you a head start in answering for yourself the most crucial of human questions: What is good? For making anything better without a view of good seems to me just groping in the murk of possibility.
So, you’ll recognize two of the ways that the Program and the College were meant to help you with making the here better now. One was that we, students and tutors together, read remarkable books by unusually gifted authors, books that offered us various, often contrary models of the good life and its conditions. You may often have thought that our, the tutors’, intention was to throw you into a permanent muddle. But, of course, the opposite was our hope: It was that you would find in your reading the elements of your own firm view of what is good universally and therefore what is better in particular. This crystallization is surely still in process for many of you. But my experience of six decades of alumni tells me that it does happen, perhaps over the next score of years. Much more will go into it than what you learned here, but that learning will, so alumni often say, be the informing reference of your experience. That ability to specify the universal is the second of the two ways our Program readied you for great deeds.
Now, in the spirit of that specificity, I owe you an example of what I think of as actual action, local in worldly coordinates but grand in human scope.
Most of you will, I’d guess, work in an office at some point. Proper offices have water coolers, Xerox-rooms, galleys with hot-plates. People spend as much time there as they dare. So post a note: “Would you be interested in reading some poetry together during lunch hour? I propose Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning.’ Copies are on the counter. Let’s meet next Wednesday in Room 666. Bring your lunch, I’ll bring cookies. Expertise inessential. Signed…” If no one turns up, which is unlikely, keep trying. Something will come to pass. Incidentally, don’t yourself eat all the cookies (which are essential).
Before I finish and let our seniors receive their degrees, I need to say that what I’ve done here isn’t quite right: I’ve told you what’s what and you’ve sat silent, except perhaps for an occasional guffaw. All my points were left unquestioned—deep metaphysical maxims such as cookies being essential to meetings and expertise inessential to poetry, and large practical claims, such as local happenings having more actuality than global commotions—Don’t let it happen to you very often, though these occasional one-way ritual performances are also necessary to human life.
So then: I wish you a life of genuine action and of actual happening, a life of as much happiness as you know what to do with—and a bit more. Go forth, find a place you can love, and help to make it “what it was always meant to be.”* Go forth and change the world—for the better.
This essay was originally given as the 2016 Commencement Address to St. John’s College Santa Fe campus. It appeared here first in 2016.
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* “To ti en einai, “essence.” Aristotle, Metaphysics. (I bet that no other graduation speech in this country sported a footnote, least of all to Aristotle.)
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