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2012 Commencement Address New College of Florida Commencement, May 25, 2012 Mike Michalson, President Let me start out by welcoming and congratulating th e members of the graduating class and their families, and welcoming as well: the New College fa culty and staff; members of the College Board of Trustees; all those associated with the Ne w College Foundation, the New College Library Association and the New College Alumnae/i A ssociation; all the other alumnae/i who have returned to campus; and the many other elected officials, guests and friends of the campus who are here this evening including, I am delight ed to add, our incoming President of New College, Donal OShea. In my dual role as president as well as this years Commencement speaker, let me extend a special thanks to parents for the trust you have pl aced in NCF over this period of time. Im sure that, to you, it seems somewhere between just yest erday and a million years ago that you first dropped your son or daughter off at the campu s. I am also sure that the pride you feel at this moment knows no bounds. We surely share your pride and are very grateful to you for your confidence. Graduates, you look different than you did this mor ning, let alone four years ago .or five, or six, as the case may be. Im proud to be a surrogat e for the wonderful graphic novelist Neill Gaiman, a truly inspired first choice for this even ings speaker, and do believe me when I say that there were many times this week when I really, really wished we could have landed him (it was a near thing, by the way, thanks to, of all thi ngs, last years Commencement speaker, Dr. Helen Fagin, who is Neill Gaimans aunt .Helen and Sydney in fact honor us with their presence here this evening). I just have to say, however, that each year the gra duating classs list of preferences for Commencement speaker constitutes something of a ver y odd Rorschach test for NCF (for there I am on a list including Stephen King, David Bowie, P ee Wee Herman, and Jacques Derrida by the way, message to those of you who keep voting fo r him: J. Derrida has been dead for some time). Anyway, youve extended me a nice compliment, and i n the spirit of full disclosure I should hasten to add that Ive been through this before. O n that earlier occasion, in 1997 (when, at the last minute, author Barbara Ehrenreich could not co me due to a book tour insisted on by her publisher), I happily filled in and started off by saying that Id always wanted to stand before a large audience and transmit profound insights to th e graduating class such as You have your whole future ahead of you at which point someone in the audience shouted, As opposed to what?, and things got off to a rocky start. Years later, while in my current role as College president, I was attending an alumnae/i event in Wa shington, D.C., when a woman who had graduated in 1997 came up to me, re-introduced hers elf, and said how much she had appreciated my commencement speech that year. I was of course f lattered and a little puffed up, and I asked her what she recalled from the speech. She said she remembered how I had read to the audience
my nursery school report card and that it included the comment, Mike has good appetite at juice and cracker time. Some things never change. It will be interesting to discover what, if anythin g at all, you recall from this evenings remarks fifteen years from now. I need to emphasize at the outset that I seem to have an uncanny knack for misreading audiences. A couple of years ago, at a lunch-time speaking engagement in a large room out at Lakewood Ranch, I concluded my prepared remarks about New College and about the general state of higher education and opened th ings up for questions. A woman down in front asked a question, and as I began to respond, someon e in the back yelled: Could you repeat the question? I said, Certainly. The question was, h ow could someone as young and handsome as you possibly be a College president? To my dismay, my joke was met with dead silence, so to this day, I dont know if the audience did not get the joke, did not like the joke, or is still waitin g for my answer. Well, certainly Im experienced enough in NC Commen cements that I dont think Ill entirely mis-read my audience this evening. Nonetheless, I h ave to admit to a certain uneasiness, since the very nature of this occasion likely leads you t o expect me to offer some deep truths stemming from my years in the College presidents o ffice, deep truths that will magically illuminate your NCF experience in a way that will s tay with you and inform your life in the years ahead. Since I have what might best be described as an ironic attitude toward deep truths, Im sure to let you down on this score. Those of you wh ove studied the works of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard either with me or with another te acher may recall his lovely comment about philosophers who try to teach truths: what the phil osophers say about truth, Kierkegaard writes, is often as disappointing as a sign you see in a s hop window which reads: Pressing Done Here. If you brought your clothes in to be pressed, you w ould be fooled; for the sign is only for sale. Echoing his own point, Kierkegaard would add in ano ther context that trying to teach truths is like pushing down too hard on the saw: you get litt le or no cutting for your effort, only sweat. He was, of course, trying to get at the point that the only truth worth fussing over is what he would call, lived truth, as opposed to paragraph materi al, or book truth .a point worth pondering as you prepare for post-graduate life. Well, against the background of this inauspicious b eginning, let me backtrack and try to discover a meaningful theme for this evening by reminding yo u of some things you might have read or heard me say on this or that campus occasion at l east if you were paying attention and see if we can draw a line through these remarks in a way t hat may partially offset my unwillingness to teach deep truths. 1. On your very first day here, at new student orie ntation, when your parents were still with you, you would have heard me cite that classic definitio n of a first-year college student as someone walking around with their umbilical cord in their h and looking for something to plug into. 2. On that same day, you would have heard me say th at I realized many of you chose NC because it seemed like a college where you could d o anything you want. Do you happen to recall what I said as my follow up? I said, I have bad news for you. There is no place in the world where you can do anything you want, least o f all NC. You may further recall that I said that if you happened to be surrounded by roughly 80 0 very bright peers who similarly thought
they could do anything they want at NC, then some thing had to give. Through confronting that reality, you learned at first hand that responsibil ity toward the community is the flip side of the exercise of your freedom. The two go hand in hand. 3. I have suggested in numerous settings that the m ission of NC is to be cheerfully subversive of the least attractive features of the surrounding so ciety. I hope you have come to appreciate some of the implications of this observation, just as I have come to appreciate the importance of including the adverb, cheerfully, in front of the word, subversive, whenever I say this in a setting attended by elected officials. 4. And, of course, I have bored everyone on campus to tears with my multiple accounts of the marks of the liberally-educated person. I have, for example, said that a liberally-educated person knows that James Joyce did not write the poem, Tre es, that Moby Dick is not the name of a venereal disease, and that the French expression, Cest le guerre, does not mean: Thats the station. Now just this week at a small informal luncheon, I was reminded by one of my faculty colleagues that I used to say that the value of a l iberal arts education is that it enables you to dea l constructively with ambiguity. I said Id given up doing that, since I grew tired of dealing with all the people who came up to me afterwards asking if I could be clearer about what I meant. But the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to the theme of ambiguity as a thread for my remarks this evening. (Perhaps only at NC could am biguity be considered a thread.) Indeed, I saw this theme intersect with my comment about th e cheerfully subversive nature of a NC education, since surely one of the least attractive features of the surrounding society is the widespread tendency to treat ambiguity and complexi ty with a rush to judgment that generates polarizing finger-pointing and even the demonizing of those with different views on matters that are intrinsically complex. At NC, we try to be the antidote to the widespread tendency to reduce intrinsically complex issues to the parameters of a bumper sticker spea king of which, by the way, have you ever noticed how angry-sounding many bumper stickers are as though the owner is just itching to go after anyone who might be on the other side of that issue? (Just parenthetically, we whose field is Religious Studies recognize that note of anger as a cover-up for a deep fear: quite simply, it is the fear that the existence of people with a view d ifferent from my own may mean that Im wrong. Once again, ignorance and fear go together.) At our best, we seek a different way here at NC. Af ter all, think of the number of times during your studies at NC when you had to come to terms wi th the fact that, on an important matter, there was no single right answer! I was actually vi sited once in my office by a concerned father whose son had taken a couple of Religion courses wi th me. I knew, by the way, that I was in trouble when he entered my office, looked around, a nd actually said You have so many books! You must love to read! (At such moments, you scram ble to identify the very tiny patch of common ground that might provide the basis for a co nstructive conversation between the two of you not unlike the feeling I would have years lat er during my first trip to Tallahassee as the
newly independent Colleges president, and got aske d by a state legislator: New College? What are you going to name it?) In any case, the students father and I set about e xchanging the sorts of crushing banalities that miraculously serve as the vehicle for polite human interaction when he finally cleared his throat, looked at me nervously and said: My son really see ms to enjoy your classes, and hes very challenged by them, but he says that hes always ge tting lots of questions and never any answers. When are you going to give the class the answers? Now notice a couple of things implicit in this stor y that reflect what weve been trying to convey to you during your time at NC. The absence of a cle ar answer especially in cases where matters are deeply opaque and complex is not a cause for anxiety, let alone fear let alone polarizing finger-pointing toward those holding a different vi ew. And second of all, this example conveys the telling point that framing questions in a clear -headed and critical way may be more important than arriving at the answers. Each one of you can d oubtless cite numerous instances in your time at NC when we could sharpen our questions and carry on debate but not settle on a single clear answer. And guess what no one died! In fact, Ill bet everyone came away more stimulated and I choose my words carefully here more patient, thoughtful and reflective. You may even have become more humble. Although it may seem odd to hear this coming from a career educator, I would suggest that answers are vastly over-rated. They are akin to grades, in that they occupy positions in a game that isnt the real game. And if over time w e absorb the lesson embodied in the suggestion that answers are over-rated a lesson l earned through multiple encounters with ambiguity and complexity we cultivate an importan t virtue, which is the virtue of openmindedness. Now of course its important to cultivate an open m ind that is not simply a sieve. This is why your teachers have pressed you to develop your abil ity to give reasons for your viewpoint, to fashion good arguments based upon true premises and publicly available evidence, abilities that you mobilize when attempting to make your own best case where matters are intrinsically complex. Our collective effort here at NC to promot e these habits of mind of course culminated in your senior thesis and baccalaureate experience a baccalaureate that is, notice, chiefly a reasoned defense of your thesis. Now you doubtless look back on this entire experien ce episodically or atomistically as you ponder the fits and starts involved in getting your thesis topic defined and the actual thesis under way .the push-back you may have received from your faculty sponsor, who told you that your original topic was too broad or your experiment ill -conceived or your artistic aims too ambitious .you think back on your worry that you wo uld never get a word down on paper .you think back on the severe and even causti c comments from your thesis sponsor on an initial draft .and you have fresh in your mind the mixed and nerve wracking experience you probably had in your baccalaureate. (By the way, I regret that I could not reach more of you prior to your baccalaureate to give you my best advice, w hich is that, if you get in trouble during the exam, your best bet is to get the members of your f aculty committee arguing with each other. I in
fact once won $5 from Doug Langston when we got in an argument about Hume during a baccalaureate, though I would never crow about it). You look back on these individual moments as just t hat, individual moments. In time, however, you will view that entire set of episodes as a whol e, a singular moment in your educational journey, the moment when you designed, completed, a nd successfully defended a really big project the very thing that NC alum Bill Dudley, president of the NY Stock Exchange, said was the most significant and lasting effect of his NC e xperience. Your capacity to achieve this result, beginning wit h your willingness to deal patiently with ambiguity, is in turn a reflection of an incredibly important trait you brought with you when you arrived at NC and that you will take with you when you leave namely, your intellectual curiosity. I cannot begin to tell you how important and truly admirable intellectual curiosity is, any more than I can begin to convey my astonishment at the utter lack of attention to intellectual curiosity in the numbing debates about higher educa tion in the state of Florida, with their obsessive emphasis on degree productivity, criti cal needs occupations, and so-called practical degrees where your college major virtua lly names your job. Totally lost from view in these debates is the idea l of the truly educated person, once defined by the late Yale president, Bart Giamatti, as someo ne who is at once intellectually discerning and humanly flexible, tough-minded [yet] open-heart ed [who is] responsive to the new and responsible for values that makes us civilized, so meone who can meet what is new and different with reasoned judgment and humanity. I s ubmit that such a person is surely not the product of some sort of higher education assembly l ine manufacturing human widgets to stick into occupational cubby holes for the sake of polit ically-driven economic development goals. We have a different approach here at NC, an approac h that manages to support the legitimate needs of economic development without making those needs paramount. Our distinctiveness is embedded in the seriousness with which we take the ideal of educating the whole student as opposed simply to honing their acquisitive instinct s and capacities. The intellectual curiosity of the students we attract is not only the starting po int for the truly educated person we try to cultivate, it is very likely the main source of NC s institutional distinctiveness. Intellectual curiosity is like a power supply providing the Coll ege with an ongoing stream of continuity through administrative changes, political upheavals and budgetary downturns. The only thing parallel to it in our institutional life is the voc ational commitment of our faculty, during a period when, for some perverse reason, teachers have so of ten been turned into the problem. Your parents are deeply proud of you at this moment but truth be told, they are also sitting there patiently and thinking: all of this sounds great, b ut will a tolerance for ambiguity and strong intellectual curiosity get my son or daughter a job ? And my honest answer to that is: I dont know about that first job, but I have no doubt th at your sons and daughters are wonderfully prepared for a future in which college graduates wi ll experience multiple career changes, a future filled with career options that havent even been i nvented yet. Frankly, in todays situation, the students I worry about are those being trained to d o just one thing, since that is a surely a recipe for obsolescence. By contrast, your intellectual cu riosity -reinfrced by the emphasis on critical thinking skills, strong communication abilities, in tellectual independence, and a humane
openness to multiple points of view will be your secret weapon in the years ahead, while also insuring a more fulfilling personal life. Moreover, you will face the inevitable tensions of public debate over pressing issues with the self-confidenc e of one who does not shrink from ambiguity and complexity out of fear and anxiety. You will, i n short, be a better citizen. Finally, as it sinks in that this is last time you will all be together here on campus and you surprise yourself by growing a bit teary-eyed and s entimental let me remind you that you will have a new cohort, which is the entire body of New College alumnae/i. As a scattered but nonetheless corporate entity, NC alumnae/i constitu te the continuation of NC by other means. You may even marry a fellow alum, since the rate of such marriages is impressive, if perhaps vaguely pathological. So let me conclude by sharing a story about one of my many visits to alum gatherings around the country over the last eleven years, a story that pe rhaps has some relevance for our occasion. The event in question was at the home of John and Laura Peters, beautifully located in one of the canyon areas north and east of LA. John was a chart er class member who for many years ran the business side of Francis Ford Coppolas several dif ferent enterprises, from film-making to winemaking. I knew John was doing well when I asked who lived around him up here in the hills, and he pointed to a distant property up the mountainsid e and said, Well, Jay Leno lives up there. I also knew it was a quintessential NC family when Jo hn and Lauras obviously precocious, then middle-school-aged daughter invited us all to take a time out and come watch her feed a live mouse to her corn snake. In any case, this was about 2005, and NC had succes sfully come through the stormy start-up period of our independence, state money was dramati cally increasing, and we were able to add faculty lines and make plans for curricular growth, the enhancement of Student Life, increase in our Admissions outreach, and other positive develop ments. So I had lots of good things to report, even brag about. As I reported on all this to this mixed group of al umni, I sensed an odd mixture of happily positive reinforcement and a vague but growing sens e of uneasiness within the group. Finally, a middle-aged alum stepped forward and said: This al l sounds terrific and Im really glad to hear it. But can you promise us one thing? Can you promi se that NC wont become like all the other schools? Well, to the extent that the intellectual curiosity you brought with you to NC remains the cardinal feature of future generations of NC students the source of energy for campus life I have no worry that we will simply become like every other school. For this I not only thank you, but I also predict great things for you in the challengin g period ahead, as you find yourselves in livelihoods that no one here this evening could pos sibly predict. You will succeed precisely because we did not train you to do just one thing. I conclude by reminding you of something you alread y know and appreciate. You have been aided these past years beyond all measure by yo ur teachers, who sit right across the aisle from you. May I invite you to stand and convey your appreciation to them as a possible antidote to the exhaustion that they feel at this time of ye ar.