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New College Class of 1988 Commencement address


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New College Class of 1988 Commencement address
Alternate Title:
Commencement address, Robert H. Knox Jr., May 20, 1988
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Knox Jr., Robert H.
New College of Florida
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Sarasota, Fla.
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History -- New College (Sarasota, Fla.)
Graduation (School)
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
Baccalaureate addresses
Commencement address
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United States -- Florida -- Sarasota


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Eight page commencement address.
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----Commencement Address May 20, 1988 Robert H. Knox Jr. ----------------------------------------------------------------Bliss is it in this day to be alive, And to be young is very heaven! Graduates, families and especially parents, alumni, students, faculty, staff, and all of the assembled friends of the College, this whole occasion is a feast of joy. It is my pleasure in addressing you to try to express some of the joy we all feel for and with these graduates. In addition to this pleasure, it is Y duty to bring food for thought to the feast, to serve up some sustaining fare. Finally, it is my desire to try once more, before you go, for a ind-meld, to strike our heads together, as Herman Melville put it in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, till they musically ring in concert. When I was thinking of how to address this important occasion, bliss vas the beginning, the middle, and the end of what I had to say. But since custom requires me to do more than chant that as a mantra, I have painfully worked out more to say to you. Why was it painful?--because this is truly an uncertain time, when what to think and what to do, what to support and what to oppose, how to relate to other persons and to society are deeply vexed questions. When I asked some students what they might like to hear about in their future graduation, one promptly said--revolution. If I knew exactly what revolution to recommend, I should certainly do my duty to you as one American to others, and incite you to rise immediately. But the truth is, as I perceive it, that the task of re-constituting our national society and world society--and I don't suppose anyone here thinks things should or could remain just as they are--is going to be an incremental task, and each of us is going to have to make some partial contribution to the changes. I think that as New College graduates you are particularly equipped to help in those changes, and that having that ability obligates you to use it constructively. As you might expect, I'd like to elaborate on these points. But first let us speak of the bliss which is yours and ours today. Where did all this good feeling come from? Well, we know that for those of you sitting in these rows up front and to my left, it came sometime during the last few weeks when three faculty members came out of a room and told you that you had done it, you had triumphed, or passed, or at least survived your baccalaureate examination. But I hope that it had three or four or even more years of development before that moment, years in which you in your thoughts and feelings every day you 1


up, even if that didn't happen until high noon. I can't th1nk of a more blissful feeling than the consciousness of of expansion from your roots to fill the abundant space w1th1n you, and then to feel yourself expand into relation with the surrounding world. I' sure that expansion has happened to everyone graduating today. I'm not sure that most of you here realize that New College has a history of bliss, and later I'd like to give you some idea of how and why that has been. But first I want to discharge my duty to offer practical suggestions. I thought we could stick to the commonplace, in the best American style, and make use of the most familiar American metaphor. Therefore, as you start to cruise through life, think of yourselves as something like the philosopher Descartes' old idea of a person as a spirit in a machine, the driver in a brand-new car pulling out of the dealer's lot, to go on a long trip. I admit that this is an ordinary image, but then life is ordinary, no matter what extraordinary things you manage to do in it. My advice to you is on how to take the long trip of your life. FIRST, travel light. In a society where things are piling up unbearably, where, as Emerson said, "things ... ride ankind," try not to carry too much baggage--it will only make you drag your rear bumper and eventually the arms you carry your luggage with will belong to the luggage instead of to you--the things will own you. SECOND, Watch the maintenance of your vehicle--make sure the chassis is sound, the engine has super fuel, and the sensors are all functioning. You need a corpus sanum, a healthy body, to make this journey. THIRD, take the scenic route. I hope that New College has already encouraged you to look around, to explore the byways, instead of developing the tunnel vision of the express way to the Big Apple. After all, it would be a disappointing trip if you finally got there and hadn't experienced, couldn't even remember, anything about the country along the way. FOURTH, Arrive alive, and by that I mean alive at all points. Try to avoid being either one of the driving dead or one of those who have truly catastrophic accidents of life--those who are tyrannical bosses behind the wheel, those who are careless drivers, those who try to bribe the cops, and those who are unhappy demons in the confines of their own family car. To conclude this practical part of my advice, let me urge you to take care--you have only the one trip to make, and during it you should be responsible to yourselves and others. I wish you bon voyage, and rest stops. 2


------------------------Now having given common-sense advice that you keep all 4 wheels solidly on the road, I would like to ascend to a higher level of minding your future business. Not that I think you really need this--I realize that I am probably preaching to the converted. This higher advice I have to give does not stem from a prime directive, unless that directive is to use your human capacities as fully as possible. I wouldn't say this if I shared the philosopher Hobbes's views of the human condition as brutish, and of life as a war of everyone against everyone. I think that human capacities include the ability to sympathize, the capacity for what the Greeks called agape, as well as the eros that gets considerably more attention in our culture. To put it another way, humans possess the power of imagination, which allows one to partially understand the experience of others, including their sufferings. Among other horrific photos from the Vietnam era, one of the most damning was of McGeorge Bundy, a high official who on a first visit to the realities of Vietnam was caught by a camera with a stunned expression of horror on his face. What is shocking about that photograph is the evidence of an inability to imagine what American policies at that time meant in the real world. More recent examples of this failure of imagination are numerous--for example, the proposal that ketchup be counted among the foods for the poor, or the cutting of programs that nurture children. our recent history reminds me of two poetic definitions of human failure: W. H. Auden, a distinguished modern poet, spoke of himself and the harsh world of the 1930's in words that apply to our recent experience: [from september 1, 1939", which has these lines: ---uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade .. He goes on, however, to describe a positive hope: --Defenceless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed 1 ike them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame. And in another comment on failure, Shakespeare long ago 3


had King Lear wonder about his cruel persecutors: "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" I hope and believe that, for the sake of yourselves and the rest of us who depend upon you, you will not have hard hearts, and that you will show affirming lights. -------------------------To speak now of the nature of the College, and of our past and present experience here. In the first years of the College, and ever since, there have been many moments when the only adequate expression for the feeling of our intellectual intercourse has been that phrase from the book of Job: "When the morning stars sang together.--it always feels like the dawn of a universe when two or more persons can gather together and make thoughts, build theories, test conclusions. The College community has always felt, even in the midst of our family differences and misunderstandings, like a little band of sisters and brothers gathered in what felt sometimes like a wilderness, sometimes like an Eden, to forge a community of minds. Occasionally, unfortunately, this quintessentially American pioneer effort has felt or actually been beleaguered. I remember that in the second year of the College a somewhat uninformed and anxious neighbor came across the street to ask me if it was true that everyone at New College was a communist. I replied with what I hope was a gentle irony, but I should perhaps have tried to explain the actual truth that the College was more American, in its faith in freedom, than the society that surrounded it. But to describe the spirit of the College in true terms, I have to revert to my opening declaration: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, And to be young was very heaven!" I began by borrowing and altering those opening lines about bliss from William Wordsworth, the sometimes great English Romantic poet, who was describing what it felt like to be young in the dawn of a new era, of the age that saw the French Revolution and tremendous changes both in the individual's idea of his or her own worth and possibilities and in the economic fabric of society. This College was founded in the beginning of just such an era, in the early '60's; it was then and is now in the best sense a Romantic enterprise, an enterprise that values what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the "infinitude of the private man. I feel confident, having known and worked with many of you, that you have caught the scent of this field of possibility, have felt along your nerves and in your hearts and minds intimations of the huge possibilit.ies of the present. I hope that all of us 4


with this College have the conviction, graduates, lad17s and that we in this country, we in this human spec17s, a1n t f1n1shed yet!--that, in fact, we may be just at the of a new age in human history. As with all births, there 1s hard labor and pain, but there is also the bringing forth of a world of possibility, as I am sure that your parents felt when you were born, and as I think that we should feel now, as the world moves for the first time into an era of counication and intelligent interchange. This era will make it possible, just possible, to go beyond the old modes of zero su games, winner take all, beyond the claim that power grows out of the barrel of a gun or a nuclear missile. We know or should know that this apparent truism is false--real power, we know, makes something more, and the false power to stage an apocalypse 1s sterile and useless power. It can only unmake, and not create, which is the real super-power in human experience. Truly human power, as opposed to brute force, I would like to repeat to you, grows out of intelligent understanding and creative, not destructive, capacity, as we can readily see if we think about those who have created our cultural world--such persons as Plato, the Lady Murasaki (who founded Japanese prose literature 1000 years ago), Shakespeare, Newton, Emmanuel Kant, Margaret Fuller (the most learned of the American Transcendentalists), Darwin, Marie CUrie, Emily Dickinson, Emily Nether (a brilliant mathematician who was also Einstein's teacher), and Einstein himself--each of us will have her or his own list of those who represent the creative power of the human being. It seems to me that the College stands for faith in this capacity, and that each of you as graduates can make, to one degree or another, a creative contribution to the human community. Nov I would like for us to return to some further thoughts about the College. New College is a deeply American institution, founded on some of the leading American principles--of liberty, of individualism, and of enterprise, which is not to be given its narrow meaning of profit-seeking, but its broader sense of huan activity toward desirable goals. The College embraced the Emersonian principles of individual freedom and unlimited faith in the individual--set the individual free of the traditional curricular restraints and she or he would accomplish great things, said the College program. And indeed it came to pass, as the extraordinary records of our graduating classes show. We have proved that if you take the lid off the top, the growth will be explosive, that exposing a young person to the agitations of thought in the small confines of our community has the same effect as shaking up a pop in the Florida sunshine. The fizzing and the overflowing and the sheer leaping ebullience of our students has been a joy to experience. And to our group today, I don't need to rehearse the solid and remarkable achievements of our graduates, whether in graduate academic work or in careers. 5


When Emerson addressed the society at Harvard in 1837, a gro'?p of honors graduates, like you graduates here, he spoke of an 1deal of the American Scholar, he said that books are for the idle times, an ideal that perhaps some of you here have occas1onally tried to imitate. What he meant when he said this thing about books was that the creative powers of the 1nd1v1dual were not to be allowed to be overwhelmed and stifled by what was already past and known. He meant that each person was and should be free to seek out an individual way of understanding and encountering life, should explore personally the eaning of things. His address was also, by one interpretation, a ringing call to all thinking persons to take the lead in the conversion of the world." Emerson elaborated on this point in the Divinity School Address, which he gave on their invitation to a graduating class of theological students at Harvard in 1838--150 years ago. Emerson called in that address for a realization that the miraculous is in the commonplace, that it lies all about us as well as within us. I hope that the experience of New College has induced something of Emerson's attitude in all of us, that great things are possible in ourselves and the world if only we will bend our minds to them. So radical was this address that the authorities saw to it that he was not invited to speak at Harvard again for more than 20 years. I can't hope to match this record of provocation, but at least I would like to mention a few more issues before we are through. So the College and you have been successes in fostering individualism. What is to be done now that you have learned to use your powers? Now is the time to move from the individualis you have cultivated, to an applied individualism, to move out into the community of the world and to shift to some degree fro being educators of yourselves into being educators of others, as well as learning from them perpetually. Having developed selfhood, you must go on to be a person among other persons, to meld the individual dream with a collective dream, whether of a future family, a colleagual enterprise, a community, your country, or the world. The need is for each and every one of you to fully appreciate the existence of others beyond those few you already wear at your heart's core. Why is this so? The American dream has to move further toward realization. Now is the time, as I think almost all of us feel, for our larger society to move beyond the greed and materialism that have reached a kind of apotheosis during your years in the College. This regression from American ideals, this retreat into mean egotism, this aberration from the balance between the commercial ideas of Alexander Hamilton and the democratic principles of Thomas Jefferson, must not be allowed to become the mode of American maturity. That future, to use the language of the mistaken, would sell America and ourselves short, in the market of human culture. 6


I .waul? like to suggest to you that self-realization and commun1ty can be developed in almost any field; even the corporate ra1der, about whom we aight have our serious doubts, has arg?ed to serve the role of a natural predator, in cull1ng out s1ck companies. But I have in mind better lives for you than being predators--lives as artists, scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, business-people J"ournalists bureaucrats b k I I I an ers, and 1n aany other positions--in all of these lives you can promote the coamon weal instead of merely your private wealth. Surely there are nobler uses of the human mind and capacity for feeling than merely to ake oney and to congratulate oneself on that feat. When, for good and necessary reasons, you do put oney in thy purse, you might bear in mind that this is the advice of that arch-villain Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, and remember to also take it out to the benefit of others. I hope that there will not be an immediate testing of your human sisterhood and brotherhood in a recession or even a depression, but of course some such events will come during your lifetime. When they come, I hope that you will avoid the deficiency of our modern society, and will not adopt the noroom-in-the-lifeboat attitude. Any older persons, including parents here present, could tell you that virtue of this kind, of the kind that values other human beings, makes your life something other than that twentieth century model of the alienated, deracinated, isolated man or woman that we have had too many instances of in the 20th century. There are nov, to either side of most of us in the middle, two extreme Americas--not just of the rich and the poor, the mansioned and the homeless, the fat and the famished, but two Americas, one of the ideals and hopes of our tradition, and one of the corporate robber barons, the racketeering union bosses, the fixers and the manipulators. These corruptors of the American dream are all of them cynics about human nature. I think that the party of hope--the American dreamers, those who have visions of a happy and united community of persons of equal dignity--have not just the better, but the more realistic view of human nature. The cynics claim to be realists, but it is likely that they are only realists about their debased selves. They recognize only the brutish side of the human being, the side that like the dominant ape wants the most food and the best place to sit in the tree. But human nature is not wholly composed of these hangovers from our evolutionary past; it also comprises love, a sense of justice and fairness, and sympathetic imagination. These civilized attributes of a human being are part of the aims of a liberal education, and should be part of your lives and of a decent society. My basic argument is that as a nation we need to be consciously fashioning a new sense of community. What does it take to this vision of free persons in a community? 7


First.of.all, it takes a view of life that is priarily not materialistic. Second, it takes the Emerson1an att1tude that you possess the diqnity of a free person, which gives one of the necessary counters to the presumptions of officials, to the enthusiasms of the mob, to all of those authorities who think that a person can be subdued, manipulated, used--in short, treated like a fool and a tool instead of the person she or he is. If you stand before the world as a human person, in the way that Henry David Thoreau stood, you can resist the forces that try to dehumanize and reduce you. So courage is the first requisite, and fortunately it is a natural quality of women and men. It certainly is a quality of those who have taken the risks of New College. This bliss of courage and commitment is the last and greatest kind of bliss I will name today. In concluding this celebration of your graduation, I revert to a disciple of Emerson, to Walt Whitman, the greatest of American poets, who said "I was simmering, simmering, simmering: Emerson brought me to a boil." Whitman spoke in his great work LEAVES OF GRASS of the relation between the subjective self and the objective world--he said: "Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me." I hope that you will always recognize in yourselves that potential to send light out of yourselves, to match the possibilities of the world. And so I say to you, graduates, to each of you,. what Emerson wrote to Whitman when he had read that unknown person's first efforts in poetry: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." 8

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