Some 23 years ago I gave what I think was the very last graduation speech at the Waring School, the school that my wife I had “founded,” meaning started or began. I’ve never liked the word “founded.” Much too pretentious, as in the over used expression “Founding Fathers.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, et al. didn’t “found” the country, other than in the sense that it was there when their parents, grandparents, or others first came here and found the land seemingly free for the taking.
Nor did we ever “found ” our school. Our kids were there, learning like all kids all the time, and we saw they were learning and tried to create the very best learning environment, not just for them but for all of us, that our learning together would thrive and prosper. Well I think it did, and still does. But back to my graduation speech (that I would rather not).
Well you know the expression “lead balloon.” My speech was one, and of course it couldn’t and didn’t fly, I had worked on that speech over the previous 12 months, and had put therein what I thought were the very best of my own ideas and observations stemming mostly from my reading of the news. Almost immediately after my talk I realized that my comments and observations, while certainly interesting to me, were not appropriate for Waring School let alone any group of high school graduating seniors.
For one thing it was too long, some 6876 words.( If you want to read it go here. If you don’t want to read it stay here.) The average commencement speech is probably much shorter, not even half that length, some 2 or 3 thousand words. George Marshall’s 1947 address at Harvard presenting his “Marshall Plan” for Europe was only 1169 words. Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005, 2248, David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College also in 2005, 3808, and Meryl Streep at Barnard College in 2010, 3037. The average op ed piece is quite a bit less, less than 1000 words, representing the amount of time and effort that the NYTimes, LA Times, the WSJ and other such publications can demand of their busy readers.
While I did have a captive audience I will assume for the most part they were not listening. For afterwards I had just one listener whom I didn’t know approach me and make a comment. Not a word from anyone of the some two hundred listeners most of whom I did know. I’ve since realized that they were probably embarrassed by both the inappropriateness of my subject as well as the length of what I had to say. I was too, but couldn’t take it back.
What I want to look back at is my talk. No matter how inappropriate it was as a part of a high school graduation it did contain not only but many of my own ideas, thoughts that as I reread them today are just as much a part of me now as then.
Does this mean that most of what I have to say doesn’t seem to reach anyone else. Ok, that’s not surprising. Most of us never succeed in communicating who we are, so important to us, to all of us, to anyone else.
As for those comments and ideas of then, of that moment nearly a quarter of a century ago, I see clearly how most of them are still a big part of who I am. What if I were to turn back now to see just how much they are still present, or how much they are past and gone while I have moved on? Well not another 6876 words worth but I’ll write a few blogs making the connections with that moment in the past.
I take the text below from the very end of my talk. And I find right away that I could write the very same thing today. Have I not changed in that quarter of a century? Does that imply within me a rigidity, a narrowness, or rather as I would like to believe there is an essence within me, as within each one of us, and I’m simply seeiing it once again in my text of all those years ago. Here is the passage:
Finally, I want to talk about two ideas that may be more important than all the others, at least in respect to their being primarily responsible for man’s improving his lot, for making progress…. And whatever we may do in the world to relieve the interethnic feuding and killing, we must start with them.
The first is the idea that man, in Hamlet’s words, is quite a piece of work,
“how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving! How express and admirable in action! How like an angel in apprehension! How like a god!”
Too many of the world’s people probably do not believe this about themselves. But without this belief it’s probably impossible to improve one’s lot.
The pictures and videos of beatings and shootings in too many of our cities do make us aware of how far we have fallen from being that wondrous being of Hamlet. (This, by the way is what religion has always told us.)
Some 2000 years before Shakespeare the Greek playwright, Sophocles, made the same discovery of what a piece of work is man. This passage is from Sophocles’s Antigone. It is one of the choral songs in which we surprise the first amazed meditation of man when he realizes how strange it is that he should be what he is, that he should have wrought all that he has wrought:
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm grey sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labour of stallions.
The lightboned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish lighting their reaches of dim water,
All are taken, tamed in the net of his mind;
The lion on the hill, the wild horse windy-maned,
Resign to him; and his blunt yoke has broken
The sultry shoulders of the mountain bull.
Words also, and thought as rapid as air,
He fashions to his good use; statecraft is his,
And the skill that deflects the arrows of snow,
The spears of winter rain: from every wind
He has made himself secure—from all but one:
In the late wind of death he cannot stand.
Of course, in this quotation and in the other from Hamlet, I have omitted what the characters go on to say, that there is another side, a dark side to man also. For obvious reasons, I may neglect the dark side, because alas, nobody needs reminding of this. Of the light side, however, they do.
The second idea, no less important to man’s improving his lot is this: it is incumbent on this wondrous creature, man, to make the world a better place, that he not stop and rest on what he has acquired. This is the “red queen” theory, do you remember, from Alice in Wonderland? Wasn’t it the Red Queen who had to keep moving just to stay in the same place. Well man too has to keep moving, OK, just to stay in the same place, but even more so if he would get ahead and make good things happen.
This is the germ of the idea of progress. It is never enough just to stand still, just to exist, as my father would always say. We have to go on until everyone’s life, not just our own, is, if not fulfilled, at least made better. Now, this, of course, is an unending process. Also the process will change as the meaning of progress changes, as the conditions of our lives change, as those ideas that rule our world change. For everything will change, and let’s hope that the inevitable changes still to come will be for the better.