I didn’t mention this in my other posts on the subject, but I should have. It supports what I said earlier about cliché laden commencement speeches. With just a very few stylistic changes I take these words from my own talk of 1992.
Just this past Monday I was in my car going from one grantee organization to another, spewing out like everyone else carbon dioxide into the already overloaded atmosphere, and I happened to tune into WBUR just as President Silber, up on the podium at Boston University’s commencement ceremony, was introducing his speaker for the occasion, the renowned (conservative, and hence a Silber, favorite) Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Great, I said to myself, not yet having yet put together my own graduation talk, I’d get some ideas from Vargas Llosa.
But, as it turned out, Vargas Llosa’s ideas were ideas as to what not to say. If you’ve been to other graduations you wouldn’t be surprised, or probably even interested, by anything he said. For example: “This great school [BU], your alma mater, is an example of the best that our culture has to offer. It has equipped you to face great obstacles in many areas. Now it is your opportunity to stand up to the occasion and make the world a better place.” And this coming from a writer and Nobel laureate!
What would the Waring teachers have said to him if they had had a chance to look at his speech before Monday? Why, as if this sort language wasn’t enough, he continued with other original thoughts such as, “Liberty ought to be cherished with the fierceness of those who have lost it [alluding here to his own country, Peru where the democratic government had just been dissolved yet once again] and of those who have regained it [alluding here to countries of Eastern Europe as well as their jailor, the former Soviet Union]. “Liberty (still in his words) is the driving force of progress. And finally, Cruelty must be condemned wherever we find it.”
But then I remembered, Vargas Llosa wasn’t only a writer. He was also a politician, and the politician was the man who was giving the commencement address. Vargas Llosa had lost the 1990 presidential election to Fujimori, but he hadn’t yet lost the rhetoric that probably fired his campaign..
You know, if there is one thing that I’ve learned by being a teacher for nearly 35 years, it’s that my words, no matter how impressive sounding they might be, have done little or nothing to change my students’ values, the way they think, the way they act. All the important changes have come from what they have done. Students, in spite of appearances, are just not in the power of their teachers. That’s why at Waring discussion rather than lectures are the heart of the program, discussion meaning a free exchange of ideas, discussion being, if I can use an overused term, our founding idea.
Then I “met up with”, also just recently, Mikhail S. Gorbachev who was at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, the same town where Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 warned of ‘an Iron Curtain that had descended across Europe, traping Eastern European nations in the Communist sphere,’ and who urged ‘a global alliance against common problems that would involve the whole of humanity.’ Gorbachev, much in the manner of Vargas Llosa and the others, was saying such catchy things as, “the problems that the whole world faces today include terrorism, crime, abuse of drugs and alcohol, environmental degradation, and hunger.” (Blah, blah, blah…)
Now, Vargas Llosa, I’m sure, is better than most graduation speakers. But while he was talking I remembered a line I had read in Esquire magazine on the plane just two weeks earlier. It was an article about James Dean. James Dean, the writer said, is what’s going on inside you (yes, that’s James Dean within you) underneath, while old men in suits are up there on the podium telling lies. I hoped I wouldn’t ever be such an old man.
And what about our school, the one we share, and have shared for six years or more? Can we talk about it at all without using the language of clichés? Here is my attempt to do so. And I hope you’ll join me afterwards if we are so fortunate as to continue the discussion.
Here’s one thing to start with, the Waring School is based on neither religious or scientific principles. Some of you have had questions about the place of religion in our school. It has a place of course, as does science. But our school is based not on the one, or the other, but on ideas, ideas of what is best, and these ideas, of course, will change as we change along with them. The world too, is based on ideas, not on religion not on science. And in both, in school and in the world, there are good ideas and bad ideas, and sometimes, too often, the power of the ideas is inversely proportional to the goodness or rightness of them. Liberal democracy is a better idea than autocracy, but in the past 100 years or more what have we seen most of?
In regard to our school, there are founding ideas with which you are probably familiar, since you and your children have chosen to come here. Most of these founding ideas did not originate with Josée and myself. Like all thinkers we found them by standing up on the shoulders of earlier thinkers.
These ideas too may now be clichés, but here are a few of them anyway. It’s funny about good ideas, by repeating them you may very well lose them. Bad ideas seem to have more staying power.
Now I won’t list them, these few founding ideas, because there is no natural order to them. Somehow they all have to be there at one and the same moment, all at once so to speak. So I’ll use the paragraph, a wonderful syntactical device:
Different children learn in different ways, you cannot teach a child anything important, only help him to learn it for himself, pressure to learn will work best from within, self-confidence and self-respect are essential preconditions to all learning, teaching is best done by teachers who are themselves learners, if the school is changing it’s because we’re all changing, and let’s hope for the better.
Now that’s about the right length, not the seven thousand or so words of the original.