Intelligence Is Still Alive and Well

Although, on occasion, I doubt it. Still these excerpts from two great commencement addresses are salutary. The first excerpt might be entitled something like “How to deal with liberals who act like the Tea Party.” And the second, “C’mon! Passion is an obsolete concept for careers.”

Of the ten or so excerpts in Sunday’s Times, most began with a warning for faculty and students who would close down opposing viewpoints. That, of course, was a reference to Condoleeza Rice, Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau, formerly UC Chancellor, all of whom were deemed persona non grata after an original invitation to speak at three major schools.

Two excerpts are exceptional.
The first, a satire by the journalist, Bob Garfield, was at Albright College in Pennsylvania, one of those old and classic liberal arts institutions for which the East is rightly famous. For the rhetorician Kenneth Burke, satire always connotes this question: “In the name of God or the Devil, at this stage in our history, where in Hell’s name are we?” And satire, with its parody and mockery, is “often the handiest way to make clear just where we are.”

So here’s Bob Garfield:
 “I just can’t tell you how disappointed I am with you. It was three months ago that Albright announced me as your guest, and not a peep from you.”

At other colleges, “students mounted furious protests, signed petitions, dispatched lists of demands to prospective speakers, in letters boiling with moral outrage. And what do I get? Directions from the turnpike. Come on, did nobody Google me? Have I said or written nothing in 37 years as a journalist to offend your sensibilities and provoke righteous indignation? Oh, man. Do you have any idea — any idea — what a disinvitation would have done for my profile?”

The second, by Atul Gawande, the Harvard physician and writer, challenges the notion of vocational passion in very articulate fashion at UNC, Chapel Hill:
“Ultimately, it turns out we all have an intrinsic need to pursue purposes larger than ourselves, purposes worth making sacrifices for. People often say, ‘Find your passion.’ But there’s more to it than that. Not all passions are enough. Just existing for your desires feels empty and insufficient, because our desires are fleeting and insatiable. You need a loyalty. The only way life is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. And that is the best part of what college has allowed you to do. College made it easy. It gave you an automatic place in the world where you could feel part of something greater. The supposedly ‘real world’ you are joining does not. …

“One thing I came to realize after college was that the search for purpose is really a search for a place, not an idea. It is a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in your own small way. It could be a classroom where you teach, a business where you work, a neighborhood where you live. The key is, if you find yourself in a place where you stop caring — where your greatest concern becomes only you — get out of there.”

Both speakers in their own way tried to shake graduates and their parents out of any complacency—deflating their egos a bit, reminding them how fortunate they are, lamenting persistent economic inequality, and urging them to work hard and pursue higher causes.

Often those few situations where students and parents attend because they want to are not to be missed. In two situations, my wife could detail some of what was said—because of their unforgettable substance–many years later. The first was an at a convocation for freshmen and their parents by the Dean of the University of Chicago’s College of Liberal Arts. He reminded everyone of the need and role of the liberal arts, the necessity of civic responsibility, and the need for informed decisions.  Just two years later she returned from our second daughter’s opening speech at Boston University by the eminent John Silber, President. Intriguingly, his message hit the same chords.

Though I’m aware that all four whom I’ve mentioned in this blog represent the elite of our culture, may their tribe continue to increase for our children, grandchildren–and our nation.

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