Graduation was this morning, and it just so happens that I was the speaker. That I am posting the speech below should tell you that I thought it went pretty well. I’ll do a separate post describing some of the reactions, and commenting on a few of the other graduation-speech related stories that have been in the news lately, but this post is going to be long enough without that. As a teaser, I’ll just mention that several people in the audience praised me afterwards for giving such a courageous speech. That made me nervous, actually, since I am not really very courageous.
I do need to provide a bit of context, however. Like most schools, JMU has two separate ceremonies. There’s a large, university-wide ceremony held in the football stadium. Then there’s a second, smaller ceremony at which individual graduates have their name called. At JMU, that second ceremony is broken down by college. I am in the College of Science and Mathematics, and that was the ceremony at which I spoke.
This college consists of the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Mathematics and Physics. That becomes relevant later! The Chairs of those departments were sitting behind me on the stage as I sppoke.
Beyond that, I think everything is clear enough. Keep in mind that this was written in a way that anticipated various pauses for laughs and dramatic effect. Also, since I prefer to speak without notes, my delivery was not word-for-word identical to what I wrote. What is presented here is a sort of synthesis between what I originally wrote, and various ad libs I added as I was speaking.
Let me know what you think!
I should probably warn you that I rehearsed this in front of my cats last night. One of them walked out of the room and the other fell asleep. Hopefully things will go better today.
Graduates, this is the part of the ceremony where I am expected to provide some words of wisdom for you, wisdom that I am to summon forth from somewhere or other. And I can think of no better way of doing that than by opening my remarks for you this morning by talking about myself. So let me tell you a little story about how I got here.
Back in January, my Department Chair, Dave Carothers, this gentleman sitting behind me, asked me if I would be willing to give the commencement address. Now, he may not look very intimidating just sitting there in his regalia, but what you need to know about Dave is that he is the real power in this town. He is so politically connected that when he says jump, you don’t even ask how high. You just start jumping. If you don’t, one phone call from him and your trash doesn’t get picked up and your street doesn’t get plowed.
So of course I said yes. But at that time I hadn’t fully considered what I was getting myself into. I had not considered the countless hours in the gym and the weeks of starvation diets, just so I could fit into this gown. Then they told me I should not speak for more than fifteen minutes. Folks, I’m a college professor. That means the sound of my own voice is a source of great pleasure to me. I can barely say my name in fifteen minutes.
Then there was the problem of finding something to talk about.
Well, I could certainly talk about math. Always happy to talk about math. I have very strong opinions about fractions I’d be happy to share with you.
You think I’m joking, but anyone over there who learned their calculus from me knows I’m not.
Fractions have tops and they have bottoms, okay? They do not have numerators and denominators. If you say top and bottom then everyone knows what you’re talking about. If you say numerator and denominator then anyone not fluent in nerd thinks you sound like a proper Martian. But that’s the point, isn’t it? If everyone understood what we did for a living then the whole mystique would be shattered, and people wouldn’t think we’re geniuses anymore, and then the one bit of payback we get for all those years we spent getting bullied and picked on in middle school for being nerds–years, mind you, that I am totally over–would be taken from us and where’s the justice in that?
Don’t even get me started on logarithms.
You think I’m joking again.
Well, I considered and rejected one topic after another. I started numerous drafts only to discard them because of too much profanity. Eventually I got frustrated. I looked heavenward and said, what is the point of this? What is the point of it all? And then I had it! Eureka! I’ll talk about the point of it all.
Graduates, it’s taken you four years, at least, to get this far, and the fact that you have reached this point suggests that you spent some of that time in your classes. And in those classes your professors taught you some highly esoteric things. Why did we do that?
A few years back the Breeze, that’s the student newspaper, published a letter to the editor from a recent graduate. This particular graduate was not happy. She felt cheated, you see, that we hadn’t taught her the kind of practical, day-to-day skills that you need out there in the real world. How to apply for a mortgage, how to balance a checkbook, that sort of thing. She acted as though we were simply confused about the daily realities of people’s lives, and needed her help in seeing beyond our ivory towers.
As I read the letter I came to think that we really had failed this student, but not in the way she was thinking. Despite having spent four years at JMU, she had completely missed the point of it all. We did not have you read great literature, or appreciate art and music, or teach you history, or have you contemplate philosophy, or show you obscure mathematical theorems, because we thought that was just what you would need in your day-to-day lives (though you never know). Quite the contrary. It is precisely because you won’t encounter those things in your daily lives that you do study them in college. The practical things you will inevitably learn on your own. Possibly the hard way, but still.
We did not show you the Pythagorean theorem because we were preparing you for that inevitable moment, when someone comes up to you on the street and says, “Quick! I know two sides of a right triangle, how can I calculate the third?” We showed it to you because it’s a beautiful theorem, and I hardly think we need to apologize for showing you something beautiful. We showed it to you because it’s surprising and wonderful that the sides of a right triangle have any particular relationship, let alone one that’s captured by an equation as elegant as A squared plus B squared equals C squared. Or, to put it differently, Pythagoras don’t need no reason.
Incidentally, I don’t know who first noticed that relationship (it wasn’t Pythagoras), but I’m sure he was picked on in middle school.
Not everything has to be about the daily grind. You are permitted to learn things you will not eventually be tested on. A liberal arts education is not about practicalities. It is about seeing yourself as one link in a long chain. It is about connecting yourself with the generations that came before you, and recognizing that you have much in common even with those far separated from you in place and time. And that’s valuable. At a time when political polarization is causing real suffering for real people, and at a time when people can carefully choose the websites they read and the news channels they listen to so as to ensure they only hear opinions they agree with, I’d say anything that helps bring us together hardly needs any further justification.
Those prior generations are no longer here to speak to us, but they did leave us their art, and literature, and music, and philosophy. And they left us their contributions to science. Isaac Newton, by all accounts not a modest man, famously said that if he had seen farther than others, it was only because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Indeed he did. Just think of the sheer human drama, played out over millennia, that has brought us to our present understanding of the world. Think of humanity’s beginnings, when everything was frightening and unpredictable, and explicable only by reference to a pantheon of gods whose petty squabbles spilled over into the earthly realm. Gods you could not understand, but could only hope to propitiate.
Think about what an advance it was when people first thought to test their ideas about nature against experiment and evidence. That one simple idea, so obvious in retrospect, has led to physicists unraveling the small-scale structure of the atom and the large-scale structure of the universe. Biologists have worked out the minutiae of the genetic code, and the grand sprawl of natural history as played out through the processes of Darwinian evolution. Geologists have tracked the motions of continents and the nature of deep time. Chemists have worked out the periodic table of the elements, which neatly categorizes the fundamental components out of which all matter is made. And mathematicians have provided the conceptual foundations upon which most of those physical theories rest.
I think that covers the entire college.
All of this and so much more happened not because of sudden insights by a handful of mad geniuses, but by the meticulous work of generation after generation of scientists, each passing the baton to those who followed.
And alongside this story of scientific discovery, an equally suspenseful human drama has played out. At virtually every step there were those who felt threatened by science’s advance. Kings and clerics and opportunistic politicians and others whose dubious claims to power and authority depended on an ignorant and fearful population. The result was an epic drama of human ingenuity and curiosity on one side pitted against the forces of dogma and repression on the other, a battle of good versus evil far more compelling than any superhero movie. And speaking as someone who really likes superhero movies, when I say it is more compelling than that I am saying it is very compelling indeed.
Can it possibly be that you ponder all of that drama and excitement, and your only response is, “Will this be on the test?”
When will you ever need to know any of this? Possibly never. But don’t you want to know about it? Don’t you want to experience the most poignant representations of the human condition, as explored in the disciplines of the humanities? Don’t you want to know what the best available evidence can tell us about who we are and how we got here, as made so clear to us by the sciences? I hope you do, because that’s the point of it all.
But possibly you’re not convinced. Maybe you’re thinking it’s easy for me to stand up here and extol the beauty of science and the value of knowledge for its own sake, but real life will not be denied. Perhaps you’re right. So allow me to close on a more serious note.
The astronomer Carl Sagan used to describe science as a lonely candle in the dark. He argued that it is simply the best weapon anyone has ever devised for combating fear, and ignorance, and superstition. I believe that very strongly, and I find it an especially apt metaphor in light of the Bible’s exhortation, in John 3:19, that though people have been shown the light, they turn away and prefer the darkness. Even in a scientific age the darkness is always just outside, trying to get in. The human drama I mentioned earlier has not ended. Consider a few items with me.
Even as science and technology remain critical to our national future, science teachers routinely find themselves besieged by well-meaning, but misguided people who believe their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible deserves more credence than the meticulously collected evidence in every branch of the life sciences.
In some of the darker corners of the academic left, it remains fashionable to decry science as just one more myth among many, or worse, a tool of patriarchy and racial oppression. It has no special claim to authority, it is said, its centuries-long string of practical successes apparently counting for nothing.
Icebergs are melting before our eyes, states like California, Nevada and Nebraska are facing crippling droughts, hundred-year storms and hundred-year floods are now happening every few years, and all of this is unfolding in a manner predicted by scientists as far back as the 1980s. Despite this, one of our two major political parties proudly declares that climate change is a hoax, and audiences routinely cheer them for doing so.
Thanks to relentless, anti-vaccination propaganda, diseases like whooping cough and measles, thought to have been eradicated in this country decades ago, are making a comeback. Children are dying because of this nonsense. And that’s going on today, in the United States, in 2014.
Get the picture? Is that practical enough for you? Because that’s what happens to a society that doesn’t learn some science.
I confess I have my moments when I am close to despair. The darkness is often well-funded, and has access to powerful microphones. There are times when all I see is a future of environmental degradation and resource depletion and resurgent superstition and religious fanaticism and overly melodramatic graduation speeches.
But I also have other moments. Like now, as I look at all of you. Those of you I’ve had the pleasure of teaching and those that I have not. Those who majored in mathematics and those who, for what I’m sure seemed like good reasons at the time, majored in other subjects. I think about everything you’ve accomplished in your short time here, and everything you’ve taught me along the way.
I look at all of you, and then I’m not so worried any more.
And that’s also the point of it all.