Assistant Professor of Philosophy James Behuniak Jr.
I’d like to begin by thanking you once again for the great honor of being given this year’s Charles Bassett Teaching Award. Receiving the award this year is humbling for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the class of 2011 is an outstanding class by any measure and by all accounts. To be chosen by this class for this award is the greatest compliment that I have ever received as a teacher, and it is likely to be the greatest compliment that I ever will receive.
2011 is also the year in which this award, as we know, takes on a new dimension. Charles Bassett retired from teaching in the year 2000, six years before I joined the faculty at Colby. I never had the privilege of personally meeting Charles Bassett. That is, I never knew him as a mortal. When he passed away on the 19th of October, the Colby community came together in remembrance and in celebration of his profound impact on the College and on the lives of its students. Listening as we did to the testimony of his friends and reading through the hundreds of tributes that poured in from his many “toads,” it was certified beyond any doubt: Charlie Bassett had become immortal. Now, immortality is a pretty big deal. Confucians, as you may know, practice ancestor worship. The “gods” of the Confucian tradition are not originally supernatural beings. Rather, they are deceased human beings—sages—who, through their extraordinary lives in this world, elevate the human experience for their contemporaries and for subsequent generations. Sages show us what is possible, and they provide a focus for our hopes and aspirations. As a rule, there are very few sages, and there is no mistaking who they are. They do not pop up annually like petunias. Confucians believe that sages emerge once every hundred generations or so, and I believe this to be about right. Sages, then, are more like sequoia trees than petunias. Allow me to accept this award as a Confucian, in remembrance and in deference to the accomplishments of the Sage in whose name it is given.
With this honor comes the privilege of delivering “The Last Lecture.” Now let me be perfectly honest: when I was initially asked to prepare this lecture, my mind went completely blank. Maybe it’s just the name: “The Last Lecture.” I suppose we all prefer to think of ourselves as preparing for the “next” thing, without thinking that it might be for anyone concerned the “last.” Up until very recently I had no idea what I was going to talk about. I need to say something simple, I thought—something memorable, something deep and profound: “here is my parting word for you, Graduate, the one thing I wish to say to you as you make your way forward—the key to your future.” It took me a few days to recognize that the template that I had been unconsciously working from was one buried in my cinematic memory. What I was actually imagining was the poolside encounter between Benjamin Braddock and Mr. McGuire in The Graduate. Now, for those of you who have never seen this classic 1967 film, cue it up on Netflix and we’ll pretend that we never had this conversation. The rest of you will easily recall this iconic moment: Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from Williams College. He returns home to southern California to a graduation party hosted by his parents. In the midst of all the celebration, the accolades, the questions about his life plans, poor Ben—deep inside, is feeling very unsure about the road ahead—and part of him just wants to escape the whole scene. At this juncture, Mr. McGuire enters with his unforgettable advice for the Graduate. I have the clip cued up right here.
So anyway, this was the subconscious template from which I was desiring to formulate my talk today. Once I realized the absurdity of this, of course I wanted to do it even more. So, since you have chosen me to give this lecture, and I get to do this only once, I want to have with you a Mr. McGuire moment. You, class of 2011, are “Ben.” Here are your lines. Are you ready? Let’s begin. Ladies in pearl necklaces are asking you what you are going to do with your future. And now I enter the scene:
2011: “Mr. McGuire”
2011: “Mr. McGuire”
Me: “Come with me for a minute, I want to talk with you. Excuse us, June.” (We walk out to the pool).
Me: “I just want to say one word to you… Just one word.”
2011: “Yes, sir.”
Me: “Are you listening.”
2011: “Yes, I am.”
2011: “Exactly how do you mean?”
I’m glad you asked. This is where I break script and teach a little. The word “plastic” derives from the Greek word, “plastikos” which means “that which is capable of being shaped, molded, or formed” It was William James, in his Principles of Psychology in 1890, who first suggested that the brain itself was “plastic,” and by this he meant that it was capable of taking on new sets of habits. James explains:
Plasticity, in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once. Each relatively stable phase of equilibrium in such a structure is marked by what we call a new set of habits.
Before we go any further, let me say a word about habits. We often think of habits as bad things: things that we do that we wish we didn’t do. This is not what James had in mind when he spoke of “habits.” Habits instead, for James, are learned responses that simplify activity and increase mental and physical efficiency. Habits save us from having to spend time and energy reconsidering everything that we do. Think of putting on your pants in the morning. Which leg to do you put in first? Most of us can’t readily recall, because we no longer need to pay it any mind. It’s a habit. My son puts his pants on backwards. Dressing himself is not yet a habit. But we adults are perfectly proficient at dressing ourselves, and this proficiency frees us to direct our energies elsewhere. If our brains were not “plastic,” then such habits could never be formed and such surplus “freedom” would not become available to us. Habits, then, rather than being things that trap us, are another way of talking about freedom.
So, it was William James who first suggested that our brains are “plastic.” Like many of the best insights in classical American philosophy, this one would be ignored for fifty years until it was discovered by a European. The Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski was the first to use the term “neural plasticity,” drawing his inspiration not from William James but from Pavlov and the Behaviorists. The empirical evidence for neural plasticity became established pretty quickly. And in the decades since, research into synaptic pruning, neuro-structural re-assembly and the like have shown that our brains remain plastic—or potentially so—well into adulthood, and that experience can and actually does change both the anatomy of the brain as well as its functional organization.
Inspired by James, other Americans like John Dewey came to further develop and refine this notion of our “plasticity.” The most important corrective that Dewey introduced was to point out that our “plasticity” is not primarily receptive. It is in fact an active “power” that is equivalent to growth itself. Dewey writes:
[It] is something quite different from the plasticity of putty or wax… it is something deeper than this. It is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation… Without [such plasticity], the acquisition of habits is impossible.
“Plasticity,” then, must be thought of as a power. It is not something that is passively undergone. It is something that we actively do. “Plasticity” is the disposition to grow: it is the ability to acquire habits and proficiencies that free up energies that can be channeled into future stages of growth. Biologically, such plasticity is the defining characteristic of life. Its absence is a sign of decay and death. The Chinese Daoist classic, the Daodejing teaches us essentially this:
While living, people are supple and soft.
But once dead, they become hard and rigid.
While living, the grasses and trees of the world are pliant and fragile.
But once dead, they become withered and dry.
Thus it is said:
Things that are hard and rigid are the companions of death.
Things that remain supple and soft are the companions of life.
At Colby, when we advise incoming students, the Admissions Office provides us with questionnaires that students fill out at the end of Orientation. You may recall filling out your questionnaire, or maybe you don’t. I don’t know: do you ever see it again? The last two questions on the questionnaire are, and I paraphrase: “What are your goals for this year?” and “On your graduation day, how will your experience as a Colby student be defined.” More often than not, the answers to both of these questions come back (if not blank) something like “I don’t really know that right now,” and if it gets any more specific, it’s something like “my goal right now is to get involved,” or, “my goal is to succeed at whatever I choose to do.” Such answers are completely vague, and I like to commend students for having the courage to answer with such vagueness. It demonstrates an awareness of the importance of plasticity and a healthy reluctance to be too firm at the beginning. Too often, I’m afraid, we are expected to have well-defined goals right away, just like Benjamin Braddock. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s a great thing to have goals. But you must recognize this: in many cases, there is an inverse relationship between the specificity of our goals and the plasticity required to reach them. Often, the more inflexible our plans, the less willing we are to make necessary adjustments in the process and the less able we are to take advantage of possibilities that arise along the way. In short: the more inflexible our goals are, the less freedom we allow ourselves to actually grown in the process of trying to reach them. Goals change in the process, maybe that’s all I’m trying to say. Let them change. The deeper point is that no matter what your goals are, you can only get there one day at a time—so you have to appreciate the present and embrace the process. In many ways, what Don Quixote said about life was right: “The Road is Better than the Inn.”
My general point about goals, growth, and process is made over and over again in East Asian philosophies: Confucianism, Daoism and Zen, and if you don’t mind a little story—I’d like to tell you one from this rich tradition:
A young boy traveled far from his home district to the temple of a famous Master of Archery. When he arrived, he was given an audience with the Master himself.
“What do you seek in me?” the Master asked.
“I wish to be your student, and to be the finest archer in the land,” the boy replied, “How long must I study?”
“Ten years, at least,” the Master replied.
“Ten years is a long time,” said the boy, “I am prepared to study twice as hard as your other students.
“Twenty years,” said the Master.
“Twenty years?” said the boy, “you don’t understand. I will work day and night with all my effort!”
“Thirty years,” replied the Master.
“Thirty years? Why is it that each time I say that I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” asked the boy.
“The answer is clear,” said the Master, “When one eye is fixed on the goal, there is only one eye left with which to find your Way.”
I hope that this story brings some comfort to those of you who feel, even now, after four years of college, that you are still a little sketchy about your goals. The very good news for you is that you are about to graduate with one of the finest liberal arts educations in the country. What does this mean? It means that the plasticity that you brought here has been transformed into a powerful set of habits, habits that now free up an even deeper plasticity that you can use for purposes that you can’t even imagine right now. You have cultivated habits of hard work, critical reflection, creative thinking, thoughtful listening, clear writing, careful reading, cooperative learning, and community involvement. We all recognize and admire these habits in you. And I think I can speak for the entire faculty when I say, “You’re Welcome.” The key now is that you strengthen and reinforce these habits going forward. How? It really doesn’t really matter in the short term. The important thing is to maintain them, free up more layers of plasticity, and keep going.
Preparing this talk got me thinking about my 20s. I worked all kinds of wacky jobs in my 20s, everything from making pizzas to developing film in a one-hour photo lab—a skill that is now a completely obsolete. After finishing graduate school, I entered the academic job market. In terms of looking for jobs, this is about as daunting as it gets. It takes years to become established, the odds are slim, and the competition is fierce. During this time, I used to repeat to myself over and over a passage from the Confucian Analects. Its chapter 4.14, and it’s very simple, and I’d like to share it with you. You can commit it to memory right now. Confucius said, “Do not worry over not having an official position, worry about what it takes to deserve one.” It’s natural to feel anxious when you’re not yet doing what you want to be doing. I know that. But Confucius teaches us to productively re-direct that anxiety: “Do not worry over not having an official position,” he says, “worry about what it takes to deserve one.” I tried hard to follow this Sagely advice, every day for many years. I did not always succeed. Looking back, my failure to do so accounted for a lot of avoidable and unnecessary suffering. Don’t make the same mistake. Confucius is a Sage. Listen to what he says: “Do not worry over not having an official position, worry about what it takes to deserve one.”
William James has faith in you. Here’s what he had to say:
Let no youth have anxiety about the upshot of [his/her] education, whatever the line of it may be. If [he/she] keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, [he/she] may safely leave the final result to itself. [He/she] can with perfect certainty count on waking up one fine morning, to find [himself/herself] one of the competent ones of [his/her] generation, in whatever pursuit [he/she] has singled out… Young people should know the truth of this in advance. The ignorance of it has probably engendered more discouragement and faint-heartedness in youths embarking on arduous careers than all other causes put together.
So this is my Mr. McGuire advice. One word, just one word: “plastikos.” Consolidate the good habits that you have formed here. In doing so, free up neural plasticity for the next phase of growth. Believe me, this is precisely what employers are looking for: Good Habits and Plasticity. Whatever else you have lined up, if you don’t have Good Habits and Plasticity, it’s not going to be enough. On the other hand, if all you have right now is Good Habits and Plasticity—but no firm plan—don’t worry, you’re going to be fine. The world is changing. Old orders are giving way to new possibilities. What Mr. McGuire said to Benjamin Braddock was right: “There is a great future in plastics.” At this moment, the future is unusually plastic, and in order to navigate it you must remain pliant as well, and diligent, and patient. I am certain that you will find your way. Goals will present themselves, and you will realize them.
I don’t do goodbyes. So, let me conclude by saying once again, “Thank you.” You know where to find us. We’ll be up on the hill here, working at the plastic factory. So keep in touch, and I wish you well.