Mr. President and members of the commencing class of Colby College, as a son of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts I am honored to be present here on Mayflower Hill, and to congratulate the candidates for the first degree in Arts and Sciences upon their great distinctions and achievements. I remind you that you were founded as a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts here in the northernmost part of western civilization, in the district of Maine. Waterville is for many of you the center of the universe, at least for the last four years, but it is a very northernmost center of the universe, nearer the North Star than the equator. The weather here is designed to produce character and to ensure virtue, and I am certain that if it hasn’t, it will before these proceedings are over.
I come to you as a Baptist, and I hasten to remind you — particularly the members of the faculty — that this was once our college, and I am happy to return to the scene of the crime. You may not, however, welcome me with all of the open arms available to you because I noted with some interest that, among the many things that President Adams might have said, he did not say that I am also a graduate of Bates College. I understand his discretion on this occasion, and I’m sure you will save your cultivated hisses not for me but for President Edwards, who represents yet another Maine institution somewhat to the south of us which, unlike Colby and Bates, did not have the good sense to admit me when I applied. However, I am happy to report to you this morning, in this wonderful conjunction of Bates and Colby and Bowdoin on the same platform, that ignorance has been eradicated and all three institutions have symbolized that by being nice to so ignorant a person as myself. So, I am delighted to be with you and I wish you well. I also realize that I am one of the few obstacles between you and your lunch, and I will do all that I can to make the transition as agreeable and as useful as possible.
One of the preachers renowned for preaching in Great Britain was invited to preach before Queen Victoria, and he was warned that her Britannic Majesty preferred her sermons short. At the end of his sermon, the Queen said to him, “Sir, you were brief.” He said, “Ah, Ma’am, I like never to be tedious.” She said, “You were also tedious.” Length has nothing to do with tedium, however, as we shall soon see, and so I am warning you in advance that you must do your best to stick with it.
Now for you seniors, on whom I gaze with great delight in the front, this is the first of the occasions in which you have participated as candidates for the first degree. High school and kindergarten, of course, do not count. This is your first commencement, and there never will be another one like it. You are meant to enjoy it, it is singular, and it is unique; but, for the rest of you, my learned colleagues in drag to the left, and your parents and friends, this is altogether a very familiar scene. Colby College has been doing this more or less for one hundred eighty years, and I have had more than my fair share of these occasions, contributing to the compost heap of commencement prose. It is not new to many of us although we cherish it singularly, so you will forgive me if I confess to feeling a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s seventh husband on their wedding night, who said, “I know what to do; the problem is in trying to make it interesting.”
I shall try to make this talk as interesting as I can, but there is a convention which must be observed if we are both to escape from Mayflower Hill unscathed today. The convention is this: it is my job to speak, it is your job to listen, and should you finish your job before I finish mine, my hope is that you will have the kindness and the charity to wait, as I intend to catch up with you.
Now, when we think of occasions such as this we have to remind ourselves that college commencements, particularly the kind of colleges that we represent and cherish here in the district of Maine — Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby — are among the few significant public rituals left in America. Nobody takes the Academy Awards very seriously, and all of the self-congratulatory prize-award-giving things in which the media engage are made of gossamer. We all know that; and we all understand that even solemn events such as presidential inaugurations tend in some sense to be rather extraordinary and unnatural occasions which represent the triumph of one party over the other, or vice versa. Weddings are always problematic. Whatever can go wrong, usually does; and I speak as a long veteran of weddings. Funerals? We dare not speak of funerals, at least not yet.
Thus, one of the few public ceremonies left in which all of us have an investment in believing in it, is this very one in which we are engaged today. For one hundred and eighty years this old college has turned out a heap of the brightest and the best to go out and make a difference in the world. Without trying to pull rank, my college has been doing this since 1642, and one ought to pause and wonder — is it a good idea? We have been turning out since 1642 the brightest and the best that money can buy, and look what a mess the world has got itself into over all of these years. Things seem to have got worse rather than better.
So, I had a proposal some years ago, that we should have a moratorium on all college commencements for just one year. Maybe every seven years we should stop the production of undergraduates and see if it produces anything better. I was told that that was not a very good idea, not by the candidates for degrees and certainly not by their parents, but by the faculty, who would have even less to do than we have now. So we must perpetuate, we must persevere, we must carry on. The great question, however, is, are we doing any good by this? There are two assumptions that must be examined as we take a look at the occasion that brings us together today.
The first of these is that the more of us educated people there are in the world, the better it is for the world. We are a part of what Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard in the early part of the last century, once described as “the multitude of the wise.” Speaking at Harvard’s commencement eighty years ago, President Lowell said: “What we need now is not more organization or more machinery, but more thought — personal thought, clear, far-reaching and profound; as unbiased and illumined and as widespread among our people as possible. For ‘in the multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world,’ and where shall we look for this multitude of the wise if not among the graduates of our colleges?” The phrase “the multitude of the wise” comes from the Wisdom of Solomon in Hebrew scripture, and it gives voice to the notion that the more of us there are, the better. We should ask if that is really the case.
The second assumption with which we operate is that the more education we have the better people we will become. In other words, the more we know the better off we are likely to be. Well, you are the best test of that argument, and it is probably wise not to try to answer it, at least this morning and certainly not in the presence of your parents. A recent address at Tufts University spoke to this when a professor, Sheldon Krimsky, addressing the Phi Beta Kappa just a few weeks ago, put it this way: “Are more educated people likely to be less difficult to deal with? Are they likely to express more humanitarian values, to be more benevolent to others, to show more empathy, or to make complex moral decisions?” Alas, Professor Krimsky concluded, “I don’t think so.”
The question is: is the world better off for more of us, and are we better off for all of this? We take a look at how education is used in the world, and sometimes we cannot altogether be encouraged by it. Time magazine, that repository of all urbane and sophisticated wisdom which has got many of you through your Colby experience, has asked a famous poll question: What are the two biggest problems facing America today — ignorance or apathy? Half replied, “I don’t know;” and the other half, “I don’t care.”
The deficiency of our educational system, in my opinion, has not to do with a lack of resources or a lack of opportunity, and nor has it anything to do with the lack of smarts on your part, or with wisdom on the part of this college and its learned faculty. The deficiency in our educational system has to do with the fundamental lack of virtue. That is the word and that is the need. T.S. Eliot, the poet, put it this way perfectly nearly seventy years ago, describing the likes of us: “We are people who dream of systems so perfect that no one need ever be good.”
One of the curious phenomena of these small colleges in Maine — and of the two that I know best because of our Baptist inheritance — and one of the principles at the root of these learned institutions was that education had something to do with virtue and that learning had something to do with goodness. Once you had forgotten all of those Spanish irregular verbs, or all of the conjugations, or all of the intellectual distinctions, or all of the scientific niceties, there still remains upon you the burden of goodness and the expectation of virtue. For some of you, however, this may be too great an expectation. One of the curses of commencement talks such as this is that we place upon you the expectations of such great things that they may seem to you to be impossible. We expect that you will find a cure for cancer, that you will resolve the problems in the Middle East, that you will figure out how to obtain social justice in our country, that you will learn how to restore and preserve the family, and that you will find how to make everybody healthy, wealthy, and wise at no more an increase in taxation than is absolutely necessary.
We hold up these great expectations for you, and some of you actually believe them and many of you will try them, and then you will discover that you haven’t quite yet got the cure for cancer. You have not yet come up with the absolute failsafe solution to the economy. You have not yet come up with a brilliant resolve to the conflict in the Middle East; and then you will discover that you are indeed hostages to perfection. Because you cannot do everything, you therefore resolve to do nothing.
The hostage to perfection is that fatal flaw in our system which says “all or nothing; everything or nobody.” I want to suggest to you that there is another way, and that in responding to the failure that inevitably will attend your way you will learn some of the essential wisdom necessary for life.
We have taught you that you have a right to success. We should have prepared you for inevitable failure. Now, there are some of you in this audience — I can almost recognize you by sight — who are intimately acquainted with failure. Most of you who are in that category realize who you are, and some of the rest of you know who you are as well. Many of you sitting in this audience are absolute proof of the fact that it is still possible to fool some of the people some of the time, and many of you will open your diplomas in a few moments just to make sure that it is your name on it and not somebody else’s.
Failure, I know, is un-American. Failure is not something we cultivate, it is something that we should not embrace, but it is one of the facts of life which allows us to take on what is possible when we discover what is impossible. Dr. Judah Folkman is a cancer researcher in the Harvard Medical School, and not long ago in a little piece in The Boston Globe, he began an article about himself with a wonderfully declarative statement. “I learn more from my failures than from my successes,” said this eminent scientist.
Perhaps he was sympathetic to a man not much older than you, somebody named Jason Zasky, a mere thirty-one years of age, who was co-founder of a remarkable new magazine devoted to failure. You can look it up on his Web site, where many failures advertise, as you doubtless know. It is a Web site devoted to humankind’s boldest missteps, and on it young Zasky has this to say: “When you’re successful you don’t appreciate all the magic that went into that success as much as when you’ve gone through failure; when you try something and it doesn’t work you have a tendency to spend time reflecting.” It seems to me that among the things most worth reflecting on are what the things are that you will do when you can’t do the things you think you ought to do or want to do.
Perhaps we do expect too much of you. Perhaps we do propose too many entitlements for you. Perhaps we have not taught you how well to cultivate the fine art of failure, but the fine art of failure is the means to the greater art of endurance, and ultimately of perseverance and success.
Let me suggest something that you can do — something that will make a difference not only in your lives, but in the world. It has to do not with the great things of life or with the extraordinary profundities which you have studied here; it is not earth-moving or earth-shattering, but it is the very thing by which the fabric of life is held together. A British judge named Moulton has given us a way of looking at it: “The success of every culture hinges not on big points of morality,” he said; “for there will always be issues like abortion or school prayer over which people differ; but about smaller values, like being considerate of others and pulling your own weight. These values,” he observed, “are neither legally enforceable nor purely private, but constitute the connective tissue of people interacting in a healthy society.” He calls this “the world of manners.”
“The world of manners.” Can it be, young ladies and gentlemen, as simple as that? Can it be as fundamentally basic as being decent to one another, keeping your promises, answering your mail, being nice to old people because you will soon be one of them, and being nice to young people because once you were one of them? Does it come down to William of Wyckham’s famous phrase, “Manners Maketh Man”? Could it be, young ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2001 of Colby College, that your mother was right after all? A rather extraordinary concession to make at this stage of your eminence, and a rather expensive lesson to learn when you could have stayed at home and heard it morning, noon, and night. This is something that you can do. This is a difference that you can make. “He who is faithful in little,” the Bible says, “is faithful in much.” The converse is equally true: he who is unreliable in little is also unreliable in much.
My last word to you, and I hope it’s a reassuring one, is that it is not too late. Some of you have squandered these last four years, wasted your time, wasted your parents’ money, wasted your opportunities, wasted the time of my learned colleagues. You, as I speak, are feeling guilty, penitent, sorrowful, and that is why so many of you really don’t want to leave Mayflower Hill. You would stay if there were room for you, but there is no room for you. A brighter class has just been admitted. New fresh money, fresh blood for the Hill. You’re over the Hill, past it, on your way out into the great beyond.
It is not too late for you to make amends, however. You can make a difference in your life, but the way to do it, my dear young friends, is to start small. Start with yourself — that’s a pretty big project. Then move on to the next person and the next person and the next person. You will have a chance to work on the most important project the world has ever known — you, your life, and the difference you make in it for yourself and for others.
It will not be easy and there are no guarantees of success, and you will fail many times, but if you attempt something worth failing in, which is the amendment of your own life, you will join that “multitude of the wise” who are a blessing to the world, a blessing to one another, and a blessing to themselves. If you attempt this as your life’s project then the years you have spent here on Mayflower Hill will not be wasted, and the rest of us throughout the world will have cause to give thanks to God for you and for Colby College. God bless you all.