Commencement Address, May 26, 2013
Thank you very much, Dr. Adams, and thanks to the faculty and the trustees of Colby for this, the remarkable honor of this honorary degree that I’m about to receive and the honor of speaking to you today on this crucial day. I’m sorry, as I’m sure you are, that we’re not on the grand lawn, but it’s better to be dry and warm. And so here we are.
I’ve written a lot of things in my life; this may the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. And the reason is that we have two different concepts at war here. One is the form of the commencement address, which, as you all may know if you’ve been to commencements before, is a very demanding sort of formality. I think a generation that is less patient with formalities and is more ironic—and my sense is that it’s harder to break through that sense of irony that you’ve developed, which is quite a useful tool as you go through life, and I’m not short shrifting that—but it is harder and harder, I think, for us to get at, mutually, across the generations, a core of common feeling about just about anything. But I think we can do that about Colby.
I want to thank you for having me for this momentous occasion. It’s momentous for you, obviously. It is momentous for Colby, for, as you have already heard, it is the bicentennial year. And you are the bicentennial class. That means you’re like a Christmas baby. You are all this and the bicentennial, too. So you are unusual in that regard.
My name is Greg Smith. I use the White because my last name is Smith and because my grandfather didn’t have any male children, he didn’t get to name any sons after him, and my mother wanted one of his grandsons to bear his name. That’s where the White comes from.
I have rewritten and written this speech many times. There are a lot of blue marks on it, so if I read a blue mark, you’ll understand.
I have to say, when Bro asked me to do this, I really had to scratch my head and say, “Why would he want me to do this? This is such an important day and such an important speech. What about my history makes me worth this honor?” I admire the College’s decision to have their bicentennial graduation, your graduation, filled with Colby alumni, so the entire lineup of honorees is Colby, and I think that’s a terrific idea. You will see when you hear the citations for these other honorees that the Colby ranks are filled with people of really stunning achievements. I wish you could have been there last night at the faculty dinner, where we heard from each of these honorees, and I’m sorry in some ways you won’t get to hear from each of them, not just from me. A more diverse set of people it would be hard to imagine, a more diverse set of experiences, and mostly what I was struck by is the diverse ways in which they have used the education that they all received at Colby and achieved these remarkable lives. And I think that was, for me, I would have thought, the most comforting and consoling thing that would come out of your having attended the dinner last night.
As for me, what I thought was crazy, is that, well, less than well considered, was that I’ve had a pretty mashed-up career, filled with jumps between occupations. I’m a lawyer, I’m a publisher, I’m a writer, so what am I? I can imagine the Colby trustees asking Bro, what kind of writer is he? We did a Google search and it says that he wrote an exercise book. Yes, that’s true, that’s true. And some pop psychology books. Well, that’s true, too. And what’s this I hear about a sex manual? Well, yes, there was a sex manual, but my name was only on the title page, it wasn’t on the cover. And true crime thrillers. Yes, that’s true, actually three true crime thrillers. In my defense, I am a lawyer. But doesn’t he also publish a legal directory? Well, that, too, but is that technically a book? And is it even written? Did I mention that he also wrote two biographies of artists?
I mean really, if you think about it, it’s sort of a mess. It would be easy to look back on my career and think, what a mess. It’s less like a résumé than like the ramblings of some drunk guy at the bar who’s been cut off and just keeps talking. Well, the question is can you plausibly, much less laudably, construct a career out of all these diverse pieces? As it turns, and this, I think, may be the key to why I was asked to speak, is this is the career path that many of you will follow. Not exactly, obviously, but in the sense that, as you’ve probably seen, research shows that the average college graduate, namely you, will have seven to nine careers in the course of your lifetime. That’s something that was unthinkable when I graduated from Colby. The model was very different. It was one, pretty much one career, maybe two. You could be a lawyer and a doctor; I knew some people in law school who were going to be lawyers and doctors, but they were kind of considered on the periphery. They were out there. We thought maybe it was like being bisexual; they didn’t know really, they were one or the other but they just didn’t know which one yet.
Your chances of staying with the same company, much less the same career, are practically nil at this point. So you may jump from public to private, from profit to nonprofit, from, as someone I know did, finance to fine arts. I know someone who made a killing in the stock market boom and then retired at age 32 to take a job in philanthropy. The best student in my law school class was a legislator in the Massachusetts State House who thought he needed a legal degree to serve his constituency better. His name was Barney Frank. He did okay with that.
Of course there will always be people who blow straight through life on the same trajectory from birth to death: doctors, scientists, scholars, some of them up here today, and it would be easy to envy their certainty, I know now in your moment of uncertainty, with their prescribed paths and seemingly settled futures. And there is no doubt that that kind of singleness of purpose has created some of the great achievements of human history.
A lot of my law school classmates, however, had the same kind of beeline career. They raced through high school and college as if they were shot out of a cannon, a cannon pointed straight at a secure partnership and a prominent law firm, and after 30 years of tax law, they decided that maybe that cannon had not been pointed properly. So there are pluses and minuses to knowing exactly what you want from the beginning and following it straight through to the end. So in this world of fluid careers and frequent self-reinvention, it seems that, really, serendipity is the new security, and again I wish you’d been here last night for these wonderful stories and testimonials by the honorees today, because if there was one common theme to each of their little talks, it was serendipity and how important a role it played in their careers. A particular person, a particular professor, a particular moment, a particular experience, and that was their aha moment, when they thought, that’s what I want to do, that’s what I want to be, that’s the path I want to follow. So I’m partly here to be a spokesperson for serendipity. My life is really a study in serendipity.
I applied to law school to please my father, something I’m sure none of you are aware of, a motivation you would never be familiar with. He was so tired of me frittering away my wage-earning years with the suspiciously named liberal arts. It didn’t help that after I graduated I took a year off on a Watson Fellowship. A Watson Fellowship is basically a grant for you to travel for a year, anywhere in the world you want to travel, and you do some studying, but you construct your own studying. It’s like a year-long Jan Plan essentially. I understand that you call it “woofing.” I heard that term. I did that and had a great time. It was in music, of all things. I was an English major at Colby. I took a Watson in music, Renaissance and medieval music. Don’t ask. Just a flyer. Eventually I came back to earth, but I hadn’t been at the law school—Harvard Law School—very long when something happened that knocked me sideways again, something completely out of left field, something that I did not expect, one of those things that crashes into your life every now and then and changes everything completely. I met Steve Naifeh. Steve Naifeh was the son of American diplomats and spent most of his childhood in the exotic Middle East, which for me, who grew up in the flatlands of Ohio, seemed like another universe. He had come to Harvard Law School for the same reason I had. He was a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton and he could get in. And, and here is the serendipity part, he was writing a book. He already had a contract with a New York publisher with a friend of his, but the friend dropped out and he needed somebody to finish the project with him, so he asked me if I would do that, and I said, “Sure, why not?” It was just, again, serendipity. I’d been writing essays and stories since I was a child, so I thought, what could be so hard? It’s a book. It’s just a long term paper. That book, which was published the year we graduated from law school, was the first of 16 books that Steve and I have written together so far. It also marked the start of a professional partnership and a life partnership that has endured and flourished for almost 40 years.
Then came another bolt out of the blue. In the early ‘80s I was 34, yes, 34. I went to the doctor because of some persistent headaches. A few days later at the Mayo Clinic, I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given six months to live. Around that same time, a friend who did not know of my diagnosis was looking at a list of Steve’s and my books and said, “Now tell me, which of these would you want thrown on your coffin as it’s lowered into the grave?” And I know he meant it constructively, but it hit me a little harder than I think he imagined. Four years later, Steve and I finished our biography of Jackson Pollock, the first really serious book we did. I’ll get to the exercise books and the sex manual later. Among the books we wrote to make ends meet while we finished Pollock was a book on lawyer-client relationships. We had law degrees; we thought, well, let’s use them and see if we can sell a book, and we did. The Pollock book paid about—we figured it out, about 11 cents an hour. That’s what we earned for the Pollock book. That was better than Peace Corps wages but not much. It took eight years to write. Our editor on this law book suggested that we add an appendix to that book, which would be a list of best good lawyers in various cities around the country. We said, “Well, sure we can do that, how hard could it be?” Well, that casual suggestion turned into a biennial directory, an online database, a business that has 50 employees, offices in multiple cities, and a presence in 70 countries. And this is true. It’s all in an industry that now has a thousand competitors. So serendipity works in strange and wondrous ways.
The point of all this is that life is full of surprises. It’s full of unexpected turns and reversals and setbacks and sidesteps and recoveries and magical interventions, good and bad, and serendipitous encounters, serendipitous suggestions, serendipitous acquaintances. This is one of the central facts of life for everybody, but I think for your class, for your generation, it is especially true, and apparently it’s going to get truer.
Of course you also face special challenges. I don’t want to gloss that over. It would be the irresponsible commencement speaker who didn’t make allusion to something that you already all know well, and that is the economy is slow, shall we say, the job market is what they call sluggish. I think it’s a terrible word; it makes it sound like somebody’s just having a bad moment. I think it’s a word invented by people who don’t really know how soul-numbing it can be to be unemployed or to be underemployed. It’s not just the continued precariousness of the economy. It’s also the prospect of more earthquakes to come and the creeping suspicion that the whole system might be fundamentally flawed in ways that are unfixable.
Now it’s true that the same technology has given you tools to meet the new challenges. Primarily you have this fabulous new resource called social networking. You can search the job markets from coast to coast without leaving your desk or your phone. You can cast vast nets of friendship, organize flash mobs, spontaneous parties, pop-up restaurants. You can mobilize movements, embarrass politicians, galvanize public opinion. Almost anything you do, you think, or you believe, you can share it with almost anyone in the world and do all that without taking your thumbs out of your pockets. You also have virtually unlimited access to information. Now that sounds like a great thing, and it is a great thing. The Internet makes it possible to access pretty much all of the world’s knowledge at any one moment and eavesdrop on a lot of its pitfalls and foibles. These are great new tools, there’s no question about it, but they come with their own risks and their own challenges.
As a part of preparing this bicentennial commencement speech, I looked back at previous commencement speeches, at the sesquicentennial and the centennial. President, Arthur J. Roberts, said, and this was in the middle of the stock market crash, right in 1929, right when the stock market crashed, which really kicked off the Great Depression, he reminded his graduating students that year, “New occasions teach new duties.” Paradoxically, a world of modern conveniences and interconnectedness will require more of you than the world required of us—better judgment, more willpower, more initiative, more focus, more discernment. It will be easier and easier to coast, to float along on the mosh pit of information and commentary and feedback and the endless possibilities available on Google or Facebook.
But do you really want the whole world at your fingertips? Do you really want to be at the fingertips of the whole world? In a virtual world of endless possibility, will the real world, with its inherent limits, burdensome rules, wounding disappointments, and tangible consequences, become less attractive? In an era of endless conductivity, I also worry about the difficulty of disconnecting, of unplugging from the world and just thinking. Being alone with yourself. Would Einstein have done his famous thought experiment about the speed of light, about riding on a light beam, if he could have been updating his Facebook page? Frankly, I also worry about the self-centeredness that lies contrarily at the heart of social networking. Andy Warhol, an artist who made narcissism into an art form, said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. That’s the dark side of social networking. It is the culminating expression of a culture of celebrity, a culture of “me.” It offers to satisfy the craving for celebrity, for fame, or at least attention, or conspicuity of everyone at once, even if it’s only for 15 seconds, not 15 minutes. Life becomes a series of such moments of attention, and the winner is the one who has accumulated the most points, the most friends on Facebook, the most followers on Twitter, the most readers of a blog, the most hits on a YouTube video. The soullessness of these kinds of connections I think becomes only more apparent and less satisfying as they multiply.
Finally, this whole process of finding oneself and each other online plays out under the prying eyes of corporate America and the denizens of the Internet deep, always looking for consumers of whom they can make a tasty meal. And who knows if the government ever really backed away from its ambition to record every thought and every desire you ever committed to the Internet. Even without the will to exercise it, it’s a scary power to contemplate, and that’s the world you will grow up in. The Internet may be the single most important technological advance within your lifetimes, but it poses risks, too. Information overload can obstruct learning, which is all about organizing experience and seeing old things in new lights. The very open nature of the Internet puts huge demands on the user. Determining what is true and what is junk, literally, in the hail of daily messages, distinguishing honest opinion from paid opinion, can require the ratiocinative abilities of a Sherlock Holmes.
As a writer, I worry especially about the effects of the new technology on the attention span of readers. I’m sure you’ve heard this before. It has made communication easier and more frequent, re-associated everybody with the QWERTY keyboard, and no doubt has made communication easier and more frequent but also hastier and more ephemeral. Why bother to say it well? Why bother to find the mot juste if everything you put down is going to disappear into the ether? Spelling is far too burdensome when your thumbs are doing the talking. Sentences shrink. As communications miniaturize, attention spans shrivel. E-mails are the new essays, thus the old-fashioned and boring. Blogs are the new books, and books have been pushed off into an amorphous category called ‘long form,’ a term I had never heard before and has never been necessary before. And of course I have the question: Where does that leave thousand-page biographies? If shortened attention spans close the door to complex ideas and long stories, that becomes a threat to my profession. If people become impatient and frustrated with detailed information, in-depth reporting, and thoughtful analysis, that’s a public hazard in a democracy that already privileges the literate class and depends on their diligent attention for its survival.
So to sum up, these new technological tools are capable of amazing things, and your generation has already achieved some amazing things using them. For criminy’s sake, you helped elect a president, and let’s not kid ourselves, if it hadn’t been for you and your mobilizing ability and your willingness to get out there, and your youth, and your energy, I don’t think Barack Obama would have won either of the last two terms. And thanks to all of those things, he did, and we are all grateful to you for that. But to use these tools effectively, to control them and not be controlled by them, you need to exercise good judgment and discernment, that is, to think critically. You need to distinguish fact from falsehood, opinion from persuasion. You need to recognize fakery and reward merit. You need to be able to tell the cheap from the worthy, to see the difference between truth and what Stephen Colbert so rightly calls truthiness. You have to develop thoughtfulness, patience, and close attention. You have to embrace curiosity and open-mindedness and always keep a healthy dose of skepticism at the side. You have to practice sensitivity to others and always treat respectfully the people with whom you disagree, even on Amazon reviews. And you have to develop a secure sense of who you are. Now, if those things sound familiar, they should. Those are the things that you’ve been learning for the last four years. Those are the things that Colby promised you you would learn at a liberal arts college, and if you’ve been paying attention those are the things you have learned at a liberal arts college.
Let me read to you from an official statement of Colby College and its educational philosophy in 1974: “Colby is concerned with the ideas and values as they are inherited from the past and as they are perceived in the present and as they may be developed in the future. A sense of breadth of human knowledge is fundamental to the liberal arts. The College seeks to develop the critical and intellectual faculties by which students may discriminate among ideas, may evaluate their heritage, and may achieve intellectual and personal integrity. The College is also concerned with the development of creativity, for to create is to learn how to deal with the environment actively and open-mindedly with sensitivity and confidence.”
That’s not too shabby. I thought it was pretty good for something written in the ’70s. By officials. I graduated in 1973, exactly 40 years ago, and it was the middle of the Vietnam era, and the counterculture, and Roberts Commons was a commune. Roberts Union, which was the first coed dorm. It was the experiment in coed living that everybody thought was going to send us all to hell, and we survived that. When I found this as I was digging through the archives, I thought, “Well that actually still really encapsulates what a liberal arts education is all about.”
Yet the liberal arts have been under siege lately, as I’m sure you’re aware, dismissed as a relic of an earlier era, a sort of prehistoric 20th-century notion, even 19th-century notion. In tough economic times, they are derided as irrelevant, a luxury whose benefits are untrackable and, God forbid, unquantifiable, and in any event they don’t help people with the problems they face in real life and the uncertainty they face in the future.
Well, I’m here to say that’s crazy talk. This may be the first time that the term “crazy talk” has appeared in a commencement address. We need more liberal arts, not less. “We” meaning we adults, we, the last generation, the world, needs more liberal arts, not less. If this sounds like the ringing defense of liberal arts, I don’t mean to sound defensive, but it is a ringing defense. We LA types have remained too quiet for too long in defense of our long and distinguished tradition. I for one am sick of those people who beat up on the liberal arts. Is it liberal to be curious about the world and about yourself? Is it liberal to respect those who differ from you? Is it liberal to have a sense of inquiry? A delight in discovery? Is it liberal to have a skepticism of authority? To remain vigilant against the abuses of power that power seeks as inevitably as water seeks the sea? Is it liberal to have a respect for history and to see the enduring in the merely passing? Is it liberal to believe in education as ultimately the only path upward? Is it liberal to have an appreciation for excellence in all its expressions, in sports as well as in scholarship, in skill as well as in science? Is it liberal to have respect for the subtleties of the human psyche, the complexities of human relations, or the vulnerability of human desires? Is it liberal to share a generous respect for facts with a special admiration reserved for scientific inquiry, the most fact-based expression of human aspiration? Is it liberal to have a reverence for human potential but also a sensitivity to human frailty? Is it liberal to have an appreciation for the fine arts, the innermost expression of human aspiration? Is it liberal to acknowledge the infinite in whatever form we find it? Is it liberal to be brave in thought but thoughtful in action? Is it liberal to have a sense of shared responsibility in giving back to our communities and respecting the small planet that we all share?
Indeed these are values enshrined in the liberal arts, and I for one am proud to claim them. And we do not need less of these liberal arts, we need more of them. If anything, we suffer from a shortage of them. Do you honestly think the financial system would have collapsed if our institutions were guided by people who really absorbed the liberal art values of intellectual honesty and empathy for the suffering of others? The liberal arts are our bulwark against the resurgent tide of ignorance, extremism, and sectarianism in our country and in the world as well as the rising tide of fear and hopelessness. America is a country founded in the spirit of liberality by founders steeped in the liberal arts. They envisioned a place where people could practice the religion of their choice or none at all, where citizens could write and speak freely.
Colby is a college founded in the spirit of liberality, a place where people of differing persuasions could learn together in dignity and mutual respect. It was founded, as you know, as a Baptist institution, but it was a breakoff branch of the Baptist church, and the Baptist church was a breakoff branch of the Protestant church, and the Protestant church was a breakoff branch of the Catholic church, et cetera, et cetera. All of these people were looking for more liberal environments in which they could practice their ideas, preach their ideas, believe their ideas, disseminate their ideas, and have their ideas tolerated by others.
So the liberal arts is not just a cozy study of the cozy past. It is the crowd-sourced wisdom of countless generations that came before you, including mine, the Baby Boomers, about which you must be sick of hearing. I’m not proud of everything my generation contributed to this worldwide commons. Your generation will make its own contribution to the ongoing project of the liberal arts, and from what I understand you have already made a downpayment on your contribution. You’ve had your own Arab Spring right here in Waterville. Think of the liberal arts as a cloud. The cloud represents the collective wisdom of all these generations of people who have faced exactly the same problems and dilemmas that you’re facing right now. Each successive generation inherits the cloud, enters it, learns from it, but also adds to it and reshapes it. Think of each generation as a software upgrade. (I’m trying hard to make this accessible.) That’s the task ahead. That’s what your liberal arts education calls on you to do: to upgrade the past, to absorb the tradition, then make it your own.
Before the 19th century, the cloud didn’t respect women’s rights or aboriginal rights. Before the 20th century, the cloud didn’t respect minority rights or care about income inequality. They wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. I hear there’s a movement to reclaim Colby. Well, you don’t just need to reclaim Colby. Now you’re going out into the world. You need to reclaim the liberal arts. You need to reclaim the world for the liberal arts, and in so doing reclaim the future. With the new technologies you have available to you, you have already bent that curve. As I said before, you’ve elected a president, and I will say now, with your activism and your thousands of acts of individual emotional bravery, and your example of tolerance and mutual respect, the LGBT movement would never have made the advances it has over the course of my lifetime. Because of you I can marry the man I have worked with and loved for almost 40 years. And I thank you for that.
This brings me to my last point, and I’m glad we’re not outside on a cold and windy day. And of course we still need the liberal arts to answer the oldest questions, the ones that never go away, that I’m sure you’re all asking at some level or will ask soon: Who am I? Why am I here? How do I want to spend the limited time I have on this planet? How can I make a living doing it? How can I make a contribution doing it? How can I make a life doing it? What will make me happy? Most importantly, how do I find the right person to share my life with, someone to halve my troubles and double my pleasures, someone I can see every day and the day after that and the day after that and every day for the rest of my life, and still look forward to the next day? Those are questions that no algorithm can answer for you. If you answer those questions correctly, and the liberal arts have helped you do that, I promise you, you can make the life you want. So congratulation to the Class of 2013, the bicentennial class, and thank you all very much.