Commencement, Fall 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Mark E. Workman, Provost
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It is my honor, as chief academic officer of the university and on behalf of my faculty colleagues, to impart some final words of wisdom to you, our graduates, in the few moments that we have left in which we can still treat you like a captive audience.
The words of wisdom I would like to share with you actually are not my own. Rather, they come from one of the great works of modern literature, The Man Without Qualities, by the Austrian writer Robert Musil. While the hero of that novel maintains an ironic detachment from the other characters who inhabit his universe, he is not ambivalent about the acquisition of knowledge. Nor could he be, according to Musil. For while he might electively isolate himself from other human beings, he cannot restrain his own relentless desire for greater understanding. “Knowledge is an attitude, a passion,” writes Musil. “It is not at all true that the scientist goes out after truth. It is out after him. It is something he suffers from.”
The acquisition of your degrees might seem to signal that you have been officially cured of the disease from which Musil’s hero suffers. If that is what you believe then I am sorry to say that I am the bearer of bad news. As students who have acquired considerable general and discipline-specific knowledge I trust that what you all have learned is that your knowledge is incomplete. There is no field of study which is finite, no field in which an answer does not serve as prelude to the next question. You have acquired a sickness for which there is no remedy, but there is a source of relief: it is, quite simply, more learning.
It might help you to better appreciate Musil’s point if, instead of thinking of the quest for truth as something from which you suffer you think of it instead as a fortunate form of obsessive love. I think this is the point that Musil’s contemporary Marcel Proust was making when he observed, in his own monumental novel In Search of Lost Time, that “love is time and space made palpable to the heart.” What I think Proust means is that, the more we love someone the more we realize that the object
of our love will always lie just beyond our insatiable desire to comprehend or possess it completely because he or she will never be fully known to us. And that, I hasten to add, is a good thing, because if someone can be known fully then I think it would be reasonable to conclude that the person we have chosen to love is remarkably limited and, having fathomed that person’s shallow depths, we would soon grow bored.
The same is true, I believe, for the objects of our intellectual interest. For as many years as my colleagues have devoted themselves to their particular areas of inquiry my guess is that they would not claim to have obtained mastery of their fields. On the contrary, their expertise is affirmed precisely to the extent that it opens new worlds for them and others to explore. It is for this reason, to quote from the novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, yet another contemporary of Musil and Proust, that “the lover is more divine than the beloved,” because it is the lover who constantly strives to find truth, to find beauty, to find perfection, whereas the beloved, the object of this passion, can remain indifferent or even oblivious to the fact that he, she, or it is even an object of desire in the first place.
Musil, Proust, and Mann all were born in the nineteenth century and wrote their major works in the early part of the twentieth. They all died long before the founding of the University of North Florida. Yet if each of them had been asked what he thought about the pursuit of knowledge I am certain that each of them would have declared—with a wink—that learning is a process that “UNF”: that is, that you never finish. So let this last lesson prior to graduation serve as an exhortation not to revel in what you have learned already but to seek to learn what you don’t yet know.
Congratulations and good luck.