Commencement, Fall 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

Good afternoon, members of our fall, 2008 graduating class. I have the privilege, on behalf of my faculty colleagues, to offer you a few final words of professorial advice before you leave UNF for whatever lies beyond. At previous commencement ceremonies I have drawn inspiration for my remarks from a number of the world’s greatest poets, including Homer, Virgil, Dante, and John Donne. Today I would like to draw upon a contemporary American poet whom I know to be a favorite of President Delaney. While there is no doubt that the wisdom of the venerable poets I have just cited continues to have relevance to our current circumstances, it is equally the case that some of Bob Dylan’s most memorable lines also have an uncanny bearing on the world you are about to enter as UNF graduates.

Dylan wrote some of his most resonant lyrics in the 60s, that tumultuous decade during which I attended college. A most unpopular and controversial war was raging, and there was a bitter dispute being carried out between left wing Democrats and right wing Republicans about whether or how to bring that war to closure. The American electorate—of which, as an 18-year old deemed to be sufficiently mature to be drafted but not yet sufficiently mature to vote, I was not a member—was highly mobilized, and regardless of where one stood along that divide, everyone had a palpable sense of the political and societal changes that were in the air. Early on in that decade, it was Dylan who observed, with a prescience perhaps even he himself could not have anticipated, that “the times, they are a-changin’.”

It is the fashion at graduation ceremonies to alert the graduating class to the challenges they will face and to responsibilities they will bear upon leaving behind the tranquility of the academy for the unruliness of the world they are about to enter into. If unruliness was the prevailing mood of the times 45 years ago when Dylan released his third album which contained what came to be regarded as his anthem of the age, it is if anything more so the case today. The world seems to be on the vertiginous brink not just of precipitous change but of utter revolution. The United States of America, preeminent among the world’s nations for so long, now shares the international stage with other countries, both old world and emergent, that are vying for positions of economic and social leadership. The economy is in turmoil. Conflicts, some deadly and others which easily could become so, exist or threaten to erupt in every corner of the world.

In light of what to many of us is an amazing and shocking confluence of events, the clichés which characterize most commencement remarks now have been given renewed meaning and real urgency. The times truly are “a-changin,” and as a result
the world is profoundly in need of new vision, new leadership, a generosity of human spirit founded upon both broad and deep knowledge of world cultures whose values and beliefs do not always coincide, an awareness of the global implications of local action, and perhaps above all, a commitment to make the world better for everyone even at the expense of making it better for oneself.

I can only hope at this point that your UNF education has helped to prepare you for the crucial roles this city, this country, and this world need you to play if we are to work through what must realistically be identified as a real crisis in the world order so that collectively we might achieve a new world of greater peace, greater equity, greater understanding, and greater hope and dignity for all.

I hasten to add that if you think that, as a result of acquiring your degrees, you now know the answers to the issues that confront us and that could well result in a new social, economic, and political paradigm then your certainty belies our best intentions. Instead, my hope is that you are leaving UNF not with answers but with the critical ability to make discerning judgments about and to provide innovative solutions to conditions that will evolve—or devolve—almost as quickly as you are able to grasp them and to which predetermined answers and conventional responses almost always will prove to be anachronistic and wrong. Permit me to suggest to you, as a final piece of professorial guidance, that you repeat to yourselves occasionally a line from
another of Bob Dylan’s songs, “My Back Pages,” also written in 1964. Even that early in his career Dylan already understood, despite the worshipful attitude of his fans, that absolutism obscured rather than clarified the truth. “Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow,” Dylan sang . But he was wise enough even then to catch himself: “Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

In sum, UNF graduates of 2008, I will distill my message into three phrases: one, the times they are a-changin; two, strive to supersede your own intellectual convictions; and three, if you are successful in doing so then I am confident that you will remain, to quote Bob Dylan one more time, “forever young.” And for those of you who, unlike President Delaney, are not Bob Dylan fans, or if these three phrases escape your memory, then let me just remind you of, and perhaps put a new spin upon, a phrase that I trust you never will forget: when it comes to what you know versus what you have yet to learn in order to be the kind of resourceful citizens that the world so desperately requires you to be, always remember with pride and with purpose the mantra that UNF means “you never finish.”

Congratulations and good luck.