Commencement, Spring 2008

Friday, May 2, 2008

For all that you may have learned during the pursuit of your degrees at UNF, I am of the opinion that you arrived here at the start of your UNF academic careers with two essential characteristics to your credit more important than anything that your professors, no matter how inspiring, could instill in you. Every one of you about to graduate brought with you a strong imagination and an active curiosity. I am certain that I am correct, because had you not imagined the possibilities that would open up to you upon the completion of your degrees I doubt you would have embarked upon them in the first place; and had you not brought curiosity to bear upon your subjects of study I sincerely doubt that you could have convinced your professors that you were meeting their requirements in even a minimally satisfactory way.

I hasten to add, however, that I do not regard what you acquired at UNF as merely ancillary to these essential talents. Imagination and curiosity in themselves do not provide a sufficient basis for intellectual advancement. Imagination, left to its own devices, can lead us to indulge in merely idle fantasies. Similarly, curiosity is a faculty that easily can be misdirected into areas where it provides answers to trivial questions to which no one is seeking the answers.

Purposely directed, however, there are no faculties more critical to learning than a cultivated imagination and a disciplined curiosity. A cultivated imagination, or what the great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye referred to as an “educated imagination,” provides us with the ability to construct “possible models of human experience.” “In the world of imagination,” writes Frye, “anything goes that’s imaginatively possible, but nothing really happens. If it did happen, it would move out of the world of imagination into the world of action.” A focused curiosity is a necessary complement to an educated imagination because it is curiosity which reveals to us in the first place that our understanding of the world of action—based upon taken-for granted assumptions—is not sacrosanct. Inherently irreverent, curiosity reveals that what we take for truth just might not be; and boundlessly inventive, imagination leads us to construct possible alternatives.

Curiosity and imagination together are surely the driving forces behind literature, that body of language that, through transporting us to places we never have been and to experiences we will never have, enables us to achieve some greater insight into the circumstances not only of our own existence but of humanity generally. That is why literature and the other arts must continue to occupy a place of importance within the university curriculum. But curiosity and imagination are just as important to the sciences—think, for instance, of Einstein’s rejection of the seemingly inviolable laws of nature that governed scientific understanding at the start of the last century and the famous thought experiments he engaged in by way of exploring intellectually what was impossible to explore physically. In fact, there is no field of study whose advancement does not depend upon the trained curiosity and imagination of its practitioners. Indeed, I will go even further and say that the more practical or applied a field may be the more vital it is for the world of the actual to be measured against the world of the possible for that way, and that way only, lies progress.

This is the third commencement at which I have had the honor of offering some perspective on the significance of a university education, and each time I have been led to the same inevitable conclusion: UNF does indeed stand for “You Never Finish.” You have proven yourselves to be purposeful skeptics and deliberate dreamers. Your education now requires of you that you carry your doubt and your creativity into the future in order to make that future better than the past you are about to leave behind.

Congratulations and good luck.