Commencement, Spring 2010

Friday, April 30, 2010

As chief academic officer I have the honor, on behalf of my faculty colleagues, to be the professor who offers some final words of wisdom. So I have tried to choose my words carefully.

This past semester I had the great pleasure of reading, with a group of twelve very courageous students, one of the most famous modern novels, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. What required courage on the part of the students was that this novel is approximately 4,500 pages in length. You will be pleased to know that I do not intend to present an extended analysis of this novel. Instead, I would like to focus for a moment on just one passage in which Proust imparts a critical piece of wisdom to his readers.

“The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth,” Proust advises, “would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees.” It is only in this way, according to Proust, that “we do really fly from star to star.”

What Proust captures in this passage, it seems to me, is at least two points relevant to the event that we are here to celebrate today: the first is the virtue of a university education, and the second is the responsibility that this education entails for those who have been its beneficiaries.

With regard to the first point, what Proust’s comment addresses is at the very heart of a university education. As I trust our graduates will attest, throughout your careers at UNF you had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with a learned and passionate faculty who presented you with different competencies and different, and at times even contrary, points of view. If our common goal is to better understand and to improve upon the place of human beings in the complex world of the 21st century, then surely that complexity requires a multiplicity of views in order to do full justice to the protean and enigmatic nature of human existence. One of the strengths of a first-rate university—and thus one of the strengths of UNF—is the diversity of knowledge possessed by its faculty and now shared in and contributed to by our graduates. My hope is that when you look back upon your experience at UNF as alumni you will say that it provided you with the opportunity, metaphorically speaking, to “fly from star to star.”

As to the second point, I exhort our graduates to recognize that the knowledge you now possess is not an end in itself. While I hope you will always regard yourselves as students of the world, the time has come to regard yourselves also as citizens of the world. Many more than half of the residents of our region do not possess the degrees that you are about to obtain. These degrees, therefore, are not just a recognition of your achievement; they also constitute an obligation to help others experience the same voyage that you have undertaken. Just as it has enabled you to see beyond the moment and to reach beyond your current circumstances, I would hope that you now feel both empowered and compelled to help others to see and to make a better world for themselves.

If my distillation of four and a half thousand pages into four and a half minutes has not sufficed to make Proust’s point sufficiently clear, then let me put it in terms that I am sure you will understand. When Proust, thinking like the true Osprey that he was, refers to bathing in the fountain of youth, what he really means is that when it comes to one’s own education and to the responsibilities that one incurs by acquiring that education, You Never Finish. On the contrary, Proust would say, you really have just begun.

Congratulations and good luck.