Commencement, Fall 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

As the university’s chief academic officer it is my honor to be entrusted with leaving our graduates with some parting advice. I would be most pleased if my brief remarks continue to resonate with you in the years to come.

This is an occasion on which you reasonably could expect me to say something about the daunting complexity of the world in the early 21st century and the extraordinary challenges you will face and the rewarding opportunities you will encounter when you leave UNF with your degrees in hand. While such remarks would unquestionably be highly appropriate, since they also would be precisely what you would expect to hear at your graduation ceremony there is no point in telling you what you already know.

But if that is the standard to which I presume to hold myself—that is, only telling you something that you don’t already know—then there is little I feel safe in saying, since the fact is we all know many different things and, as your degrees attest, I have no doubt that there are many things you know far better than I.

So I will restrict myself to making a comment about knowing itself, and in order to make my comment memorable I will invoke the words of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats since poets have ways of putting things that linger in one’s memory far longer than ordinary speech, and while you are not likely to come across my name in the future it is very possible that, being the avid readers I trust you are, you might well come across the name of a poet of such enduring fame as Yeats.

The lines I would like to share with you come from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” In that short but very powerful and provocative poem Yeats made what might seem like the highly contentious claim that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Now it is certain that Yeats had his own political and spiritual issues in mind when he wrote these lines, but as Yeats is long-deceased and can no longer impose his intentions upon his readers I am free to appropriate his poem for my own purpose.

And here is my purpose: it is to suggest to you, especially now that you have license to regard yourselves as well educated, that you maintain a healthy sense of skepticism, most especially about those ideas, values, concepts—in short, those truths—that you would otherwise regard as incontrovertible, beyond dispute, self-apparent, or universal. There is obvious appeal to having convictions, most especially those convictions for which we feel “passionate intensity.” But the combination of deep conviction and deep emotion too often have the dangerous consequence of barricading what one knows against the potentially destabilizing effects of dialogue or dialectic or the discovery of new facts that simply will not align with prevailing paradigms of understanding. If it is indeed the case that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” then according to Yeats truth should be regarded not as a destination at which one ends up but as the point from which one departs.

It occurred to me while writing these remarks that the first three letters of the word “unfinished” are UNF. As the receipt of your diplomas will soon signify, in one very important sense you have proven false the folk wisdom that UNF stands for “you never finish.” But in a more profound sense—in the sense implied in the lines of William Butler Yeats, who surely was an Osprey before his time, that “The best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”—I hope you will number among the best by maintaining a healthy disdain for everything that appears to go without saying. By all means do indeed seek the truth; but with equal determination never be content that you have found it.

Congratulations and good luck.