Commencement, Spring 2012
Friday, April 27, 2012
It is my honor to address a few words to our graduates on behalf of my faculty colleagues, but before I do I would like to make a comment about my faculty colleagues themselves. They are in attendance here today not by requirement but by choice. They choose to attend in order to honor the students who it has been their pleasure to teach. In doing so, they affirm that “to teach” is a transitive verb. That is to say, teaching and learning are interdependent activities, and thus the acquisition of your degrees is a tribute not only to you but also to the mentors who helped you to reach this goal. So permit me to compliment both our graduates and my colleagues on what I regard as your joint success, and permit me to extend particular appreciation to those of my colleagues—Anne, Dale, Bunky, Pat, Sid, Ken—who are bringing to a close long careers of dedication to the success of the countless graduates who have preceded those whom we are here to celebrate today.
I would like to point out to our graduates that the completion of your degrees puts you into a distinct minority of United States citizens. According to the latest census data, only 30% of US citizens possess bachelor’s degrees; only 8% possess master’s degrees; and only 3% possess doctoral or advanced professional degrees. Thus, you have distinguished yourselves as people who possess critical abilities and knowledge, more specifically the ability to think both creatively and analytically, to express yourselves effectively, and to comprehend not just what is simple and familiar but also what is esoteric and exotic.
Lacking the kind of understanding that you have demonstrated, no one could fault you for being what the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short.” But precisely because you can understand difference, however strangely or unattractively it might manifest itself, the burden is on you to extend tolerance to those who lack your capacity for understanding. Nothing could be at once both more challenging and more urgent. For in a world in which differences in values, beliefs, moralities, and aesthetics too often take violent or confrontational form, it is those with the proven ability to reason who have a transcendent obligation to seek common ground. In his 1961 inaugural address, President John Kennedy observed that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” On the contrary, civility requires the utmost in resolve, self-discipline, self-knowledge, and integrity precisely because it is often needed most when engaging with those whose concepts of truth, beauty, value, and restraint are diametrically opposite one’s own.
I see many ospreys flying around the neighborhood where I live; however, I have yet to see an osprey fly backwards. You have now proven false the folk wisdom that UNF stands for “you never finish.” But it is my duty to inform you that the finish line you are about to cross is also a starting line. You have finished your degrees but are now assuming a new level of responsibility to exercise civility and tolerance especially in those situations where, but for your enlightened presence, civility and tolerance would otherwise be conspicuously absent.
Congratulations and good luck on your flights forward.