Jack Cella, Former General Manager of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, Chicago Commencement 2014
Good Afternoon, and congratulations.
I’ve spent most of my life selling books—very good books, lots of primary sources—a few miles south of here at the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park. Many of my customers and friends over the years have had a Shimer connection, either as a student, faculty member, staff member, or alum. I feel very privileged to be with you today and to be able to play a small part in the celebration of your graduation.
Shimer comes up in conversations with bookstore customers with great regularity, often when the customers are talking about their time at Shimer, or their child’s time, or a friend’s time. Media references seem pretty constant as well. The New York Times profiled Susan Henking late last summer in its “The Boss” column, and just the other day profiled a 2009 grad (Rubina Isaac) in its “Vocations” column. It is striking the way The Times looks to Shimer when it wants to write about extraordinary bosses or exceptional employees. This is a mighty small college, but its reputation (and that of its graduates) is way out of proportion to that small size.
The constant cliche about a liberal arts education is that it teaches you how to think, and, like most cliches, there is some truth in that. But really, you folks must have known something about thinking and its possibilities or you wouldn’t have chosen to come to Shimer in the first place.
Shimer is not shy about providing content to your thought, directing you to books of lasting value, and to important ideas in them that should be thought about.
You graduates now genuinely represent the hope the rest of us have for the future. If Shimer has prepared you for a life of responsible citizenship, for living the examined life, for continuing to educate yourself throughout your life, then not only you but also the world we live in will be the better for it.
Thomas Friedman has written two op-ed columns recently about what a specific employer (Google) looks for in employees. Those columns have certainly gone viral in this season of graduations, but I’d like to talk about them a little anyway, as the traits Google’s hiring manager mentioned seemed both valuable for any employer and also a good description of skills a Shimer grad has.
I’m going to paraphrase here. The first thing Google looks for is “grit,” the ability to stick to something and work hard. I don’t think you would have come to Shimer if that wasn’t part of your makeup, and I’m almost certain you wouldn’t be graduating.
Next, general cognitive ability, the ability to solve problems, to think in a logical way. Could you survive in your intense discussions here without logical arguments?
Next, they want holistic thinkers who have the background to see connections. Sounds just like Shimer.
And lastly, leadership ability, but with a difference. Leadership that allows you, when dealing with an issue or problem in a group, both to take a leadership role when appropriate and to step back, listen, and allow others to lead when appropriate. That has Shimer written all over it.
I think most of my education throughout life has come from discussions with an unending stream of stimulating, diverse customers at the Seminary Co-op. My customers have given me many, many, reading suggestions (certainly more than I’ve given them!) and they have forced me to think about new topics, or old ones in new ways.
If you live long enough, you end up having read a lot of books. As Shimerians, you have a great head start on that front. For me, that reading, on wildly differing subjects (an occupational hazard of life in a bookstore, especially one with many customers write books), brings home vividly almost every day, two things.
First, reading a lot makes one realize how little one has read or knows. And, following from that, there is a lot more that one can, and should, read and think about.You all have some great reading still in front of you.
Given that, as I said, my real education has come from my customers, and also that commencement speakers should try to give sage advice, I’d like to profile a few of those customers who were also friends, and then draw some lessons from their lives that I hope are appropriate for this occasion.
First, someone relatively famous, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Chandra for short. He was born in 1910 in Lahore, at that time part of India, attended Presidency College in Madras, graduating with a degree in physics in 1930. That same year he went to Cambridge on a Government of India scholarship to pursue a PhD in astrophysics.
Chandra was interested then in stellar structure, and was working on the final state of collapsing stars, specifically white dwarfs. He spent his time on the boat, traveling between India and England in 1930, calculating the maximum mass for a stable white dwarf star, using in part the calculations published by an astronomer at Cambridge, Sir Arthur Eddington, probably the greatest British astronomer of his age. Chandra realized, at age 20, that Eddington had not taken sufficient account of relativity in his calculations. When Chandra revised the equations to include relativity he found that above a certain limit (a mass greater than 1.44 times the mass of our sun, what came to be called the Chandrasekhar limit) the equations had no solution, implying that stars above a certain mass would continue to collapse.
In January 1935, Chandra presented his theory of white dwarf stars in a lecture at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was aware of the profound challenges his results presented to those interested in stellar evolution.
The aforementioned Sir Arthur Eddington was in attendance, and responded immediately after the lecture, belittling it, and cavalierly dismissing it, implying Chandra had made fundamental errors.
Chandra didn’t back down, but there was now no future for him at Cambridge as his colleagues almost universally bowed to Eddington’s judgement. Luckily for us, he was offered a job in 1936 at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, operated by the University of Chicago, with an appointment made directly by Robert Maynard Hutchins—a name with some resonance here. Hutchins had to intervene and make the job offer himself (as research associate and assistant professor) because both the Dean of the Physical Sciences at Chicago and the head of the math department refused to offer a faculty job to someone who was “Indian and black.” Hutchins wrote a very good, short letter to both administrators, indicating his displeasure and taking the matter into his own hands.
Chandra eventually won the Nobel Prize (in 1983) for that discovery of the Chandrasekhar limit, work that led ultimately to the physics of black holes. Hutchins said on a couple of occasions that the best thing he ever did for Chicago was to hire Chandra. At least two Shimer graduates received their PhDs in astrophysics under Chandra’s direction.
Chandra was a very regular customer of the Co-op from the early seventies until his death in 1995. I could never predict what he would buy or ask about when he came in, but he loved reading, and enjoyed talking about what he was reading, and also enjoyed talking about what he was working on.
His practice was to work on a topic in astrophysics for about ten years, and then write the definitive book about the topic toward the end of the ten year span. His last book was entitled “Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader,” in which Chandra analyzed about 150 propositions leading to Newton’s universal law of gravitation. The book was a comprehensive analysis of the Principia without recourse to secondary sources.
Doesn’t that sound like Shimer!
I remember one morning specifically during the years Chandra was working on his Newton book. He came into the store soon after we opened, and said how, when he was at his desk reading the Principia, he knew he was in the presence of greatness.
When Chandra died his widow Lalitha sprinkled his ashes at about a half-dozen places that were important in his life. One of them was the bookstore, and she spread some ashes on the lawn in front.
My second customer for today is George Anastaplo, who died last February. He was the son of Greek immigrants, born in Carterville, IL in 1925. George was the author of many books and hundreds of essays. He got his BA, law degree, and PHD at Chicago, after serving in the Army Air Corps in WWII. He taught for almost 60 years in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, a sort of Shimer for older adults.
George had graduated first in his class from the law school, but was not admitted to the Illinois Bar because he denied the bar examiners’ right to ask about his political and religious beliefs as a condition of admittance to the practice of law. His appeal challenging that denial—In Re Anastaplo—went all the way to the Supreme Court, where George argued the case himself (remember, by Illinois standards he wasn’t a lawyer). He did loose in a 5 to 4 decision, but Justice Hugo Black wrote a famous dissent in which he scolded his colleagues, saying that “we must not be afraid to be free.”
George came into the bookstore two or three times a week for decades, and shaped the place in many ways by his suggestions. They were usually prefaced by an innocent sounding question of the sort, “What do you have by…?”, or “What do you have about…?”, or “Have you ever thought about…?”. That last question was a subtle one, and the subsequent conversations usually showed that whatever thought I may have had was seldom, if ever, adequate. George was an amazing teacher.
Both Chandra and George led fulfilling, productive lives, by working hard and remaining true to their convictions in the face of enormous, enormous pressures. There is my first lesson for today!
Their lives, like those of so many others, also led in unexpected directions. For Chandra, Lahore to Madras to Cambridge to Williams Bay Wisconsin must have seemed an unlikely path in the 1930s. For George, a law degree with honors but with no ability to practice law and have the income from it, certainly made for some very challenging years. Chandra was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century and George influenced many through his writing and teaching and his lifelong demand that people live up to his high standards, in thinking, acting, and in caring for one another.
There is the second lesson for today: their lives teach us that we must be ready to deal with the unexpected, that life doesn’t come with guarantees.
My last customer is a family that has been coming into the co-op for years. The father was born in Sierra Leone, got his medical degree in Berlin, and now practices on the south side of Chicago—another one of those unpredictable paths in life. His three children are all now out of college—I watched them all grow up in the bookstore. One son is pursuing a graduate degree in chemistry (with Second City on the side), the other is soon to begin medical school, and the daughter is back in Chicago after graduate school in London and a year working in Malta. The children all grew up on the city’s south side, and are certainly aware of both the challenges and the pleasures of 21st century life urban life. They are different one from another, but all love books and learning and discussion and ideas, novels, poetry, science, economics, art. The four of them are among the best read, kindest, and most classically educated people I have ever met. I love being with them, and seeing them come into the bookstore individually or as a group. They should be honorary Shimerians, and I wish such a category existed—maybe someone can work on that!
Here is my third lesson for today: keep waving the Shimer flag wherever life takes you. This is a special place, with many admirers, and many more potential fans. The love of great books, serious discussion, and informed thinking is much more widespread than one might think, and you are the standard bearers for that sort of intelligent, pleasurable, examined life.
Almost every day for the past forty-five years I’ve been dealing with people in the bookstore who want to read: they want to learn; they want enjoyment; they want to solve problems scientific, societal, medical, you name it; they ultimately are driven by this overpowering desire to understand and to make things better for themselves and for the rest of us. They are teachers, students, doctors, plumbers, actors, musicians, lawyers, writers, judges, painters, electricians, rabbis, construction workers, politicians, cops, architects—I could go on and on. They are now even Presidents and First Ladies, as the Co-op has some customers in the White House!
Education is a life-long process, with thoughtful reading and action as essential parts. Please keep up the good work you’ve been doing here, and I hope it leads each of you to a fulfilling, productive life.
The Life of the Mind Requires a Body
Daniel Lakemacher ’14
I’m really honored that the faculty asked me to speak at Commencement, so please don’t take what I’m about to say as ingratitude, but I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to give a speech today. It isn’t that I don’t like public speaking; in fact, I’m one of those odd people who gets a kick out of talking in front of a crowd, but I felt hesitant, because I’ve had really mixed feelings about Shimer during my time as a student.
I haven’t ever doubted that Shimer is an amazing school filled with fascinating, intelligent, people whose character and abilities I greatly admire. But I’ve also wondered on a number of occasions whether or not I fit in here and was fulfilling the reason for which I chose to attend Shimer.
I didn’t even apply to any other colleges, and I didn’t apply to Shimer because I had to go somewhere after high school. I applied to Shimer when I was 27 years old and had a stable, rewarding (albeit low-paying), full-time job at a non-profit whose work I still passionately support.
I learned a lot in my pre-Shimer education, but for the most part, it consisted of others teaching me what to think and then testing me on how well I could regurgitate it back to them. My aptitude for this machine-like educational game served me well through high school and through the year I spent in an Evangelical Bible College after high school, and it continued to work for me through the first few years of my enlistment in the Navy after that.
But eventually I experienced some traumatic enough events to cause me to fundamentally question exactly WHAT I had been taught to think, and in the shortest synopsis I’ve ever attempted to give of a very complicated and years’ long process in my life, I stopped believing that 6,000 years ago an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent being created the earth and all its inhabitants over the course of six 24-hour-days as I had been taught, and equally important, but only indirectly related, I stopped believing that modern warfare can be morally justified.
Least to say, changing my beliefs on these two topics had dramatic consequences in my life, particularly in my relationship with the United States government since I was enlisted in the Navy at the time, but in the course of a couple years, the conflicts that resulted from these changes became part of my history as opposed to my present.
These monumental changes in belief made me want to question more and more of what I had been taught. I wanted to go back through history and trace how and why human thought had developed. I wanted to fill in the gaps between the ideas that I had either never been taught or that I had solely been exposed to for the purpose of learning why they were wrong.
This is the main reason why I came to Shimer College. I enrolled in hopes of acquiring a broad framework of human knowledge that could serve as a foundation for whatever specific areas of interest I might later want to pursue, and part of my mixed feelings about Shimer that came up when Barb asked me to speak related to me doubting whether or not I’ve achieved that goal and whether or not all this time and effort was worth it.
I recognize that some people in this room are probably shocked to hear this from me, but there are a few others of you who have heard how I’ve been very dissatisfied with my life as a Shimer student at times. Prior to Shimer, I never felt that I had the opportunity to read as much as I wanted to. Additionally, although I didn’t always know that it would be at Shimer, I’ve spent most of my adult life working toward the goal of one day attending college as a full-time student who could focus exclusively on studying.
Despite both how excited I was to attend Shimer and how hard I worked to get here. It didn’t take me long to realize that as much as I enjoy reading for hour after hour, my enjoyment starts significantly waning after about hour 5, and, with a few exceptions, reading for 8 hours in a day feels at best like a chore and at worst like forced labor.
Also, about twice as often as I would have liked, my lofty dream of gaining a broad outline of human knowledge involved reading extremely difficult to understand texts that contained ideas that, even when I felt that I marginally understood them, I was left wondering how they could possibly be relevant to my life.
At other times the texts were more comprehensible, but they were also more challenging to my personal beliefs, and all these factors combined to make me wonder if there was a point to believing anything since no matter what position I took, some author had probably very thoughtfully shown how wrong it was.
I mean this as no joke, but joining IIT’s Rock Climbing Club played a large part in saving me from a worse kind of existential depression. Part of the problem I faced was that beyond reading, I’ve always been a very physically active person, but in so wholeheartedly devoting myself to studying, I began to act as if the life of the mind existed in absence of the body.
However, on trips with the Rock Climbing Club, I left the city, and was surrounded by quiet, breathtaking scenery. Then, when 10, 50, or more than 100 feet up a sheer rock face, I was forced to use my mind in a way that intimately connected my mental and physical lives in an extremely rewarding and empowering way.
At the same time, I didn’t have to leave my books behind, and one of my favorite Shimer memories is that I read Dante’s description of climbing up the mountain representing Purgatory while perched on the top of a pillar of rock well above the desert floor of Joshua Tree National Park in California.
My experiences with the climbing club helped me arrive at what I know is a very obvious conclusion, but it was nevertheless one that I hadn’t previously accepted in any personally meaningful way. I realized that all the books, ideas, and discussions in the world are only valuable in so far as they lead me to a happier life.
With this in mind, the past year has not only been my happiest year at Shimer, but it’s been one of the happiest of my life. While also remaining a full-time Shimer student, I became Vice-President of the Rock Climbing Club and climbed in 9 different states. I competed in a collegiate cycling race and didn’t finish in last place. I led weekly group workouts at IIT’s fitness center. I went to psychotherapy and came to a greater level of self-acceptance while processing a number of difficult life events, AND, despite the most brutal Chicago winter in recent decades, I commuted year-round on my bicycle.
This is some of what I did that’s only loosely connected with Shimer, but more directly, I tutored four Shimer students in math, I participated in Assembly, I wrote a 45-page thesis of which I’m really proud, and, admittedly not this past year, but the year prior, I worked on the Dean of Students search committee that resulted in the hiring of Joseph Fitzpatrick.
Contrary to what I expected, it is these experiences that have been the most rewarding part of my time as a student, and, as much as I did OVERALL enjoy working my way through the curriculum, it is memories like these that make me the most glad I came to Shimer.
But I don’t want to sugarcoat it, honestly, the amount of time I need to spend reading and writing to feel like I’m keeping up with a full load of Shimer Core Courses is more time per day than I think I ever again want to spend reading and writing.
As I said at the beginning, I’m really honored to be giving this speech, and I’m also glad for the way that it forced me to directly face the question of whether or not I fulfilled my reason for coming to Shimer and gained that broad framework for future learning that I desired. I’ve drawn two conclusions:
- Answering that question isn’t what matters most. What matters most is that I was and am living a happier and more enriched life as a result of the combination of ALL the activities and friendships I’ve pursued during my time at Shimer.
- Yes I did. I realized this as I reviewed the process I went through in writing my thesis. In doing my research, I almost always had a basic knowledge of the historic authors and ideas that my sources referenced.
In one book, an author made an extended analogy to Jorge Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel,” and I understood what was being talked about, because we read it in Humanities 4, and in many of the sources I read for my thesis, references were repeatedly made to quantum indeterminacy, and while I won’t pretend to understand quantum mechanics, I could follow what was being said because I had enough knowledge about it from Natural Sciences 4.
These are two small examples, but they mean a lot to me, because my thesis was self-directed learning, AND Shimer had grounded me in our world’s intellectual discourse to an extent that enabled me to join in the discussion, first as a reader, and then as a writer.
We’ve all worked incredibly hard to be here today, and as many times as I’ve felt frustrated and doubted whether or not this would be true, I think we’ve achieved something far more meaningful than simply receiving a diploma.
To my classmates, “Well done,” on this accomplishment, and to the faculty, administrators, friends, and family who’ve supported us, “Thank you.”
Katherine Williams ’14
If you were to ask me, “What is one of the most valuable lessons you are taking away from your four years at Shimer College?” I could say, “the necessity of being hyper aware of and comfortable with universal paradox. However, I simply call it the principle of “and yet.”
The progression of every class I’ve had here has been built around the student learning to absorb text while curtailing initial judgments, to hold one’s certainty loosely, to argue with one ear (both ears) listening always listening to the other point of view.
If you thought you were satisfied with a particular concept or had a principle all figured out, sometimes even writing essays with your irrefutable conclusions,
then along would come the next set of readings, that would begin drilling holes in your assured foundation. (I personally found the Natural Sciences especially embarrassing in this regard.)
For, what was once so solid in every discipline: the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences, the arguments that sounded so plausible, could become weak and often wobbly when approached from a different angle. There were never any texts that could be dismissed casually. There was always another “and yet” (even if was a very small one), “and yet,” right around the corner, in the next book, “and yet,” popping up in the class discussion.
Just when you thought you understood Newton, the universe started sliding out from underneath you as Einstein warped time and space. (Who’d of thunk those two things were relative?)
Just when Plato seemed to have humanity wrapped up in a nice neat package of optimum productivity and order, Jesus came along with the Sermon on the Mount with a very different, very inefficient, set of values.
Marx’s grand human progression through large-scale social reconstruction gave way to Foucault’s idea of the internalization of power and its effect on the individual.
and yet(s) often circling us back to where we started;
and yet(s) taking us to places we hadn’t imagined.
That wonderful author Frederick Buechner said, “Evolution and genetics explain a lot about us, But [and yet] they don’t explain all about us or even the most important thing about us.”
Along this same vein, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man noted, “I agree that twice two’s four is a marvelous thing; but [and yet] to give everything its praise…. twice two’s five can also be a very nice thing.”
There have been many and yet (s) in my own life:
My father could neither read nor write
books were my closest friends as a child.
My mother, with only a high school education, three small children, and an abusive alcoholic husband had to take poor paying jobs just to feed and clothe her family
she read her children poetry, painted pictures in the living room, taught us the evils of racism and of a hundred other -isms, all while living in the deep south in the 60s.
I dropped out of high school after only completing the ninth grade, got married at seventeen, had children
decades later, in my fifties, an unsolicited brochure for Shimer College ended up in a pile of junk mail on my table. And the title, Great Books College of Chicago, turned a long-forgotten switch of maybe in my head.
There are so many fluctuating ideas and circumstances in this world that it seems that uncertainty is the only certainty we have.
and even with Professor Fernandez’s whisper in my ear to be careful of assumptions,
I find in the elastic edge of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the certainty that we, here in this room, and what we have participated in for the last four years, the certainty that we and it matter.
Matter in a way that transcends mere personal achievement or societal stability.
I am reminded of the story, you may of heard it, that the archeologist and anthropologist Loran Eiseley tells.
While staying a beach he woke up one morning to walk along the shore and he came upon a man picking up live starfish that had washed up during the night. The man was gently but deftly flinging the starfish back into the sea.
It turned out that the man did this every morning. He got up early to try and beat the shell and starfish “collectors” before they descended on the sand.
Eisley dubbed him the “Star Thrower.” The next morning, Eisley himself went to the beach early and began picking up stranded star fish and throwing them out beyond the breakers.
There was no illusion in either the Star Thrower’s or Eisley’s mind that what they were doing was going to save the Starfish Federation; their little effort would not appreciably change the overall numbers of starfish,
in valuing an organism, even one as simple as a starfish, in feeling pity for its plight, a small word, a logos of meaning, broke out where previously there had been only silence.
I have sat around a table with a lot of star throwers at Shimer. We’ve broken bread together, argued philosophy together, laughed at Rabelais together. Star throwers every one.
And yet … And yet
becoming fully human (which I equate with star throwing) is not something you graduate from.
You don’t get a diploma to put on your wall. Being human means making the decision to be a star thrower every morning; it’s a choice not a designation.
So, as you journey forth, picking up stars and throwing them as far as you can–as I know you will–you’ll surely tip the cosmic balance toward the True and the Good.
and yet … and yet
in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “The life you save may [very well] be your own.”
I think that is what these last four years have been about.
Thank you for letting me be a part of it.