Mark Sheldon ’67, Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy and Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program, Northwestern University
My Shimer Education
It is one of the greatest honors to be asked to give the commencement address at the school from which one graduated. Thank you for this incredible honor.
Second, it is an even greater honor to be asked to give the commencement address at what is reported to be possibly the worst college in American. One of my grown adult sons sent the Guardian article to me as soon as it came out, saying, “Gee whiz, dad, look at this interesting article. Your alma mater was in the news.”
Third, Let me also say that it is very odd for me to be asked to give the commencement address at an any educational institution. I am a person who has always hated school. There may have been some good moments but not many. Eighth grade, I wrote a very graphic short story about the Battle of the Bulge, without the benefit, I have to point out, of actually being there. But the odd thing was that my teacher loved it! Looking back I think she was trying to find something to be positive about, but I believed her and kept writing and reading.
And then there were some additional high school teachers who were wonderful, one of whom wrote my letter of reference for Shimer, a school that I learned about from Time Magazine. Something about Shimer sounded right, and it turned out to be right and at Shimer I discovered that I actually loved school. At least the way Shimer did school.
So what is it about Shimer, and the beautiful liberal arts education that Shimer offers? What I want to do is defend what Shimer does. I want to defend a Shimer liberal arts education and all schools who attempt to approach what Shimer does and there are very few.
I do not intend this brief talk to be a political one. In fact my intention is the opposite. But I will mention some political developments. Interestingly, I was at Shimer at a particularly politically charged time (the 60s), and of course I recognize that this is true of all times. But what I remember was the regard that members of the Shimer community had for each other, and the commitment to open and respectful discussion of often very difficult issues. It was not a politicized campus or community. And I have a theory about why that was the case that I will come back to.
Clearly, the Liberal Arts are under significant attack. We are all aware of this. Govenor Walker in Wisconsin created a significant stir when he appeared to make a move to rewrite the mission of the University of Wisconsin, taking its focus away from the search for truth and, instead, the creation of job opportunities for citizens of the State. Govenor Scott in Florida has suggested that it’s all right for Gender Studies to exist in a private university but he is opposed to tax payers supporting such a department in a State University because, again education is about jobs. While Scott mentioned gender studies he could just as easily have referred to Classics or (horror of horrors, my department, Philosophy). It could be that both Walker and Scott do have a political issue with liberal arts, but I will take their comments at face value, and accept the idea that they are concerned about jobs. The Obama Administration has expressed essentially the same view, that education is about jobs.
There have been ongoing attempts from those in the liberal arts to respond to this criticism. And the response, I think, has taken two particular approaches, ones that are, I think, laudable in some sense in that they might prove effective, but that are, in the end, I would argue, unsatisfactory, inadequate, and consist, ultimately, of attempts to push back against the criticism in a way that accepts the terms of the debate. In this case, the terms that are out there, to which people appeal when they defend the liberal arts, are, on the one hand, jobs, and, on the other, citizenship in a democracy. And the problem is that these terms remain, in the end, unexamined.
The first defense of the liberal arts that is out there is inspired by the views of Thomas Jefferson. The idea is that we are a democracy, and a democracy, if it is going to function in any meaningful way, must educate its citizens. Citizens of a democracy need a broad education since there is a vast array of issues that will be presented to citizens, and citizens must have the knowledge to weigh in, meaningfully, on the issues that are brought before them. We see these issues today not getting the attention they need because there are questions about the level of education that exists currently in the country: climate change is the big one and there are a number of smaller but equally important issues. And this argument states that in order to be able to cast an intelligent vote, one needs to be well educated in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.
There is nothing wrong with this defense (I like it very much), but, notice, this is a defense that does three things: it contains a particular political view, unexamined, that a democracy is good a form of government and, two, that an educated citizenry will support a democracy. The third thing the defense implies is that such an education has a utilitarian value, that is, that when citizens are so educated we will all be better off. I’m not saying that we won’t be, but, again, I am saying that this claim has not been tested. The point about this defense is that there is a clear element of question begging on all three counts that I’ve identified.
To be clear, I am not saying that democracy is not good. It’s my favorite form of government, though, as anyone educated at Shimer knows, Plato put a pretty compelling case on the table for a different form of government.
The second attempt to defend the liberal arts education tries to justify it with an eye to the market place. This is a slightly more sophisticated form of the view that Walker, Scott and Obama express. This is the idea that the skills that one acquires in a liberal arts education will always be in high demand. Reading, writing, and thinking critically. Daniel Pink, in the New York Times, in the 90s, when there was hysteria about outsourcing of jobs to other countries, pointed out, around graduation time, that the one thing that can’t be outsourced is a good liberal arts education. And I think he is right. Still, what bothers me about this argument is that the justification for a liberal arts education relates to what will sell in the market place. As though the market makes clear what we should value and only what we should value. And it is always possible that the market will change and such skills will not be so needed. In addition, this is an argument that reduces the liberal arts to acquiring certain skills, and skills education, I would argue, is ultimately a form of vocational education. Not that there is anything wrong with vocational education, but it is not the liberal arts.
So how would I defend a liberal arts education? Let me say upfront, that I am not sure that I can in a way that is going to make anyone happy, or be perceived as contributing to the important political discourse that is going on in this country in regards to education. But first, let me describe to you what I believe a liberal arts education actually involves.
A liberal arts education is risky. It is scary. When one goes into a classroom one does not necessarily know what one is going to hear, what one is going to say, what one might suddenly find oneself thinking. New ideas may be expressed that bring with them an alarming level of validity that, in the past, would have otherwise been comfortably put aside. I’ve had students who felt that they had to step outside the classroom for a moment. I’ve felt that way myself.
But a liberal arts education is also a great adventure. I would say that it is one of the greatest adventures imaginable. It is scary and it is adventure, and if we can stay on the side of adventure, where Socrates was, it can provide us with an understanding of how to live. Socrates even perceived death as a possible adventure, where he would encounter persons with whom, because of his time and place of birth, he would otherwise not have had an opportunity to engage in discussion.
In a liberal arts education, we encounter human beings who have engaged, at their time, with the world, with events, with nature, with ideas, and as a result of seeing their engagement we realize that our engagement is possible. And as we engage with them and their ideas we develop our own. And this is the very exciting thing that happens – I remember the day at Shimer when I discovered this – we learn not how to think but that we ARE thinking.
Social media exploits the very basic human anxiety that we are missing something, that where we are is not where it’s happening, that we have to be some place else to be at the center of the action. We believe that if we find that center we will not be alone, and we will overcome our basic loneliness. But there is no center elsewhere. And I believe that a liberal arts education, with its activity of deep and sustained reflection about the fundamental elements of human experience, can bring one to a sense of self that enables one to develop the capacity to be alone without being afraid. One begins to feel a dissipation of this anxiety. One begins to acquire the capacity to be alone.
So I am talking about the courage to see where reading, writing, talking and thinking actually will take us. It is an unnerving adventure and there are many opportunities for stepping aside. But at Shimer we learn how to do this together. We all read the same books, deal with the same issues. It is this common experience that, I think, kept the Shimer I attended from being politicized. We had to talk with each other in the classroom. We had to talk, and, most important, we had to listen.
So a liberal arts education is a lot like life. Of course, this is not an accident. One embarks, sets out, and has no clue where one will end up. In fact, one is not clear about the very purpose with which one embarks. But one thing does seem to make sense, and that is that, into this life ahead of us, this is the kind of education that we want to take. This is the kind of education that will, I think, have the greatest potential to sustain us in the lives that lie before us. I know that I have found this to be true. And I thank Shimer for this.
Congratulations to all of you, and I wish you all the very, very best.
Austin (August) M. Lysy ’15
Fellow graduates, future graduates, families, friends, faculty, staff, student marshals, alumni, servers of refreshments, members of the band, distinguished guests, members of the Board, other people, and President Susan Henking:
Thank you for allowing me the honor of addressing you all today.
I’d have liked to have prepared a profound and transforming speech, something that would pierce through the ritual and stir excitement and thought, that would inspire us all with renewed respect and passion for the Great Books and life-long learning, that would help us to see differently what we’ve become accustomed to see with disconnected, scholastic interest. However, as some of you know, I tried that already. Someone kindly called it a “disrespectful piece of trash.” So, so much for that.
Instead I will address a personal question, whose conventionality among such occasions is sure not to raise the least bit of grief and whose tameness will inspire nothing but the broadest thought of – “That’s interesting.”
“What does the Great Books education mean to me?”
Three years ago my answer to this question would have been the typical “A Great Books education makes one well-rounded,” and that answer would not have been wrong so much as endearingly naïve and incomplete. Now, however, having just completed such an education – or rather, having just begun it, as it were – I think I understand its meaning for my life much more fully.
Several years ago, after I graduated from high school and moved to Wyoming, I thought everyone was Catholic, like me. I mean that literally: I thought the world consisted of Catholics. I had read and heard rumors of Jews and Protestants, and maybe even some whispers of atheists, but, as I discovered, there is a great distance between knowing something and knowing something. As it was, my word for human was “Catholic,” and I thought my world was filled with humans. I was wrong. During my time in Wyoming, I met Lutherans, 5-point Calvinists, 4-point Calvinists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Masons and a litany of Evangelicals whose array of differences was limited only by the imagination (there weren’t any Jews to speak of in Wyoming, but my only friend there was, I believe, the only atheist in the state). I was very curious about all these denominations, and so I tried to learn more. I remember one illuminating conversation I had with a girl I met at a Pentecostal church about her religiously-imposed dietary restriction. I asked her, wasn’t it true that St. Peter had had a vision in which all foods were declared clean and acceptable for consumption? She paused, and responded saying that she’d have to ask her mother whether that was true. She was twenty-two years old. It was in that moment, witnessing her own wholesome ignorance, that I began to see my own wholesome ignorance flash before me: I, too, relied on the thoughts and judgments of others to validate my beliefs. If it is true that what you think is who you are, and I do believe in its essential connection, then this was the beginning of the end of me – of who I was then.
After a year in Wyoming, I fled to the cosmopolitan oasis known as Sioux Falls, SD, where I fancied I’d study English, dabble in theology and philosophy and become a great Christian literary apologist like my heroes, C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor. This was my first taste of what is popularly known as “higher education.” I remember my favorite professor, an honest man of the Liberal Arts, showing us a slideshow of paintings, one of which was Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.” I thought at the time that there was something incongruous between the high art we were viewing and the pajamas in which the students in my class were dressed to view it. This, I thought, was the height of absurdity: the next generation of American citizens slouching around projected images of 20th century art in PJs. So much for that school.
Then I met the Great Books, and my world, again, was irreversibly altered. Like in Wyoming, I discovered a whole new terrain of knowledge, of existence: the land I once saw as flat and linear opened up to reveal valleys and hills and a broad sky – depth upon depth. I had heard of these writers, but, again, there is a difference between knowing and knowing. What wonder!, I can read their works first hand, discover for myself their ideas, learn how to think by tracing their thoughts, and come to understand the entire landscape of Western Civilization which has developed with and through their thought to the present day, uncovering the roots of the contemporary thought that forms my everyday reality. The prospect was both thrilling and overwhelming. If there was ever an education worth pursuing: this was it.
When I entered Shimer College, I entered still a Christian, believing in God and the order of the world set down in the Scriptures: believer and unbeliever, the fallen world and the revealed hope that lies in Christ. Some considered me an “absolutist” – a title whose irony would not have failed the accusers had they known with what self-doubt I was even at that time besieged. Nevertheless, this was the position from which I began reading the Great Books, the posture in which I assailed them with great gusto, the angle from which I discerned their luster of either truth or falsity.
At first, I was unabashed in my perspective, still naïve, assuming that others would understand my incredulity with so many of the texts, particularly the modern ones. It was in Soc 1, arguing vehemently against Gilligan and her morally complicated study, that I first glimpsed the gulf that lied between my world-view and that of my classmates. Yet though I was met with resistance in class, I welcomed it, because this was how I would develop my mind, how I would learn to defend my views. Thus, in my first year, I was filled with a hungry enthusiasm and took to the Great discussion with wholehearted passion.
However, this passion for class discussion would not last, because with every discussion it was met with an organized thought whose seeming unquestioning certainty lied, not within the text, but in the Shimer student body in general. The more I pushed against the text, the harder this collective thought pushed back at me as well, and the more I became aware of my own outsidedness, my own difference from the general body. I began to doubt myself and to question the truth I then purportedly believed. “What is truth?” I began to ask myself, not from the premises of our contemporary standard, but from any standard: How is it anyone can give themselves over to any truth? How does one decide? How does one know?
And so, as time passed – in that way that only time can, imperceptibly – I gradually saw my cherished childhood faith eroding beneath my feet. I’d put the words in my mouth, the words I had so often used to try to defend my faith, and, the words, they would dissolve on my tongue into an ever-souring, forlorn realization that beneath the words there was nothing – nothing that directed my choices but what came easily, nothing that orientated my life but what came naturally – no true conviction, only the casual repetition of the habitual motions that had been instilled in me since childhood. I was confronted by the inner hollowness of a long-held belief, whose vacancy from my dearest place in my heart revealed, starkly, the inner emptiness of my own hollow self. As I had once read from the monastic Theophan the Recluse, “Most people are like a shaving of wood which is curled around its central emptiness.” And this, I discovered, was true of me, as well.
However, despite how this displacement of faith has completely upended the security of my life and left me spinning in a confusion of overwhelming questions, I do not resent this disillusionment, nor do I resent the obstinacy of others that has brought me awareness of my own obstinacy. For my Christian faith, I realized, unquestioned as it was, was nothing more than a prejudice that kept me from truly engaging with the Great Books, utilizing my reasoning, and seeking wholeheartedly beside the Great Authors the answers to the great questions, “What is Man?” and “What is truth?” And this, I’ve realized, is the only way to arrive at true conviction and knowledge.
And because of my unquestioned belief, if I am honest with myself, I have thought – that is, actually engaged in the art of thinking – perhaps only a couple of times at Shimer. I have doubted all the while. I have observed, analyzed, wondered, pondered, mused, considered, argued, laughed, mocked, and agreed. But thinking is much more difficult. Thinking, I’ve come to know, requires a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is just this very ground of prejudice, which must first be recognized and lifted, like a dam, before true thought can flow forth to discover truth, whether this truth may lie in commitment to faith or elsewhere.
I therefore have learned nothing during my time at Shimer except that I am ignorant and that I do not know very much at all. I wouldn’t be so bold as to call this Socratic ignorance because it yet flirts too much with radical doubt and skepticism. Nevertheless, this ground of accepting that I do not know, I recognize as the cornerstone to an education, the true Great Books education, which, having been set, provides the foundation for a lifetime of learning, for which, I am content to say, Shimer has prepared me.
Shimer’s preparation, however, comes with a qualification, one which I offer as a personal observation to my own experience. If there’s one thing I have thought about at Shimer, it’s how we approach the Great Books of our Western Civilization. After I had recognized the internal unfoundedness of my own Christian belief, I began seriously to try to immerse myself in the worlds of our Great Authors and their Works: meaning, I tried very hard to remove myself from the modern bias that truth is progressive and that our contemporary notions of truth are the standards by which all of history has to comply. Despite the all-too prevalent notion of “situatedness,” I do believe this is possible, for to deny that this is possible, I think, renders the Great Books project a mere scholastic survey of Western History.
But while I set myself in earnest towards this task, particularly in my last year, I found class discussion along this line of thought hindered. Hence my many protocols attempting to address the issue, and hence my last protocol which raised venomous invectives and caustic irony in a final effort to shake us from what I saw as our detached, scholastic somnambulism through Western Thought. It may be that Shimer’s model of discussion, which rests, as I have been told repeatedly, on reaching “common understandings,” is intrinsically opposed to what I see as the true Great Books project: a collective endeavor to wrestle in the timeless arena of thought in which the apparent truths of our time are pitted against those of all time. Perhaps such discourse is no longer possible in a culture that holds the equality of all values, even in the university, which once was the last bastion of free and open thought. I don’t know. I only know that on most days I felt we were only toeing the surface of the texts, that we were not earnestly struggling together with the idea that, for instance, the “world-decay” Arendt speaks of has any significance for or correspondence to our own lives, our own world.
And so, Shimer’s model of discussion has indeed prepared me for “How to think,” because it has brought me face to face with my own prejudice; it has not, however, taught me “How to think for myself,” but only how to “get along” with others that don’t think like me – which, in the past, struggling as I did to defend my views, I knew well enough. Thinking and deciding for myself is something I must now pursue alone, which, perhaps, is the way it has always been, and I look forward to the challenge with renewed enthusiasm and hope.
Now we are to be birthed into what the many call the “Real World” – a designation I think we all must regard with suspicion or else admit that what has preceded has been nothing more than fancy illusion in the guise of preparatory learning. Now we must find “jobs,” with which to fashion “careers,” with which to save for retirement, with which to amuse ourselves to our last breath. This is the day-to-day way of the world, but I hope many of us will succeed in breaking through this everyday monotony to make of life an adventure in which we may achieve something authentic. Many of us hold noble aspirations to change the world, or at least our part of it; others, like myself, hold dreams to become Artists: we all wish to do something great, whatever the scale. And after we have “made it” (or not, as the unfortunate case may be), and after our fists, tired from shaking in outrage at the “Real World,” have lowered to our sides to grip the polished wood of a cane or the cool metal of a wheelchair, we may finally know and look on with T.S. Eliot to watch as the house which we have built on the Past falls under the weight of the Future, as the unconscious artifice of our civilization clanks away, onto different and more disconcerting forms, which only the still point of the turning world can observe with an understanding, steady, humble smile.
I am rather prone to poetic sentimentality (maybe you can tell), and as I sat at the Senior Dinner, moved deeply by David’s speech and the tender look of our memories passing through his eyes, I took into my heart this image of our last communion, our last shared laugh and supper together, and I already felt the nostalgia creeping in and the future time when I would long to see again your faces that, though many have remained strangers to me, have inspired the comfort of familiarity. I hope we may all face the setbacks and rigidity of modern life with the light of the passion that I saw in each of you last night. But I’ve always been afraid to see what Time will wreak on us, our promising and happy youth.
In closing, allow me a minute more indulgence of your time to thank those who have especially contributed to my education and formation throughout these years. Melanie, though we don’t agree on many things, you, in particular, in our early discussions (or, rather, debates), brought me closer to confronting the ungroundedness of my own views. Dan, your enthusiasm and patience for the Shimer discussion has always been an inspiration for me to maintain the passion and engagement I once found so natural at the start. Jim Ulrich, though I’ve never had you in class, in our talks and by your example you have taught me patience and forbearance, and true devotion and care for others. David Shiner, you have been a model and mentor to me and I am forever grateful for your shared insights and wisdom into the Great Books and life. Adrian Correa, whose absence today gives me pause; who, to his own admission is not the ideal student, but who, to my mind, is the ideal and preeminent thinker among our class: he, most of all, has encouraged and challenged me to think for myself: he is, for me, in the truest sense of the term, an Aristotelian “friend of virtue,” my very best. And, most especially, I thank my parents, you have cared and sacrificed so much for my education and my well-being, and for that and everything you are to me, I love you.
Thank you all. May we go out among the world in hope, to use our talents wisely for the sake of the good.
Kelsey Anne Crick ’15
To those of you who have known me over the last four years, it may come as a surprise to hear that I have written this entire speech this morning, only hours before I knew it had to be delivered. For years now, my professors and classmates have made jokes about my obsessive time management techniques, which more often than not, have resulted in me turning in final papers only halfway through the semester, for example. However, I have found in my last semesters at Shimer that I am no longer capable of completing assignments so far in advance of the deadlines. More and more I have waited until the week or even the day before to write my papers. This commencement address is, however, the first to be written on the due date itself.
From my conversations with you, I gather that this is a common trend at Shimer, and maybe at all colleges. We reach the end of what feels like a very long sprint and find that we only barely have the stamina necessary to eke out those final pages. Or, as it is more frequently explained, we suffer from a mysterious illness called senior-itis. I have told many of my classmates in recent months that I am happy to be graduating now, because I do not know if I could keep up the momentum necessary for yet another semester.
However, it has also occurred to me recently that this inability to rapidly conceive, draft, and write may have a cause that is more intimately linked to my development as a student, as an intellectual, and as a person. It is not just that we are tired. It is not just that we have been writing our theses. It is not just that we are ready to graduate. For me, butting up against my deadlines is a sign of a growing intellectual uncertainty. For the first time in my life, I don’t always know what to say. Much to the alarm of my parents who found out later, I spent one summer during elementary school going door-to-door on our cul-de-sac and introducing myself to all of our neighbors. At seven years old, I felt I had the words, the know-how, the necessary gumption to meet anyone and do anything. Today, I’m not so sure.
To clarify, this uncertainty is not primarily due to any doubt concerning my actual ability. I am sure I could have written a very satisfactory commencement address last weekend, just like I probably could have coerced myself into writing all of last semester’s papers weeks in advance. As we amply demonstrated Thursday afternoon during the proficiency examination, all of us know how to write mechanically sound essays, and we know how to write them very quickly. Many of us, indeed, learned this skill here at Shimer. My uncertainty is not that I can’t write a good essay or a good speech, but that I’m not often sure whether what I’m saying is what I really want to be saying.
I have two anecdotes to offer by way of explanation. They concern some of the feedback I’ve received on my writing over the years at Shimer. Because I was a strong writer in high school, I was often overlooked by my teachers when it came to feedback. At Shimer, all of that changed. I have grown tremendously in my writing since becoming a student here, and I doubt whether this would have happened at a larger university, where my existing ability may have been deemed, as it was in high school, “good enough.” Of this feedback, two comments have really stuck with me, and they will be familiar to many of my friends at Shimer. The first was a remark I was given for a paper I wrote on Foucault in Social Sciences 4. It said, “I think you have completely misread Foucault, but it was interesting anyway.” The second of the comments I want to share with you was given to me in this last semester, on a paper about Christine de Pizan. This comment reads, and I quote, “You’re groping to convey something important here, which is to your credit. However, the language you use sometimes emphasizes the ‘groping’ aspect.”
Despite the tone of these comments, I did very well on both papers. As I have already said, I don’t think this is a matter of not knowing how to write a proficient essay. Shimer has trained us well on that account. However, both of these comments were instrumental in my realization that I often don’t know what I’m trying to say. Sometimes this is because everything goes very still in my head and I can’t form a thought one way or another. But the vast majority of the time, my uncertainty is because I have so many thoughts that I don’t know where to begin, much less where I should end up. If I have to meet a deadline, I will go ahead and write down some of those thoughts, and the odds are that Shimer’s outstanding faculty have prepared me well enough that those thoughts will make a pretty good essay. But will any part of that essay be what I really wanted to say? Or will it turn out instead that my perfectly fine essay is only “groping to convey something,” and not quite getting there?
If I’ve made my point at all, it should be clear to you that I’ve written an address that is impossible to end. So in lieu of a formal conclusion, I would like to thank everyone at Shimer for producing this total intellectual confusion in me. Before I came to Shimer, I was in the habit of viewing my undergraduate education as an obstacle to the more interesting plans I had for myself. I knew exactly what I wanted to do for graduate school and exactly the career I wanted to have after the fact. In this view, Shimer was going to be nothing but a way station on the road to bigger and better things. Although I still think there will be exciting things in my future, I can no longer view Shimer as a pit stop. It is its own destination, which is responsible for changing my entire course, and my entire way of thinking. I am deeply uncertain about where I will go from here, but I know now that uncertainty is just another synonym for curiosity. I believe we can all thank Shimer for reminding us that school can and should be a place where we become less certain, more open, and more curious. After all, each of us is striving to convey something important in our lives. It is worthwhile to ask if we are saying what we mean.
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.