Below is the text of some remarks I was supposed to give to the Senior Class at Sewanee this spring but never did–when I arrived to Cravens Hall, the banquet had been called off because of a tornado warning! How lucky they all were to be spared this torrent of words!
In the Form of a Question: Senior Banquet Remarks
Monday, April 14, 2014
Good evening. I see so many friends here from the senior class, some of whom have written to me even today looking for extensions on their papers. Not to worry! In just a few days none of it will matter very much. While it may be a bit premature, let me offer an anticipatory congratulations to the Class of 2014. Well-done, my friends, well and truly done! I speak for all faculty when I say how proud we are of you. And let me offer my thanks to you, too, for the invitation to be with you here, and the honor of addressing you tonight as we recognize those who have shown such leadership on behalf of the Senior Class Gift Campaign. Let me especially thank the nice young man from the Development office who invited me, the one who was recently on Jeopardy, what is his name … (Matt Farr!) Uh uh uh, “Who is Matt Farr?” Please remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question.
The form of my own remarks here tonight has been much on my mind. After all, a talk like the one I am in the process of giving ought to be amusing, poignant, thought-provoking, and brief. I thought to myself, where could I find inspiration for a talk of this sort? I wracked my brain, I ransacked my book-case, and then turned, as we all seem to do these days, to the Internet, and put “amusing, poignant, thought-provoking, and brief” into the Google search bar. You will probably not be surprised to learn that that search string retrieved close to 9 million hits. Hmm, I reflected. What a world this must be, this world-wide web, so overflowing with amusement and poignancy, that it can generate so many instances of it in the blink of an eye. So filled with thoughts of a thought-provoking nature, 9 million of them! And so brief! So much brevity it would several lifetimes to sort through it all.
Most of you are 21, and so you are just a few years older than Google itself, which was established in the mid-90s at Stanford, and yet I daresay, it is the world—or at least, a world—in which you have all grown up. I’m an old fart, and yet it is also the world I inhabit as a matter of daily life. It is sometimes theorized that, given enough time, a roomful of monkeys with typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. I will admit that, as an undergraduate, I put great hope into the infinite monkey theorem—after all, there I was typing away in my room late at night just trying to eke out a passable paper on The Tempest. I wonder sometimes whether my own myriad entries into search engines over the years isn’t something like the work of the infinite monkeys, and couldn’t also be arranged into at least a Bad Quarto.
Now and then, it occurs to me to look, to really look, at the pages of results I have produced with the searches I have input. At times this can be a real revelation. On a single page last week, one of my searches turned up quotations from Tom Waits, Aristotle, and Charlie Chaplin. I was surprised by the Charlie Chaplin quote, because I always think of him in silent movies, but whatever—if a celebrity is on the Internet in any form, there’s a meme with inspirational quote attached to his or her face. There were images, too—there was a map of Milwaukee, there was a Rodin statue, there was a middle finger, there was a multi-colored graph, there was an anti-Obama political cartoon, and inevitably–as every internet search is required to produce by law I think, there was a picture of Scarlett Johansson.
You have probably produced similar pages yourself. Some of you might be doing it right now on your phones. Perhaps you too have wondered, as I have, What do any of these things on this page have to do with one another? The answer is, nothing really. Yet there it is, this incoherent jumble, the work of my own two hands. It is I that have summoned this meaningless world into being. At times like that, I wonder if you feel as I sometimes do, like a god— not a kind and caring one, though, but a crazy and arbitrary god with a seemingly bottomless taste for videos about kittens.
In looking at this hodge-podge of hits, this mélange of words and images, I wonder about the world you are all about to enter. If this mess were a meal, it would be a really terrible, incongrous meal, the sort of thing you might put on your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet if you were very, very drunk—maybe a plateful of sushi with macaroni and cheese on the side, lightly covered in Pep-o-mint Lifesavers. (Aren’t you glad you invited me to speak over dinner?)
And if I may continue this meal-related metaphor and introduce an idea drawn from service as a county school board representative, there was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.
We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.
It is hard not to find all this a little dispiriting, at least at first glance. I was recently reading an editorial in the New York Times by a junior from NYU named Zachary Fine about how immobilizing it can be to live in this age of info-glut. He writes,
While trying to form our fundamental convictions in this dizzying digital and intellectual global landscape, some of us are finding it increasingly difficult to embrace qualitative judgments. … We millennials often seek refuge from the pluralist storm in that crawlspace provided by the expression “I don’t know.” It shelters the speaking-subject, whose utterances are magically made protean and porous. But this fancy footwork will buy us only so much time.
It’s hard to say whether Mr. Fine should be considered the voice of his generation. I sympathize, certainly, with the anxiety he feels in the face of so many competing sources of authority. And yet, I have to say, the way out of his dilemma is right before him, I think—he just doesn’t know it.
Because it is those very words, “I don’t know,” that he will find the answer he has been looking for all along. Some of you will know that I teach Classics; one of the heroes of the Greco-Roman tradition is Socrates, who famously said, “I know that I know nothing.” It is a frustrating statement, and he was put to death ultimately for it. But this statement is the beginning of the Western tradition of wisdom, not because it is frustrating but because it is brave and true. What you are willing to say you don’t know anything about is what you’re willing to ask and learn about.
In a few weeks you will leave us. You will enter into that crazy and incongruous world, and we will be sad to see you go. That too is a true statement. Promise us you will come back, as often as you can. We want to hear your stories of life out there in the wider world. We hope we have prepared you to live good and happy lives out in it, at least a little bit. But please don’t mistake the education we have offered you here as some form of the mish-mash you might have found otherwise on-line. You know a lot more than you did when you came, for sure, but I hope above all, you will know how much more there is worth knowing—and how much, too, is not worth knowing. Come back and share it all with us, because we’re eager to hear what you’ve found. Tell us what you’ve found that is amusing, poignant, and thought-provoking. Don’t let your visits be brief. And what else can I say? When you’re out there, please try to remember to always phrase—or seek—your answers in the form of a question.