2009 Graduate Commencement Address: Don Randel

Author: Shari Hill

Degree recipients and your family members and friends; members of the faculty and all who form part of the university community; Father Jenkins and distinguished guests and honorees: To all of you I say, “Congratulations.” Although the pursuit of an advanced degree can often seem painfully lonely, it is in the end a collective effort requiring not only the talent and perseverance of the degree candidate but also some combination of patient support, affection, and nudging by a range of others. All are entitled to take pride in this moment. The question is, “What next?”

If not further study, then a good job, one hopes. This will make you eligible to pay taxes, serve on numerous committees, and undertake burdens of a kind that will make your years as a graduate student seem utterly and perfectly blissful. This is not entirely a joke, for you may not soon or ever again have quite so much time in which you are expected principally to think about interesting things and attempt to find or make order or meaning in them that no one had quite seen before. This is the activity that is at the heart of the contemplative life, which Aristotle describes as the life most likely to produce happiness as opposed to mere pleasure. And it is an activity that is much undervalued and too little practiced in our society. What do I mean by that?

This country is now deeply and appropriately concerned about its economic circumstances, which daily threaten the well being of millions and especially of those who were already among the less fortunate in our society. The distribution of wealth in the richest country the world has ever known was an embarrassment before the current crisis, and it has now become a catastrophe. In the effort to find solutions, we hear a great deal about economic stimulus through investment in our crumbling infrastructure. This usually means projects to improve bridges and highways and the like, especially if those projects are “shovel ready.” And this is all well and good. I wish simply to assert, however, that those of you receiving degrees today are among the “shovel readiest” projects of the most important part of the national infrastructure, an infrastructure that is being allowed to crumble just as surely as countless bridges and miles of highway. I refer to the deep intellectual infrastructure of the nation, which has been the engine of such strength and prosperity as we have known and which is crucial to maintaining such strength and prosperity as we may wish to enjoy in the future. But I mean even more than that.

When I say “deep intellectual infrastructure,” I mean truly deep. It is easy, though no less important, to speak about the intellectual life of the nation in instrumental terms. The support of science is often justified in terms of its likely contribution to the gross domestic product or to the national defense. Even advocates for the arts have often been glad to justify their support in terms of the contributions of the arts to local economies through tourism and the like. But we must think, too, about what kind of nation we want this to be. Will we decline to settle for being the strongest and richest nation in the world and insist in addition on being the most thoughtful and humane of nations in the treatment of its own people and in its relations with the other peoples with whom we share the globe? If we are to insist on this higher aspiration, we will need to insist on a greater investment in people like yourselves. And we will need for every one of you to be not just able professionals in whatever field but to be as well examples of and promoters of the life of the mind that must characterize more aspects of our society than it does today. You are part of that deep intellectual infrastructure of the nation, and you must simultaneously be its guardians.

To be its proper guardians, it will be necessary to overcome some of the boundaries that conspire to separate you from one another. If we truly care about the quality of the nation’s intellectual life, we must recognize that the natural sciences, and the social sciences, and the humanities, and the arts as well share profound attitudes and beliefs about how human beings ought to go about life and what ought to characterize the nation’s intellectual life. Too often we have believed, following C. P. Snow and others, that there are two (or more) cultures and that the sciences and the humanities broadly defined embody fundamentally different ways of thinking. If we can put aside certain enmities that arise over the relative size of the budgets of the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts and over whether the Department of Chemistry in this or that university has much more money than the Department of Classics, we are bound to recognize that we all have essentially the same complaint about the national life. Not enough people remain driven by the native curiosity with which we are all born and in the process remain open to the possibility of new and better ideas, to the possibility that one might improve on the ways one thinks about things, to the possibility that we can all learn from one another and that our own intellectual tools may blind us on some occasions as well as enable us to see on others.

This is not about whether enough of our fellow citizens remember that F=ma and that 1789 is the date of the French Revolution. It is about whether enough of our fellow citizens remain passionate to know more about anything and everything than they know at any given moment—about whether they remain open to the beauties of nature and of human intellectual and artistic creation and of one another. In this we are all one in spirit if not necessarily in opinion, as the founding president of the University of Chicago famously remarked. And it is the responsibility of each of us who has been blessed with the kind of education that you have received to live these values and propagate them among those around use, whether they be students or colleagues or our own children.

A crucial part of this is to maintain an appropriate modesty with respect to our own ways of thinking and accomplishments. Since the Enlightenment, a powerful strain of thought has held that there is only one way of knowing, which fundamentally differs from believing, that thinking and doing are radically different from one another, that the rational is easily distinguished from the irrational, which can simply be dismissed for most purposes. This has too often been a prison with traditional academic disciplines as it inmates. The arts provide a powerful illustration. In the tradition of the nineteenth-century German university, which still has a much greater hold on our affairs than one might think, it is perfectly appropriate to study the arts with proper scholarly tools such as philology, but the actual making of art is not something to be recognized as central to the pursuits of a university but is instead an ornament to which refined people ought perhaps to be exposed.

Other nice illustrations of the confusion between thinking and believing and of assuming rationality and dismissing irrationality are to be found in the writings of John Maynard Keynes, a man once again much in the news (and a good deal wittier than his reputation as an economist might suggest). In his The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, he speculates about how the classical theory that he sought to overturn could have been justified. The point here is not whether one agrees with Keynes (though it resonates eerily with present circumstances) but rather how one might be tempted to advance beliefs or principles to justify something that could be shown to be incorrect. Of this classical theory he writes:

That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added . . . to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and consistent logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commanded it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

As to the power of rational analysis in the affairs of society he writes, pointing clearly toward the kind of behavioral economics that is now becoming increasingly prominent:

A large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as a result of animals spirits—of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

Finally, on the inappropriateness of certain kinds of analysis to certain kinds of subjects, he describes “the statement that Queen Victoria was a better queen but not a happier woman than Queen Elizabeth” as “a proposition not without meaning and not without interest, but unsuitable as material for the differential calculus.”

I quote Keynes at such length not only because we have all been obliged to think about him again these days but also because he suggests ways in which even some of the most rational and beautiful of our intellectual tools may not be the equal of all that we would like to know and understand, and he suggests ways in which we might be tempted to justify social ills in terms of our abstract theories.

his brings me to Silas Marner. Silas Marner, you ask? Yes, Silas Marner. You see, for many of the fifty-five or so years since I was compelled to read it as a sophomore in high school, I have wondered what ever made anyone think that boy sophomores in high school would be likely to get anything out of it. Despite an unnatural conscientiousness at that age, I certainly did not get much out of it then, hence the question that has nagged ever since. I recently determined that I could no longer leave this question suspended over my intellectual life and so read it again. Now, if you do not particularly remember Silas Marner and/or found it much less interesting than, say, baseball when you were first made to read it, let me hasten to say that it is something of a page turner and at moments quite moving.

I raise Silas Marner now because it captures quite beautifully and very nearly explicitly something of what I am trying to say about what we claim to know, how we claim to know it, and the limitations to be guarded against in our academic lives. In response to life’s unfair treatment of him, Silas becomes reclusive, devoting himself relentlessly to his weaving and to accumulating the money that his efforts bring him. George Eliot writes:

His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. [She continues,] The same sort of process has perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love—only, instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory.

Elsewhere she writes, “Every man’s work, pursued steadily, tends in this way to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life.” One is bound to be reminded in these passages of Casaubon in Middlemarch, the paradigmatic obsessive but hollow academic. Here the person of Dorothea makes the point still more powerful. (Parenthetically, let me say that Middlemarch also comes to mind in a different context. Many recent critiques of higher education contend that the problem is in its entirety the faculty. It is as if all of the faculty were Casaubons and all of the students Dorotheas. This is hardly true in either case.)

Faith and love, broadly defined, almost certainly are the things that make life most worth living and provide the surest guides to how one might actually go about the world, and we must guard against letting ourselves be cut off from them by our high professional aspirations and what we think our disciplines enable us to know. We must certainly not run the risk of cutting others off from them by exaggerating the importance of our high professional aspirations (whether academic or not).

This, then, is a plea for you to cultivate and be guardians of the nation’s intellectual life but to do so with modesty and to shun arrogance—to recognize the limits of what you know and to be open to what others may know and to their ways of knowing—to recognize that your academic training in whatever field is almost certainly not the equal of the most fundamental questions about how one ought to live one’s life. You have had the good fortune to study at a university that forcefully proclaims faith and love as foundational values. Do not let those values be overwhelmed by anything that your advanced degrees might enable you to undertake.

I leave you with a short poem by A. R. Ammons:

May happiness
pursue you,

catch you
often, and,

should it
lose you,

be waiting
ahead, making

a clearing
for you.

Don M. Randel
President, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
University of Notre Dame
May 16, 2009