As I look at you, graduates, students, fellow learners all, I smile, for you are among the signs I seek of wellness in the soul in this country, of sanity, of maturity, of responsibility to higher occupations and profits than those followed by the martyrs of our economy. For you have taken the time, stolen it, one could say, from other busy, honest occupations of income, in order to exercise your wit and pleasure here, with us poor tutors, thereby ranking yourselves among the idle in the eyes of the “noisy set” (so Yeats called them), who think of themselves as the world. I see and praise your hunger for knowledge that is not simple know-how, and your thirst for conversation conducted inconveniently, in the old-fashioned way, face-to-face with another embodied soul. These appetites are pedagogical dynamite, not for the faint-hearted, or the stay-at-homes, or those who find their likings and self-makings in the traffic of information and entertainment. As I look at you, I recognize my fellow thieves, not only of time, as I said, but of the treasures of Minerva who flies by night (Monday and Thursday night the owl doth fly), for we have borrowed her keen eyes and adorned ourselves in her feathers, with no return date and no respect to our ages, for what do years matter when so much can happen in just two seconds that makes all the difference for a lifetime. We call that difference of a second or two “inspiration,” “illumination,” “enlightenment,” ”seeing,” “hearing,” “flying,” “befriending,” becoming in a moment–despite all the day’s hustle and bustle–the sign of a person whose image, it is written, was intended to be that of God.
If you think I speak extravagantly, wait until you hear this. There are signs among us of a lower sort: unmistakable, haunting, legion. You have seen them all around, I mean the downward looks of our people, staring into their hands at instruments of communication, as if in expectation of a revelation from the Almighty about to happen at any moment, like prophets on a leash. For what power on earth, I ask myself, of less importance than that could so flatten the Holy Mountain and tug a people’s attention toward the base–“day and night; hour, tide, time; work, play; alone, in company. It makes me mad.” Tocqueville, our master observer and fearful well-wisher, would not be surprised at this spectacle. With pity, which the world perverts to envy, he would quote the egalitarian triumphalism that accompanies the frenzied march of unchained technology toward making everything available to everyone simultaneously, cheaply, and with idolatrous verisimilitude. I have spent the past year reading the futurists and their critics in a faculty study group on digital media, and “had I but time, O, I could tell you,” as the dying Hamlet says, “but let it be, Horatio; Thou livest; report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied.” You graduates, who livest, and like Horatio have seen the signs of other worlds, their gods and devils, you I charge to report rightly to the unsatisfied, the anxious, the unfulfilled, who everywhere are desperate to be happy in their occupations and friendships, the cause of this improbable and ancient College–which owes God a death many times over, as the false reporting has proclaimed, but which will not succumb to its own precarious knees, so big it is with worlds, and looks not down that way, and rejects all counterfeit ways of being at work as a living human soul—say to these people, on behalf of this College, whose cause is yours now: “Make a big push to achieve your happiness, freedom, and nobility of mind while you still can. Lift your head up at last, like a man freed from the leash. Dare to stand and look the world in the face and say, ‘I shall use you as I please, not you me, for I am one in mind with the authors of life, with whom I have sat and spoken frankly, seriously, taking my pleasure and my time, crossing over into the spirit world, where I have found that equality we crave, lively with wit, not condescension, in respect and kindness, not the elite scorn of jargon.’ Revel in the big questions, fellow citizens, or lose your soul to the geeky masters who are programming the machines to read and think and decide for you.”
Frederick Douglass knew all about the extravagant quality of these matters of fact. He once stood on the far shore of Chesapeake Bay as a slave, and there he addressed his agony of soul to the free sailing ships on the flowing waters, and to the hearing of higher powers within and without him. By that time in his life, he was a reader of noble speeches recorded in books, able therefore to articulate his laments and accusations, and this very activity he knew would make him prevail over a world that sought merely to use him for its commercial purposes. One can learn a lot from Douglass about reading and writing, freedom and equality, which are the hot topics of discussion among the digital media-in-education crowd. One thing I learned from Douglass that I’d like to share with you before I close has to do with the human heart, how it tutors us in our educations, as a kind of medium with a message of its own.
When Douglass escaped from bondage to freedom, as he recounts in his autobiography, he felt sad about one thing only—that he would miss the poor white urchin boys who helped to teach him how to read in exchange for bread, and towards whom he felt lasting affection and gratitude. Douglass put their lessons to good use. He wrote his own pass to freedom, and in his life story he thanks and honors those boys, though not by name, for that would have been dangerous. Late in his life, Douglass again expressed gratitude to a teacher of his, when it was no longer dangerous to do so, Abraham Lincoln, the President with whom he had often disagreed and argued. By having learned to read closely the words of America’s founding documents, so as to discern their meanings and purposes in the scope of human history, his vision of Lincoln and America overcame disappointment, anger, and narrow criticism to appreciate the rare excellence in this man and the limitations of the world’s evil. Those street urchins, who initiated Douglass into the profound human mystery of reading, and who prompted his heart to feel goodly sadness upon his graduation to liberty, helped to make him Lincoln’s best eulogist. Gratitude is what elevates the mere stepchild, as Douglass called his people, to the status of equality with the natural born children of the light. Not a day goes by that I cross the lawn of this College towards Barr Buchanan and do not feel like a poor stepchild, whose chief claim of desert to be here as a tutor is heartfelt gratitude. The proper recipients of this claim are you, fellow learners, who have come off the streets for a while to learn with us the lessons and mysteries of life from the light-givers.
The online digital visionaries, at their best, are latecomers to what we have long attempted to do at this College: to transcend time and place, skin and circumstances; to see rightly the cosmic and earthly dimensions of good and evil; to speak in imitation of the best; and to write our own passes to the freedom of the Promised Land, so that when we are stopped on the way and asked for our identities and destinations, we will have something that befits a human being to reply. We all will get stopped on our way at some point and asked these questions, by some form of agony or dread, for the grand inquisitors visit every soul in time. We know beforehand where to study the answers. If only we knew how to recall them when we are standing on the bridge and looking down. A few moments then is as an eternity, and even the fastest internet connection, which can tell you where to go to eat your dinner when you leave the bridge, won’t be in time to tell you why not to jump. For that, we must return to the good old schooling of the wise.
Let us now, as members of the faculty, raise our glasses to toast the well-schooled graduates of this Institute.