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Philip Weinstein - Baccalaureate

Philip Weinstein

Audio Transcript

Welcome to the graduating Class of 2015! I have a special feeling about that, since I graduated last year. Only, they didn’t call mine a graduation, they called it a retirement. They don’t call yours a graduation either, they call it a commencement. Retirement/ commencement/ graduation: what do they share? Let me begin by claiming that each of these terms carries within itself — latently — something of its opposite number. I’ll be talking today about how your commencement is inevitably an ending, and I want to start by telling you briefly how my “ending” (well, not quite, but you know what retirement portends) carried within it some surprising beginnings. Here’s some of what I discovered this past year, in life after Swarthmore.

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Point 1: Abu Dhabi. NYU has been developing, for the past six years, a university campus in Abu Dhabi. The man who runs that campus is Al Bloom, formerly our president, and I was invited to teach for a semester in their new program. Although every now and then someone with whom I shared this news expressed enthusiasm, three out of every four people looked on askance. Never mind that the Sheik of Abu Dhabi—sitting on nice percent of the world’s known oil reserves — is seeking to modernize his Arab country. One way he is doing this is asking NYU to develop a liberal arts institution on UAE soil, one with students from all over the world. In my course of 13 students, no two were from the same country. The English they spoke was a rainbow coalition of how English can be spoken, but they spoke it vigorously — often along with three to four other languages they were proficient in. I knew that this would be a remarkable experience. Yet most of my friends and family were anxious. With the name of Weinstein, they reckoned, they might hear about me next on TV, in a horrifying garish way, as a casualty of ISIS savagery — or more generally, a victim of Middle Eastern inhospitality.

It did not help matters when, a few weeks before my wife and I headed for Abu Dhabi, the newspapers released a story that stoked everyone’s worst fears. A woman dressed from head to foot in a flowing black abaya (only her eyes were visible) had entered one of Abu Dhabi’s bustling new malls, made her way to a lady’s lavatory, and knifed to death a young American woman who had the bad luck to be in the same place at the same time. All this was silently—and breath-takingly—tracked by mall security cameras. You could not take your eyes off that flowing abaya. The killer, who did not know her victim, then headed out to her parked car, apparently in search of other victims, perhaps American ones. Within hours she was caught by the Abu Dhabi police, and no further information about her is available. Her real motives were not known then, they are not known now.

Those are the facts, but here are the facts’ embellishment and reverberations. As headline news, the story seemed to confirm, for countless Western readers, the latent barbarity of the Middle East. They are not like us, their civility is only skin deep, further down they carry a knife, and they hate us. This brutal narrative was never cited in the newspaper reports, but it spread like wildfire. And it infected me and my wife. For our first three weeks in Abu Dhabi, our hearts were in our hands if we had to use a public toilet—especially one at a city mall!—and the black abaya (worn in this part of the world by untold numbers of women) became for us a sinister sign: oppression, concealment, barbarity. 

Over time, we began to educate ourselves. We learned that this murder was extraordinarily rare—that the officials of Abu Dhabi were as amazed by it as the Western world was. And we realized that knife murders in any American capital—in mall bathrooms or on the streets—occur more often. Too often in fact to be big news; you will find them on the back pages of the paper. You might lament the violence, but you won’t fear for your life. Why not? And why did we in Abu Dhabi?

Among the reasons you won’t fear for your life, is that you know so much more about American life, you have so much more experience of it. You know soothing counter-narratives. Like: we have violence, but most of us are non-violent, and if you are minimally careful about where you go and when we go there, we’re unlikely to get hurt. We tend to believe this in an unthinking way—despite the data showing that a knife attack is a lot more likely in urban America than in Abu Dhabi.

This was the moment when I recognized that my fear in Abu Dhabi was rooted in the exotic stories I carried inside myself about the Middle East. Abu Dhabi, the larger UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon: they were all vaguely tarred with the same narrative brush, all of them part of that unknown and unreliable part of the world we call the Middle East. I was drawing on narratives, not experience. I had been trusting the narratives as though they were roughly reliable, and this one wasn’t. At this realization I had a larger one: that we are all unfamiliar with most of this great world. Indeed, it’s a lifelong scandal, the ratio between the little bit of the world we actually understand and the huge portions of it we know very little about. All we have—about what we have not experienced—are narratives. We want to assume they are roughly coequal with experience. But the truth may be that each of us is stuffed full of stories mildly to grossly inadequate about the places and cultures we do not know. Not only stories passed on to us by our culture and our friends; also the ones we read about in the New York Times.

The author of that headline piece in the Times was never going to write, with equal emphasis, that this kind of violence is virtually unheard of in Abu Dhabi. The visual emphasis would be on the woman’s TV-caught flowing black abaya, the verbal emphasis would be on the murderous act itself, the unspoken message being: this could happen to you if you travel here. Newspapers must sell copy; despite their fact-checking, they batten on dramatic narratives. What could be more dramatic than such a killing? In time, I would learn that black abayas come in every conceivable form and style—some of them exquisitely decorated, drop-dead gorgeous. I put the phobia of the black abaya to bed perhaps a month later when, in one of the NYU Abu Dhabi recreation lounges, I watched three young Arab students, all of them in abayas, playing a spirited game of pool: their robes were open and flying in all directions, the cue sticks were cocked at crazily different angles, they cackled and crowed as they sank a ball or missed it entirely. As I looked on, the abaya finally escaped the narrative I had been laboring under; it was just the garb these young women were culturally trained to wear. It did not keep them from the pleasures of Western pool.

One last vignette from my semester in the Middle East. Because we were able to, we traveled twice to a country so far away we’d given up on ever visiting it, India. While there, we found ourselves discussing with natives a topic I thought I had nothing to learn about: arranged marriages.

Nothing to learn because I knew, in my bones, that modern cultures no longer taught such practices. Indeed, arranged marriages seemed to me proof positive of unenlightenment. So I was unprepared for the talk we had with two young doctors from Kochi—male and female—who had been in charge of the ayurvedic massages my wife and I had just received. In fluent English, they explained to us that their marriage had been arranged five years earlier, but that they would not have gone through with it if they had initially disliked each other. More, the astrology cards and the differences in caste played into the eventuality of their marriage—if the cards had been wholly against them, they’d have given up. But the cards were mildly supportive, ie, the astrological negatives were open to massage (that other kind of massage). It was the caste difference they were still working out (less between the two of them than with their two sets of parents). 

Astrology? Caste? Arranged marriage? Yet this couple seemed sane, thoughtful, in love with each other, gracious, and informed about their own feelings, their families, and their culture. Their thinking was echoed several weeks later, in Mumbai, in a conversation with our young Hindi guide. He lived deliberately in one of the Mumbai slums (very inexpensive and well-run lodging, it turns out: we had to rethink what slums can mean as well). In his mid-twenties, fairly successful in his job as guide, he thought it was time to get married, and he set his mother to thinking about the task. She is well-networked, and she has the time—while he labors to improve his finances—to find a suitable girl. If he doesn’t like her first choice, he’ll take a look at her second choice. He won’t marry just to please her, but he is persuaded she has his best interests at heart, she understands him, and she’ll do the job well. He’ll save time that way!

My wife and I were fairly speechless during both these discussions. Why, I began to ask myself, did I find arranged marriages anathema? In pursuing this question I came to grasp better the cultural logic of my own marriage—and of dominant American notions about marriage. Choosing a partner is one of the cardinal ways young Americans demonstrate their freedom from their parents, indeed, their freedom as such. It feels like a sacred individual right, yet if you press, you find it is cultural to the hilt.

The right to choose on our own—to differ from our parents, to live elsewhere, do a different kind of work, move out of their orbit and found our own: this is as familiar as Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. We glory in that narrative, its way of celebrating our independence from family or class or caste or religion. Growing up Jewish, I chose to marry a young woman who had grown up Episcopalian: we married on the premise that our romance was sacred and ours alone. Such thinking is oppositional to the core: parents (lovely though they may be) do not understand us, especially they do not understand our passions. This choice is ours, not theirs. We’ll go to the wall to make good on it. 

What parents in this audience have not seen these stark differences soften in time? That either-us-or-them insistence transforms over the years, as the parents become grandparents, and the binary model becomes tripartite. The young couple realize—gradually—that their parents are not their opposites but a mere generation older, versions of themselves after all, even as the children to come—and the grandchildren after them—will be different only generationally: intricately shared likenesses and differences comes to replace that earlier shrill insistence on opposition—something, it now seems to me, that Indian cultures may have figured out as well, centuries earlier, and kept as cultural resource, not cultural primitivism. It took me until my retirement to learn this.

My next points are all briefer. Here is the first one: you cannot predict the future. Hans Oberdiek gave the Baccalaureate address last year, and he began with a powerful instance of this reality. He spoke of Swarthmore’s Class of 1914 (graduating a hundred years before the present Class of 2014). In hindsight, we can see what that class was headed for: the disaster of the 1914-18 War and the devastating Spanish flu that came shortly after. In late May or June of 1914, what could that graduating class know about the guns of August? No less, none of you knows for sure what’s coming down the pike in August. It has not yet arrived. This humiliating reality—that in crucial ways we remain helpless in the face of a future that has not yet arrived—cannot be gainsaid.  What does that reality—the opacity of the future—say about your education and your graduation?

For starters, you probably cannot predict the job you'll find most satisfaction in—or how many jobs you’ll move through before you find the right one. More, you probably can't predict the partner you'll marry or care most in life for, and you likewise can’t predict whether that union will survive. No less, you do not know where you'll end up living. So you really do not know much about what your life after Swarthmore is going to be. How crazy is that? Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on your four years here, and yet many of you are feeling—and rightly so—more exposed to the unknown than you’ve been in a long time. 

Because this is so, it follows that these four years here are not, and cannot be, about arming you for your future, enabling you to know in advance what it’s going to be like. Your liberal arts education cannot pretend to cheat the risk of time, by giving you a sneak preview of the cards not yet played. Those cards are unknown. Your education—if it is liberal—is not a guessing game. So to repeat, these years have not been about predicting what you’re going to do afterwards and preparing you rigorously to do it. Is this a scandalous claim? After all, most educational systems all over the world—and the great majority of them in this country too—do just that. That is the normative model: post-secondary education prepares you for your professional life. Such schools take you in as a prospective X, and for two, three, or four years, they teach you what you need to know to become a successful X. 

In America, a small number of schools that we identify as our finest have made a different decision. Learning systematically how to do well the work you may spend the rest of your life doing is the task of graduate school, not of your four years at Swarthmore. These years are liberal, not professional. It’s not clear what they prepare you to do, deliberately not clear. But I can point to what your liberal education has not been about: It's not about recuperating the vast amount of money spent of your education. Yes, you will recuperate it handsomely. Last year, the NY Times published studies showing that a college degree is worth at least $500,000 more (in a lifetime) than a high school degree.  Doubtless the difference has increased since then. But your education isn't about the money it costs. 

It also isn't modeled on the kind of progressive improvement embodied in your world of ever more masterful technological gadgetry. A new OS is indisputably more powerful and efficient than the one it replaces; the next generation of smart phones unarguably smarter than the last one. Demonstrably, better and better: that’s not the model for your education here. I believe you’ve been busy doing something else: learning, trying to learn, how to think more critically, more creatively. Learning, as well, how to listen to yourself, how to map yourself in relation to all those maps of self and world you engage throughout the curriculum. This involves as well your developing relation to that inner voice you brought here four years ago, and that you'll carry inside you until your dying day. It’s always your voice, but how it has changed since September of your freshman year! What different vocabularies you are likely now to use when you silently talk to yourself. Know thyself: Socrates’s dictum undergirds a huge portion of what you have come to understand better. And know the world: what is the curriculum but a set of invitations to think more intricately about the great world as engaged by countless selves, to be more than you were when you came here four years ago. 

Let me make another claim. Nothing abidingly valuable in your inner and shared lives is provable. Many of you have spent a lot of time proving things in your courses, but your education isn’t about proofs. The liberal arts are instead about trying things out, trying things on: seeing more deeply, more probingly. Your time here is experimental but not about proofs—it’s a time of emotional and intellectual experiment. Trying out your possible selves, engaging with possible worlds, seeing which fits seem fruitful, let you see further. I myself have spent most of my life in that trying-out territory we call literature. The narratives I work with make imaginatively real situations that you can enter into deeply, yet without having to suffer their consequences. You can read Kafka and become transformed—imaginatively—into a gigantic insect, without having to die of it, as Gregor Samsa does in “The Metamorphosis.” And it’s not just literature that is a trying out, but also physics and history and economics and dance, all the forms of study you have committed yourselves to. These four years have involved your opening yourself up to a wide range of theories and paradigms, pathways and problems, pursuits and questions, ways of using your mind and your heart to engage this great world. If your four years have been good, you now find the world a more complicated, more mysterious, more challenging place than when you arrived as a freshman. Your time here has been a trying out, it might be your greatest trying out.

On to my next point: Finding things more interesting. Some years ago, at a meeting with prospective freshmen and their anxious parents, a particularly concerned mother asked me: if my son chooses to major in English, what good will it do him? Will it get him a good job? Will it allow him to avoid some of life’s greater miseries, like divorce? The job part was easier to answer than the divorce part. About the job I told her: our graduates do find jobs—in many different fields: forms of creative writing, journalism, library work, publishing, various other forms of media (TV, online, etc).  Most of them do not go on to further degrees in English. Indeed, our challenge as a department is to prepare the small number who do go on to do so competitively, yet to make the major in English work—be worthwhile—for the majority who will never write another English paper. One way we do that is by helping them to write better—not English papers, but papers in English. For they are probably going to write papers in English for the rest of their lives.  And they need to have command over the language—to know what it says and what it doesn’t say and what it has not earned the right to say—if they are to swim successfully in English the rest of their lives. English as the medium they function in, swim in: they will either use it well, or find themselves used by it, misled by others’ manipulation of it. We call this resource—which we labor here to teach your sons and daughters—critical thinking: the capacity to grasp whether a proposition or a premise is well founded, the capacity to see what the proposition or premise may not want us to see. 

But that was the easier answer. The harder part was the divorce. So I faced the music and said to this anxious mother: no, majoring in English will not make it less likely that your son’s marriage will end in divorce. But we do hope that if it comes to that, his English major will make the divorce more interesting. Well, that answer struck the mother as useless, and it may sound to you perverse as well: what is interesting about a divorce? But if you start to think about it, a lot is interesting: his role in what worked and what didn’t, his partner’s role in what worked and what didn’t, how it might look to someone on the outside. Interesting as: bigger picture. Interesting as: breathing space. Interesting as: this mess I find myself in is not unique to me, it has happened to others (literature is full of divorces), it can be learned about, it can be endured, it can be learned from. So, point number three: I’d like to see you graduate from this place more capable of finding your scene interesting—able to see better what's at stake in your troubles (which isn't the same as avoiding them). 

Point number four: You are both creators and creatures. As I’ve been stressing, you’ve learned to do more things here: to grasp something of the generative logic of the disciplines you’ve studied, to understand better how language works—yours, that of others; to map out larger territories as physics and math and engineering map them, to recognize the intricacy of the living world as biology charts it; to understand the endlessly vexed social world as history and poly sci and economics parse it. No less, in the humanities you’ve enlarged your grasp of what other humans, other cultures have accomplished over time in music, art, and literature, how they have imagined themselves over time in religion and philosophy. You are larger for this attempt to grasp the bigger picture; you are deeper for having thought as best you can about selves and worlds and how they mesh and how they don’t. You can think and do so many more things than you could—or even knew about—when you arrived here four years ago.   

But you're also creatures, we all are. That is to say, as much as you have learned to master time, to turn these years into purpose and resource, you also remain caught up in time, remain time’s creature. This is the anxiety of graduation: time weighs upon you on a day like this, as it has not for years. The masteries of your senior year have come to an end, your world is going to have to begin again. Commencement: how promising the word sounds when we think of it as the opposite of an ending. How daunting when we consider its other meaning: we must begin again. You must become again a beginner. How unfair is that? We are all immersed in time in ways we never fully map or master. One of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust, captures eloquently our predicament—if it is not our comedy. “We become ourselves only in the course of time,” Proust writes—“on ne se réalise que successivement.”  All of us is never there all at once. Even now, at what feels like a moment bursting with ripeness, there is the memory of a high school graduation four years ago, the anticipation of a proving ground not yet arrived, but coming down the pike four or five years from now. So you are here, gloriously, now—and if you don’t enjoy this part, you’re missing something great—but if you are also anxious today, you have good reason. An ending supposes a new beginning. This chapter concludes—and it has (I bet for most of you) been a great one. What’s next?  On ne se réalise que successivement. You were just as real (though different) four years ago as you are today, you will be just as real (though different) in four years as you are now. (And four years from now this baccalaureate day will seem like a barely remembered dream.)

Proust claims one more thing I want to pass on to you. He says that only when we are reading do we get the full flavor of life’s many chapters over time—that is, we get beyond the urgency of the particular chapter we happen to be living. Only when we are reading, he proposes, do we enter the realm of imagination and get that larger sense of what life is all about, beyond the present. Whenever I teach this sequence, my students resist. How can their present real life not trump any written versions of it, no matter how great the writer?  That poor French fool, they go on and think if not say, how alienated he had to be, not to know that real life beats anything “written in a book.” At the risk of appearing perverse, I want to pursue Proust’s claim and bring it to bear on your futures, as my last point five.

Point five. No one in this audience is unfamiliar with the well-known phrase, “the real world.” You members of the Class of 2015 may have been hearing it a great deal this year, as your college years draw to a close. It is likely to have been used in a friendly but admonitory way: as: get ready now for the “real world.” Or, don’t expect what comes next—ie, entry into the “real world”—to resemble the four years you’ve just completed at Swarthmore. On this model the College—our college—is a rarefied place of privilege: a sort of protected oasis of ventures and adventures that, however wonderful, will not be replicated in the “real world.” 

In a sense, this has to be true. Otherwise you wouldn’t be anxious about leaving. Otherwise, you (or your parents) wouldn’t have borne the extraordinary cost of these four years. Something special has to have been happening here that won’t happen again—something wonderful, but also something that the “real world” will not make available to you. And it’s surely true that not a one of you seniors expects what comes next to be like what is now ending.

Yet the phrase “the real world” is impoverished, poor in meaning. It assumes that what is real is given, factual, inalterable. Pretending to account for what is objectively there, the phrase leaves you out of the picture. More, it tends to assume that what is not given and neither proven nor provable is unreal. Yet, in your four years here surely one thing you have learned is this: that facts are often not facts, that the given is often the imposed, and that the inalterable can be altered. More, it has been and is being altered over time. So the real world—the one we all live in in our different ways—is at least as produced as it is given, a world made by labor and passion and imagination, a world imposed or kept as is by power and consent. Though it is often described as “how things are,” it is again and again how they have been produced. Even when seemingly inalterable—like the institution of the filibuster in the US Senate—what we know as real today was not always so. Nor is it fated to remain so. 

Therefore, the magical moments that lie in store for you, I predict, are those “aha!” moments in which the “real world” that seemed inalterable tilts, cracks, opens up, shows you something you hadn’t seen before about itself—or about yourself in it.  That’s when you see, palpably, that it was a produced world all the time—because you have breathtakingly just revised it, or revised yourself, your role, in it.  Which leads me now to try to put You into this picture.  ’ve said above that being here has contributed to making you more than you were—deeper, cannier, more critical, more creative. Now I’m talking about you being more productive. The master term I want to use for all of these “mores” is yeasty.  You are yeastier than when you arrived four years ago. I invite you to think of the “real world” as a sort of cake that has been and can be baked in countless different ways.  It may look like it was always there unchanged, but it took some one’s—some group’s—input of yeast to make it rise into its present form. That is how I see you at the conclusion of your four years: yeastier, more alert to the changeableness of things, more capable of contributing to their change.

For four years we’ve hurled books at you—and graphs and paradigms and maps and pictures and theorems and facts/facts/facts. All these ways of showing how the great world makes its different kinds of sense and takes on its different kinds of form, all these ways of thinking about how people and peoples have produced this sense and these forms. And you’ve labored to learn so much of what we have urged upon you in class after class, and you have probably wondered: what does it mean that I’ve already forgotten a quarter of what I learned this year, a third of what I learned last year, half of . . . and so on. And the answer is, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about remembering what you’ve learned, it’s about learning how to be a learner. It’s not about forgetting what you’ve read, it’s about having become a reader.

Twenty-five years ago (none of you seniors were alive then), I spoke to the graduating Class of 1990, and I urged them to think of themselves not as a noun but as a verb. To see themselves not as an essence, an achieved thing, but as a practice, a set of capacities. You are what you can do.  Not in the narrow sense of what profession you pursue, but in the broad sense of what moves you can make, how you choose to go about the day, the week, the life. An existential psychologist named Rollo May once claimed, I is the I of I can. As you have become cannier, your I has become more various, more open, more valuable. You came here not to master the paradigm and then plug it in, but rather to become a cannier practitioner of paradigms. You have not been given the key to anything, but you have learned that the locks are always changing, and the keys must change with them. You came here not so much to learn the necessary resources as to learn more about resourcefulness itself. What you have learned here will pay off throughout your lives—not as a what, but as a how, or a why, or a why not?

So Proust was right. We need the narratives, the theories, the books in order to grasp what the “real world” is actually like, how it came to be what it is. If Swarthmore is an oasis of privilege, then we need the oasis to take fuller measure of the desert. But Proust was wrong in imagining that books are to life as oasis is to desert: oppositional terms, with nothing between them. The desert was not always the desert; in innumerable ways it is related to the oasis; oasis is an enduring possibility of desert. Like all the other terms in this talk—and as I learned in surprising ways in the Middle East this past spring—opposites can be more fruitfully seen as in hidden and productive relation to each other.  It takes imaginative resourcefulness—not an already learned algorithm—to grasp in what ways the oppositions you will encounter throughout your lives are potentially implicit in each other, potentially each other’s latent partner and not just each other’s opposite.

You are the yeasty men and women of the Class of 2015. But yeast is useless unless there’s going to be some baking. The baking begins—unpredictably, often modestly, sometimes magnificently—after you leave these halls.  All of this has to end, so that you can begin to begin again.

Thank you.

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