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Last Collection: Robert Gross '62

Robert Gross '62

You've all been working very hard this past year. I haven't. I haven't been around the College much this year because I've been busy sleeping late, reading the papers, cooking, playing the piano, visiting my grandkids, and generally chilling. A few weeks ago I took a break from lying in the hammock with the crossword puzzle to check my email, and I found a message from David Zee inviting me to talk to you today. My first thought was, how nice of them to remember me. My second thought was, wait a minute — I'll have to bestir myself; I'll have to wear a tie. In the end, I decided the Class of '07 is worth some effort.

David mentioned the Orientation speech almost four years ago, and here we are at the other end of the process. I'm a big fan of these rituals of transition. They give us an opportunity to look back, to assess our accomplishments and perhaps regrets, and to look forward, anticipating our successes and perhaps our anxieties. Last year when I spoke to the Class of 2006, I felt we were leaving Mother Swarthmore together, about to step into whatever is Out There. Now that I have been Out There for a year, let me share two things that I've learned.

First, transitions don't happen only every four years, and they don't always require rituals. Every day, I've found, brings the potential for change. Second, I used to tell seniors that the saddest thing about leaving Swarthmore is that you will never again have such easy access to good conversation. I can now tell you, with more assurance, that it's true. When I used to feel the urge to schmooze I could amble over to Parrish Parlors or Tarble or Kohlberg. Now, unless I make an appointment to meet at Dunkin Donuts, I have to rely on chance encounters at the Swarthmore Co-op. I've missed the opportunities for easy and spontaneous connections. I know, it's time for you to leave and you're ready, and they won't let you stay if you wanted to. But there is a lot you, too, will miss: the conversation, especially, but also the lilacs, Donny's cheesesteaks, Sherri's lattes, Tarble — I know you have your own list.

Transitions inevitably involve loss, but they also give us the opportunity to ask ourselves the big questions: Where have I been? Where am I going? Was it all worthwhile? The College has just finished the capital campaign called "The Meaning of Swarthmore." As you leave the College, it is a good time to reflect more broadly on The Meaning of Life. One of the best expressions of these concerns, at least since Monty Python, came from Greg, a high school junior I taught at Friends Select some years ago. It was spring, and the juniors had just gotten the college application pep talk. He stopped me before class the next day and said he wanted to ask me a question. "What's it all for, Bob? You work hard in high school to get into a good college. You work hard in college to get a good job. You work hard at your job to support your family. And then you die. What's it all for?"

I don't recall what I answered. I hope it wasn't one of those lame teacherly responses like, "That's a good question, Greg, why don't you think about it and tell me what you come up with." More likely I said something about taking time to smell the flowers. Still, while I can't remember my answer, the question has stayed with me for the past 20 years. I'm not sure I can come up with anything regarding the death part, but it's time to take another stab at the rest of it.

One thing I probably forgot to say to Greg is that working hard isn't chopped liver. And having a goal in mind — college, job, or supporting your family — is certainly a good motivator. And I recall telling more than a few of you that it would be a good idea if you went to class and did your homework. Hard work can be a good thing.

But this answer probably wouldn't have satisfied Greg, nor should it have. There must be more to life than hard work. Moreover, believe it or not, college is part of life, and there must be more to college than hard work. Over the last months your Swarthmore experience seems to have narrowed considerably. Your senior projects are particularly impressive. "Identifying BOB1 interacting proteins." Or, "Advertisement of feminine hygiene products and the construction of modernity and gendered identities in Turkey." Or, "A Novel Class of Aryl-Vinal Atropisomers Introducing Chirality Through Hydrostannylation and Hydrophosphination." I want you to know that I have nothing but admiration for this kind of ambitious scholarship. The liberal arts experience is in part about acquiring the tools of a discipline and using them to create new knowledge, and what many of you have accomplished as undergraduates is nothing short of remarkable.

The liberal arts experience is also about exploring the breadth of knowledge, and we think it a good thing that chemistry majors take courses in religion and Asian studies, that art history majors explore biology and mathematics. But courses hardly define the range of your Swarthmore experience. After all, you're in class for 12 or 15 hours a week, and since you barely sleep that leaves a lot of time for, well, other stuff. Among the other stuff, you may have been exploring the real goal of the liberal arts experience: how to live your life. This is what I hope you have been learning, in between BOB1 proteins and the construction of modernity.

How to live your life, or in Greg's terms: what's it all for? Happiness? In spite of some recent books on the subject, that seems to beg the question. How about balancing work and play? Since work can be, even should be, playful, and many people work hard at playing, this is not too helpful, either. Well, then, how about Freud's answer to the question, what is happiness? — "leiben und arbeiten," or love and work. That seems closer to a viable answer, but as H.L. Mencken said, "For every complex question there's a simple answer. And it's wrong." So let me try to complicate things a bit.

After brooding about Greg's question for the past 20 years, I am very sorry to report that I'm not entirely sure what it's all for. However, I do have some ideas about how to do it — life — well. I think the answer lies in locating oneself in terms of four questions. Let me call them Time, Interpersonal Space, Risk, and Belief.

The question about Time is this: How much energy and attention do you spend on planning and acting for future goals, and how much for living in the present? There is no right answer, of course. But I worry that so many kids today seem to sacrifice the present, their childhood and adolescence, to polish the resume that will get them into the right college. And then they sacrifice all their good times and their health to get the grades that will get them into a top medical school, and then the right residency, and so on. Sooner or later they find themselves in Greg's trap: what's it all for? Or, conversely, I worry about others who spend all their time writing poetry and hanging out with friends, or playing video games and Beirut; I worry they will end up homeless or, even worse, living with their parents.

I've worked both ends of this street with students. To those who have lived too much in the moment and consistently forgot they had a paper due, I emphasized time management and planning ahead. And those who felt driven by anxiety for the future and who lived in McCabe or Cornell for four years, I encouraged to slow down and find more a more Zen-like approach to their work.

There are two ways out of this either /or trap. The first is simply to pay attention. Be intentional about what you want to do, but be present in the activity of the moment. This is important in accomplishing anything, but it is also important in things like appreciating art or falling in love. I might add that paying attention is not helped by cell phones, email, and other electronic toys. The other way out of the trap is to look at what motivates us. Some of the time we are instrumentally motivated, that is, we act in order to achieve some further goal. And some of the time we are intrinsically motivated: we act because what we are doing is pleasurable or meaningful in itself. What I wish for you is an opportunity to merge the two. I hope you have found that merger in your academic work at Swarthmore, probably not all the time, but at least often enough to know what it feels like. And when it comes to finding a job, I hope you end up doing something that moves you forward but will be so much fun that most of the time you would do it for nothing. Like teaching. Or deaning.

Second, by Interpersonal Space I am questioning what we owe to ourselves and what we owe to others, and how to bridge the gap. If we are only concerned with ourselves, then of what use are we to others? How can we contribute to our families, our community, the world? But if all we care about are others, how do we maintain enough energy and commitment so we are actually helpful to them. If we do not nurture ourselves — physically, emotionally, spiritually — we risk burning out and being of no use to others.

And what do we mean by others? From the very stones and trees of Swarthmore, as well as the people, you have absorbed a sense of social responsibility. That means caring about the refugees in Darfur and the citizens of Iraq, about cage-free hens and the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but it also means caring about the people next door, the people we live with. We need to pay attention not just to humanity but also to our family and friends, and I would like to remind you that virtual contact is not the same thing as face-to-face. Indeed, we need to care about everyone with whom we come in contact. A friend once told me that the moral life is most fully lived not according to whether you work for world peace but whether you pick up the pencil the person next to you dropped. The reciprocity between caring for ourselves and caring for others is how we bridge the interpersonal space.

The third question: how to balance Security and Risk. People are used to thinking of this in terms of investment policy. A few years ago during senior week a couple of recent alums came back to talk to seniors about how to allocate their forthcoming retirement accounts. One had a balanced portfolio of domestic and international equities, bonds, cash; the other put all his money into Krispy Kreme stock. I know which one had probability on his side. So, yes, start an IRA, max out your 401K, keep your insurance up to date. But sometimes it's worth taking a plunge, especially when we move beyond investment policy into the area of career and relationships. The Quakers say that if you wait on the Light the way will open. What this means to me is being open to opportunity, willing to give up the comfort of the familiar. It's too late now, but it might have meant sitting in Sharples with people you don't know.

Finally, the question of Belief: how to balance belief and doubt, or idealism and, let's say, post-modern deconstructionism. Or, to use a more familiar term, how does ethical intelligence work? Beliefs and ideals are essential, whether for ourselves or for the community. Society advances through the ethical commitments of its members. But ideals not subject to reality testing can lead at best to self-righteousness, at worst to disaster. Herman Kahn, who wrote On Thermonuclear War back in the early '60s, once said, "In order to make a revolution you need a certain amount of ignorance, for knowledge debilitates." Perhaps so, but who wants a revolution based on ignorance?

So intelligent analysis is essential, but maybe Herman Kahn is right: knowledge can debilitate. You have been well trained to find holes in the arguments of others, but if all arguments prove defective, what's left? Seinfeld reruns? We all celebrate healthy skepticism, but there is such a thing as unhealthy skepticism. It is important that we respect the beliefs and ideals of others and nourish our own, even as we subject them to rigorous analysis. The alternative is a corrosive cynicism that feeds off of the ideals of others. This balance, I believe is what Al Bloom means by ethical intelligence, the interplay between ethical ideals and rigorous analysis.

Time, Interpersonal Space, Risk, and Belief: as life presents new circumstances one's answers to these questions will change. The key to finding one's way through these vexing challenges lies in a strong sense of self. I once read a Why Swat? essay from a precocious high school senior: he said the purpose of college is to discover your essence, and he was depressed by the huge number of people who do not discover themselves in college and later find themselves in a mid-life crisis convinced they need a Lexus. I agree with the first part of his observation, and I hope you have discovered your essence during your time at Swarthmore. Even if you have, I'm sorry to report, it is no guarantee that you will avoid a mid-life crisis. And even if you do avoid a mid-life crisis, you will probably still want the Lexus (hybrid, of course). Still, I hope you have had a chance during these four years to figure out who you are and how to live your life.

In similar terms, a half-century ago the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote about acquiring a sense of identity as the primary task of adolescence. And by a sense of identity he meant not just the objective description of one's familial and occupational roles, but rather the capacity to maintain a strong sense of self through the changes and challenges that life presents. This, in turn, requires enduring confidence and self-esteem. I am mindful of what I told you at Orientation, that Swarthmore's environment and your own standards for excellence would place a lot of pressure on your self-esteem. Much of that pressure has come from anticipated and actual evaluation — from your professors, your peers, and yourself. Sometimes these judgments begin to define you.

What's the answer to problem of evaluation and judgment that lies at the heart of the apparent conflict between excellence and self-esteem? During the past week I'm sure a lot of judgments have been flying around: Honors, Distinction, Phi Beta Kappa, and so forth. This feels slightly unsettling, and it reminds us that what makes the intensity of Swarthmore tolerable is the relative lack of competitiveness. (At a university I worked at briefly, whenever I asked a student how she was doing academically she would invariably reply "3.217"; ask a Swattie, and he will say, "I have so much work to do.") But the judgments are there, and the sad thing is our tendency to internalize the negative and reject the positive. Like Groucho Marx, some of you believe that any professor who gave you an A doesn't have any standards. You have all done incredible work here, and if you don't believe me, simply compare the papers you wrote in the fall of '03 with those of this spring. It is very distressing to me that some leave Swarthmore feeling less able than they entered, feeling not good enough. One antidote to this is what I have come to call Gross' Law of Personal Assessment: Whenever there is a discrepancy between the way you value yourself and the way others value you, always go with the higher.

When I spoke to you at Orientation four years ago, I told you everything you needed to know to survive and flourish at Swarthmore. Some of you followed some of the advice, some of the time. Probably not the part about getting enough sleep. I felt confident that Swarthmore would offer you plenty of challenges, and I saw my most important job then as offering what support I could. And I am equally confident today that the world out there will continue to offer more than enough challenges: careers, dissertations, relationships, children, public service. So my role has not changed; I still need to offer what support I can.

It's time, friends. Would the Class of '07 please stand and recite The Mantra: "No matter what you say or do to me, I am still a worthwhile person." Again. Now let me tell you what you are going to hear in the next few years; please respond with The Mantra:

  • Do you really have to move all the way to Seattle?
  • We were going to hire you, but then we looked at your Facebook site.
  • I see your friends are getting married. Nu?
  • (For men only) Honey, remember to put sunblock on the top of your head so you don't burn.
  • Wow, a documentary film about transgendered adolescents in Indonesia — how interesting! Now, can I have two double lattes to go?
  • You have how many credit cards?
  • Swarthmore — isn't that a girl's school in upstate New York?

Congratulations, '07. I hope you have relished your time here — I know the College has been lucky to have you. Remember to thank your professors and the rest of the staff. Let's come back and visit.