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Swarthmore Baccalaureate Address -- Bob Gross '62

It seems it was just a short time ago that you were brand-new first-years, and I was meeting you for the first time in the Lang Concert Hall, and you parents, in the LPAC. So I am very happy to have this chance to participate in your graduation weekend; I like the symmetry.

In fact, I have always liked 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. I have felt particularly close to the Class of '06 this spring. I have had the following conversation with at least a couple of dozen of you: "So, what are your plans for next year?" "I'm not sure; how about you?" "Me, neither." This process has made me experience a real bond with '06. And I would like to assure you that this is not about uncertainty and cluelessness; this is about keeping all our possibilities open as long as we can.

Transitions also give us the opportunity to ask ourselves the big questions: Where have I been? Where am I going? Was it all worthwhile? We are now in the last stages of 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're dead. 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 twenty 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 over the past four years 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. "Silenced gustatory neurons define courtship input channels necessary for Drosophila courtship and courtship memory." Or, "Advertisement of feminine hygiene products and the construction of modernity and gendered identities in Turkey." Or, "Attempted diasteroselective hydrostannylations towards non-biaryl atropisomeric bidentate ligands." 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. 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 Physics majors take courses in literature and Political Science, that Religion majors explore Biology and Mathematics. But courses hardly define the range of your Swarthmore experience. After all, you're in class for twelve or fifteen 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 gustatory neurons 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 twenty 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. But I worry that so many kids today seem to sacrifice 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 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; and then 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 have emphasized time management and planning ahead. And some of those who have felt driven by anxiety for the future and who have lived in McCabe or Cornell for four years, I have 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 technological 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 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 come 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 do not nurture ourselves — physically, emotionally, spiritually — we risk burning out and being of no use to others. And, of course, if all we are concerned with is ourselves, then of what use are we to others? Conversely, if all we care about are others, how do we maintain enough energy and commitment so we are actually helpful to them.

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 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 we come in contact with. 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. Last year 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 401-K, 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 Sixties, 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 presnts 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 recently read a Why Swat? essay from a member of the Class of 2010: he said the purpose of college is to discover your essence, and he is 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 new 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 a Lexus. 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 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 will place a lot of pressure on your self-esteem. You have received a lot of evaluation — from your professors, your peers, yourself, and 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 it seems that 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 gives 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 '02 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 four years ago, I felt confident that Swarthmore would offer you plenty of challenges, and I saw my job then as offering what support I could. And I am 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 '06 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 sun block 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, '06. It's been great having you with us. Remember to thank your professors. Let's come back and visit.