Assistant Professor of English
9:30 a.m., May 22, 2005
To the Class of 2005: I am deeply honored by the invitation to address you today. I have always felt a special connection with you who graduate this weekend, since I, like most of you, arrived at Grinnell for the fall term of 2001. You have my gratitude for all you have taught me over these four most eventful years, and I look forward with great anticipation to hearing about the things you commence tomorrow.
When I first found out that I would be giving this address, I turned quickly to looking for appropriate words from Homer. That's Homer Simpson, since he's funnier than I am, and I have the good fortune to share his last name. For instance, graduation weekend might be a time to recall Homer telling his son Bart, "Pay attention. Because if you do, someday, you may achieve something that we Simpsons have dreamed about for generations: You may outsmart someone!" But then I decided that this occasion is too important for me to waste time grabbing cheap laughs from TV shows. And I may never again be asked to speak to so many people with no given topic -- especially after I've quoted Homer Simpson in front of President Osgood on graduation weekend. So I'm going to go for it: in the next few minutes, I will offer you a key to negotiating three things I'll bet you have thought about lately: your life's work, your happiness, and your love life. Are you ready?
Refuse boredom. The boredom I'm talking about here is not what I'll call microboredom: if you want to be bored by a telemarketer trying to sell you a condominium, or a discussion of the best soil for growing roses, or even Professor Simpson's speech at Baccalaureate, fine. I'm talking about macroboredom: I hope that you will resist being bored by fields of human endeavor that afford people enduring excitement and self-fulfillment. Hang up on the condominium telemarketer if you like, but find a little time to discover why real estate might fascinate someone; let your mind wander during the discussion of soil for roses, but read a book like Diane Ackerman's Cultivating Delight; and finish a corner of your crossword puzzle during my speech, but find out what inspires a professional speechwriter on her best days.
If this sounds obvious, think of the times you or people you know have excused themselves from engaging a large area of human endeavor by saying "Math and I don't really get along" or "I'll listen to anything but country" or -- just to tear my beating heart out of my chest -- "I never really got poetry." Refuse to say those things, or to think them.
You're graduating, so you no longer need, or get, to associate learning about new fields with taking introductory college courses. The disadvantage of your new status, of course, is that you don't have a ready-made structure for this kind of exploration, but the good news is that you can cultivate new mechanisms that help you cut to the chase: you can seek authors and web sites and friends who can help you understand the enchantments of food science, the driving questions of currency markets.
What I mean to say here is more specific than simply telling you to be interested in everything. As an illustration, let me take up the example of how people use the World Wide Web. With the assistance of search tools such as Google, you can use the web to find detailed responses to requests that you enter. To write this speech, I used Google to recover Homer Simpson's exact phrasing, among other things; as you might guess, Google led me immediately to dozens of precisely relevant sources. For trivial or serious purposes, you can use the web to reinforce and deepen your existing interests, which is great, but it won't extend the breadth of your curiosity. You can also use the web in something close to an opposite way: to discover answers to questions you hadn't realized you wanted to ask.
For one of many possible examples, you can explore the web through Arts and Letters Daily. Arts and Letters Daily is a free site run by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it presently addresses the following questions in articles linked to its front page: What makes a great scientific equation? Why is only four percent of online music downloaded by women? Are we witnessing the Islamic Reformation? How does a poet become recognized by today's literary institutions? And how has the end of the Cold War changed perceptions of chess? Think how much it would alter most people's patterns of using the web if they - if you, perhaps - routinely went to such a site resolved to read a few short articles about the subjects that you think least interest you. Then, occasionally, you could follow up on a subject in greater depth by cultivating an amateur relationship with libraries. Create the habit of refusing boredom with a short article a day, a book a month, and as the months add up to years, you will find yourself transformed.
I have promised you benefits for your work life, general happiness, and love life from this process. Here's how those benefits accrue: if you make these explorations a habit, you will stand out in your work environment as someone who looks beyond present projects to understanding whole organizations and the people who work for them - in my experience of many kinds of jobs, I have seen that people with this kind of curiosity identify themselves as those who will be given broader and greater responsibilities. But any job, even one that allows you to follow a true vocation, will have its bad days, and the habit of exploring the most rewarding sides of many fields will give you ways to nourish yourself without relying on your vocation alone. Finally - you've been waiting for this, perhaps - in your love life, broadly, your life of loves, you will find that even in the people to whom you connect so fundamentally that they allow you to find your very self - even with these family or friends or lovers with whom you identify most closely, you will find moments of mutual alienation. At such times, your habit of discovering sympathies with unfamiliar pursuits will be your most urgently required skill. And this is not to mention the moment when you discover that you really want your partner's parents to like you, and they're an opera singer and an accountant. For all these reasons, refuse boredom!
It may have occurred to you by now that I am trying to suggest a way to extend the intellectual ideals of a liberal arts education to the world after graduation. That is exactly what I mean to do. I hope that you look back on the past four years with fondness, that you remember yourself growing in ways that do credit to the highest aims of this institution as they are embodied in the people you have learned from and taught and loved while you've been here.
But I have another hope that you won't see in the college catalog. When you are, say, my age - I don't mean to scare you, just bear with me - when you're my age, I hope you remember yourself here, on commencement weekend, and wonder at what you didn't know, at how hopelessly inadequate your formal education was to introduce you to all the means by which you have found joy. For if you refuse boredom, you will make the world your Grinnell as you take your Grinnell to the world - a world that yearns desperately for inhabitants who devote themselves to broadening their sympathies with each other. I wish for each of you a multitude of excitements you have yet to imagine.