Graduate Commencement, December 16th, 2005
I’m very honored to be asked to speak to this audience, and grateful above all that my career at Iowa has given me the chance to work with so many graduate students in the last thirty years. My ‘doctor-children’ have found work at institutions in the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the West Bank, Turkey and the West Indies, and my efforts to aid them, learn from them and share their intellectual convictions and enthusiasms have fulfilled and enlivened my life.
When I learned I would be asked to give this talk, I asked friends and acquaintances of all ages what they thought I should say. They understood the symbolic importance of graduation and the invitation to speak to you through me, and many suggested I speak about the need to broaden access to education and use its gifts for mutual benefit in the only world we will ever have. A kind of ground-note--the need for some sort of “hope”-- seemed to me to emerge from these reflections, and I will return to this later.
First a few fragments of personal history. My own graduate education took place during the paroxysms of the Vietnam war, and at the University of Wisconsin my husband and I saw student protesters more or less randomly gassed and attacked. To a degree many may now find hard now to believe, many of my teachers and potential employers seemed to think that (married) women who sought doctorates were “better . . . not here,” as Thomas Hardy once put it. One interviewer insisted quite counterfactually that hiring me would obligate them to hire my husband (“we don’t just want bodies in Texas”), and another averred that I couldn’t be considered because I would be “uncomfortable” in a department which consisted entirely of married men (!).
A hiring committee at Iowa finally offered me an appointment in April of 1973, when it appeared we might both have to become secondary school teachers in Germany. I was pleased to learned that I would be permitted to teach graduate students, and remember the excitement of meeting the five students in my first doctoral seminar on William Morris. I worked closely with all of them in the years that followed.
By that point, my experiences had also prompted me to brood a bit about the power of an extended education--available only to a tiny minority of the world’s people--to transform our cradle-gifts--our passions, our ways of thought and temperamental dispositions--into inquiries and discoveries which might transcend expediency, opportunity or preferment along any successful career track. I wanted to foster others’ versions of those passions and abilities as well as I could.
My efforts to do this also taught me some ways in which these a few of these inquiries might be defined--the mappae of their mundi, so to speak, their inner contents, their methodologies and associated skills and the shifting relations between them. Efforts to understand any one thing well set new boundary conditions, standpoints from which to judge others’ knowledge and experience, and the ends or purposes of other things--our social relations and personal lives, for example. They provide--I believe--skeptical reference frames for the evaluation of all-too-ready slogans and simplistic judgments. And they lead us to admit that the things we do not know are infinitely complex and irreducible to static formulae or self-aggrandizing pronouncements--however fashionable or lionizable such formulae and pronouncements might be.
Tennyson’s Ulysses, after all, observed that he wished to follow “knowledge like a sinking star,” which vanished over the horizon as his vessel moved across the sea, and none of us can know more than a few shiny pebbles on Isaac Newton’s seashore. For good and ill intentions have unintended consequences, parochial certitudes are more parochial than certain, and different audiences or populations give opposing senses to cognate forms of cultural expression. More deeply, we are fragile parts of the “nature” on which we so inextricably depend. “Reasonable beings,” however--as Immanuel Kant called them--can strive at least to respect each other and the interdependence of all life, and value mutual aid and understanding over personal gain.
Moved by these “regulative ideals”--another Kantian phrase--I have three hopes and two quotations for you.
The first hope is that you will not regard the formal education you have struggled to acquire as something fixed in December of 2005--a date which will recede soon enough into oblivion--but as a part of your inner consciousness which you will renew, extend and revalue in unanticipated ways as long as the breath of the spirit is in you.
The second is that that inner consciousness will sustain you in the face of the medieval mystic’s “cloud[s] of unknowing,” along wavefronts of paradigmatic change, desired and undesired, in ways we cannot here imagine. As the figure of “Nature” in Edmund Spenser’s famous “Mutabilitie Cantos” observed,
I . . . find that all things stedfastnes doe hate
And changed be . . . .
.[y]et being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being doe dilate:
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne over change, and do their states maintaine.
In professional life such changes may take startling and bemusing forms: prominent careers have been built on ideas now rejected or ignored, and the favored texts or methodologies of one intellectual cohort are proscribed or ignored by the next. Of the 2624 pages in a current anthology of “theory and criticism” I used this fall, for example, only 929--or twenty-eight percent--reprinted writings I might have been aware of in 1973, the year of my arrival at Iowa.
At a more urgent level, have these explosive gains in knowledge bettered the lot of the vast majority of human beings? Perhaps. But if we do not subject such changes to ethical constraints, and temper our penchant for individual and govermental violence--they may “raigne” over us in ways which will be disastrous not only for us, but for the world which hosts us.
Change, in short--that wondrous river into which we never step twice--may bear us away.
To forestall this we will have to find it in us to discern that river’s flux, understand it and find recurrent patterns of renewal and recuperation within it.
And for this we can only have recourse to a third hope--that we will find resources within us--seen through a glass darkly--to create and recreate new forms of “consciousness” which will enable us to achieve these ends.
This third “hope,” then, would not be mere optimism, or good cheer, or confidence in immediate results, or even the theologians’ “evidence of things not seen.” It would be a collective reaching out to forms of solidarity not (yet) seen.
Such a “hope”--a variant of the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s doctrine of “docta spes,” or “informed hope”--might yet enable us, guided by mutual aid and a respect for the integrity of the earth, to find such forms of solidarity in the past and present and transmit them to the future.
The nineteenth-century British utopian writer William Morris called such forms of solidarity “fellowship,” and in his Dream of John Ball, the protagonist John Ball, the leader of a medieval Peasants’ Revolt, delivered a secular “sermon at the crossroads” shortly before his death.
No one really knows what the historical John Ball said, but this is what William Morris said he said.
Yea, forsooth, once again I saw as of old, the great treading down the little, and the strong beating down the weak, and cruel men fearing not, and kind men daring not, and wise men caring not; and the saints in heaven forbearing yet bidding me not to forbear; forsooth, I knew once more that he who doeth well in fellowship, and because of fellowship, shall not fail though he seem to fail today, but in days hereafter shall he and his work yet be alive, and men be holpen by them to strive again and yet again; . . . since forsooth, to strive was my pleasure and my life.