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MSU Commencement Speech: May 3, 2001
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In Twitter today — and I mean, like ten minutes ago — I got involved in a Twitter discussion with Matt Novak and Mat Honan about our memories of the Cold War. Matt was about six years old when it ended, Mat 17, I was 11, so we all had slightly different memories, but generally each recall the atmosphere of fear and dread we had then.

Mat Honan pointed out that 9/11/2001 hadn’t scared him the way it had many others because he’d grown up in the shadow of nuclear war. The spectacle of the destruction of whole cities, whole nations, is of a different order of magnitude than three-four unconventional attacks on American cities. It just is. Maybe the latter is actually more frightening, because it’s more concrete, in the same way that falling out of a roller coaster scares us more than dying of heart disease. The first one, you can see.

I remembered that I’d been thinking a lot about nuclear war in 2000-2001 — mostly how the threat had been gently fading for ten years, like a fingerprint on glass — and that I’d mentioned it in my very unusual commencement speech that I gave to Michigan State’s College of Arts & Letters in May 2001.

I’d already gotten my BA in Mathematics in the fall, and was finishing my second/dual degree in Philosophy, starting an MA program in Math that everyone knew I’d never finish. (Hey, they gave me a job teaching algebra that spring and that summer!)

I knew I wanted to be a professor, but didn’t know in what; I wrote some awful applications to philosophy programs in Berkeley, Princeton, and Chicago explaining that I was interested in Greek philosophy, Nietzsche, formal logic, and John Locke, which I’m sure pegged me as someone who had no idea what they wanted to do and no clear research program to pursue, and that was probably right. I was still waiting for the official rejection slip from Berkeley, trying to make up my mind whether I was going to split to Chicago for their consolation-prize Masters’ Program, stay in East Lansing and teach more math, or try to find real work.

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

I was obsessed with T.S. Eliot and Gauguin, respectively; I wanted to go to Boston that summer to find out more about each of them, but blew out a tire on the way and never made it. I’d already written my commencement speech though. Here it is.

(And before you ask, yes—this is total Sloan-bait for him to post HIS speech that he gave the next year to the BIG room at MSU, assuming he can find it on his hard drive.)

Commencement Speech – Friday, May 3, 2001: MSU Auditorium

What I have in mind for today is probably somewhat different in character from a standard student commencement speech, and is more of an informal or semi-formal talk on what I take to be the importance of an education in humanities and the arts. I’m going to try to make it as interesting as possible. Obviously, this is a talk which has a special resonance here, and on this day: we, all of us graduating seniors, despite our widely different backgrounds, interests, and goals, have something that is not in the least way trivial in common: we are, all of us, students of arts and letters, and in one sense our education in humanities and the arts is at an end. Now, perhaps more so than at any other time, the question as to the meaning of this education – the question Why? – is especially important. First, it’s a question that I think deserves an answer; not only for ourselves, but also for our friends, relatives, and loved ones – many of whom are probably similarly asking: Why? Secondly, it is a question that to a deep degree only now have we become capable of the self-reflection and self-understanding required to give it a suitable answer. It is a question that probably all of us have had to answer at one time or another, with varying degrees of success. I don’t suppose (or even want) my answer here, now, to be the final and determinative one, for all people and at all places and times, but nevertheless I want to offer it as one answer, and hopefully a good one, with a high degree of generality to everyone here today.

As my introduction said, I began my studies at Michigan State as a student of mathematics, and I remain, proudly, a mathematician, which is really a kind of scientist – a student and practioner of science. I will always be a scientist. But I have chosen the humanities. Now what does this mean? Well partly it means that I’ve decided to write about history and philosophy instead of logic and algebra: I’ve changed my academic profession, which from a point of view outside of the university is not a very substantial change. But I’d like to think that that’s not all it means. I think it means that I’ve chosen or taken up a profoundly different attitude about and approach to both the world and my own – also, our – place in it. It means I’ve bought into the endeavor of being human in a substantially different way than I have as a scientist. It’s in this sense – which, some poetry aside, I can’t really say in the first sense – that I would also say that I’ve chosen the arts. Now, I’m using some pretty full-blown phrases, but I don’t think they’re unjustified. In fact, I want to make the case that the arts and humanities, and the study of arts and letters, is as important and as valuable if not more important and more valuable than any other task human beings can set for themselves.

Now, just because for the moment we are all gathered here together in this room, we should not pretend as though this claim is trivially or even assumed to be provisionally true, that everyone affirms the importance and value of the humanities and the arts. For this simply isn’t true. There are forces, and powerful forces, both inside and outside of the university, which insist directly or indirectly on the unimportance and lack of value of studying arts and letters. For what it’s worth, there are similarly strong feelings about the unimportance and lack of value of mathematics, so we are not alone! (Although I probably am.) But this points me towards my next point, which is the difference between arts and letters and the sciences. Some discontent with mathematics aside, the “hard,” productive, and lucrative sciences seem to have the upper hand over the “softer,” reflective, and impoverished liberal arts. It is interesting to consider why this is the case. Although sometimes we may fail to notice it, we live in the age of the triumph of modern science and modern technology, when even the concern over the dangers of science has very little bite. Ethical quandaries over cloning (or anything of a similar sort) do not and will never have the same immediacy or potency as the immanent threat of nuclear war. Similarly, the invention and application of the internet has not and will not radically alter the structure of society the way that the automobile did 100 years ago. Science and technology have become useful, unobtrusive, and nonrevolutionary. For the most part, in ours and other developed societies, science has fulfilled its promise of emancipating us from nature; yet it remains in very important ways privileged over all other types of knowledge and human activity.

There are two principal ways in which the sciences, and the natural sciences in particular, are privileged over the arts and humanities: first, academically, on the level of knowledge—science possesses (at least ideally) exact and universal truth, almost entirely free of human influence or prejudice, while the arts and humanities are (as everyone knows) at their best contingent, relative, and almost entirely a product of specific human viewpoints and outlooks (here I’m mostly thinking of history and literary criticism), and at their worst produce no genuine knowledge at all (music, painting, and poetry spring immediately to mind). Now, I’m going to spend very little time on this first criticism, because I believe that, for the most part, the humanities have made very serious mistakes when they’ve tried to answer it with any seriousness.

The first and probably more popular mistake in counter-criticism is to try to in some way discredit the sciences, by insisting through one way or another that science, ideal or otherwise, too is unobjective, historical, and prejudicial, just like us, so where do scientists get off at calling us on ours? If you’re going to air out our dirty laundry, we’re going to tell your dirty little secrets too, to each other and to anyone else who will listen. Setting aside the question of its own intellectual merit, this counter-criticism doesn’t really do anything to advance the cause of the humanities; it only makes Engineering look a good deal more respectable.

The second and ultimately more seriously damaging mistake in responding to this criticism is to shift the humanities in the direction of the sciences. In philosophy and history I work on the fringe between the humanities and the sciences (also shared by anthropology, linguistics, and some others) so I’m particularly sensitive to this. The study of literature turns into the science of literary criticism, or cultural studies, not as strong and necessary interdisciplinary programs but as departmental shifts away from creativity and towards objectivity, and more importantly, towards quantifiable output. This counter-move too is a mistake. Both criticisms accept the premise that the fact that the humanities are practiced by human beings is a flaw, and not simply a fact. In actuality, the fact that the arts and humanities study the particular, the contingent, the historical, and the sloppy features of human existence and that they produce knowledge and new work in a somewhat contingent and historical way is actually a strength, because those are the kind of beings we are. The goal of the arts and the humanities is not to understand ourselves as things but to understand ourselves as we are. It’s good that science gives us an absolute conception of the world, independent of human perspective: but now I’m interested in my own perspective of the world, and my own activities, and of the people around me and trying to understand what’s going on at that level. And that level is our level, and I think it’s the most interesting level, not in the least because it’s ours, and it’s ours in a certain familiar everyday way. Science leaves out part of the story, and if we try to turn completely into science ourselves, we’re going to miss that part too.

So why do the humanities want to be like the sciences? Well, I think the answer to that question lies in the second way in which science is privileged over the humanities. Science is seen as producing practical and useful outcomes, i.e., technology and technical knowledge, and consequently the study of science produces individuals who are more employable and valuable in terms of potential revenue than students of the arts and humanities. This deserves to be addressed. Increasingly universities have come to be seen as less institutions of learning and more as facilities for job training, a transition from a scholastic to a business-market model, where students are both the clients and the product. Insofar as the skills and knowledge gained by study in the liberal arts does not translate into a profitable return on an intellectual and material investment, primarily in the realm of business and technology– which isn’t true anyway but let’s suppose it is – the “softer” liberal arts are practically inferior to the sciences (and to most other fields of study), in a world where universities are run by bankers instead of educators, and where people are rarely considered ahead of profit. This is something we should resist, and I think it’s something we’re in a position to resist. The arts and humanities do not and should not fit into a grid determined by multiple-choice exams and input-output relationships. What we do is open-ended, which is another way of saying that the possibilities are endless. We cannot allow what we do to be wholly determined by the rules or even the language of the market. That would foreclose on a great many of the possibilities available to us. We have to stay vital, which is another way of saying that we have to stay creative, responsive, and self-reflective. For example, it is very much a question of the humanities, and not the natural sciences, to ask: Why do we use these banking and market metaphors to think about education? Where do they come from? What does this mean about our society? How does this effect the way we think about education, and ultimately about the way we act and interact in the world? It has not always been so, it is not necessarily so, and it will not, except for apathy and resignation, always be the case. This is what it means to affirm the particular and contingent against the universal and necessary; this is what it means to reflect on ourselves and our own activities in our self-developing history.

There is a painting by Paul Gauguin entitled “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” It’s one of my favorites, although I’ve never had the opportunity to see it in person (It’s in Boston). Gauguin painted it at the end of a century, shortly before but somewhat during a period of great change which was preceded by a tremendous transformation in modern art. To me this painting represents a paradigm case of the unity between the arts and what philosopher Bernard Williams calls “the humanistic enterprise,” meaning the attempt to understand ourselves and our activities. The three questions are really inseparable from one another: What we are is inseparable from where we have been and where we are going. It may seem tremendously unfair to answer the question “Why art?” or “Why the humanities?” with even more questions, but it’s not a bad place to begin. “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” We need to understand where we come from, both in terms of our world history and our personal history. We need to question ourselves as to what and also who we really are, to recognize the unique character of present experience, and to offer up partial answers to this questioning: a novel here, a painting there, and again here, a piece of music. We – and this really does fall to us – need to try to determine what we are doing and where we are going. Because we understand that the world was once fundamentally different, we understand that the world can be made to change again. Studying art, history, and the other humanities thus works to restore both our creativity and our freedom, delivering on the same claim to emancipation that science has offered.

When I was growing up in Detroit, my father worked at the Wayne County Jail downtown. The jail was often donated large stacks of stripped or damaged paperbacks, books my father would sometimes bring home. Most of the books I read as a child were books without covers, falling apart, while my mother and father worked, and worked too hard, too long, and too many hours, so that they could give their four children the life that they couldn’t have: the opportunity to attend and now, graduate from college. This was how I read Mark Twain, Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, and who knows how many other books and authors. If I love books today it is because my parents loved books, and that love came through in those books even when they were not around. Now I have the opportunity to do what I love, to live with books and with art forever.

Now I know – and I hope that you know – that it is a privilege to be a student of arts and letters—and I don’t really mean a student of MSU’s College of Arts and Letters, but a student of art, language, history, music, philosophy, religion, and of the men and women, the times and places, who made our world the way it is today. In the words of Nietzsche, you have had the opportunity to learn how to read, how to write, how to see, and how to think; which are the most important things a person can learn. It does not matter what you “do” with your degree: you have read Chaucer and T.S. Eliot; you have studied Greek sculpture and Picasso; you have played Bach and Debussy. Very few scientists can claim to have “encountered” Newton or Einstein, but all you have to do to encounter Gertrude Stein or Simone Weil is to go to the library and begin turning the pages. And this is something that will not change. This is what I mean by buying in to the endeavor of being human. “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” What we have been, for the past few years has been students of the arts and humanities. What I hope I have impressed upon you all here today, is that what we are is in a large part determined by the fact that we are students of arts and letters, and that we will, independently of where our separate paths may turn, always be students of arts and letters. That is something that is immeasurably valuable, and something which can never be taken away from us. We’re holding out, and we’re affirming the meaning of being human beings in our world, with our flaws and our perfections, our natures and our possibilities. We will always continue to reflect on what we are, which is where we have been and where we are going, because this is part of the importance of being human. Thank you very much.

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