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2014 Commencement Address: Dr. John Longo

JohnLongo speechThe Colorado Springs School’s English teacher, Dr. John Longo delivered the Commencement Address to the Class of 2014.

Good morning, Mrs. Madrigal, Ms. Harris, Members of the Board, parents, students, colleagues and, of course, graduates. Congratulations to you, and thank you for honoring me by asking me to speak to you this morning and share with you some thoughts that I hope will be helpful to you as you head off to college later this summer. To put my topic in the simplest way, I want to speak to you this morning about being small and being big.

Some of you may have seen the recent science series Cosmos narrated by and starring the physicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson. It’s a self-conscious revision of an earlier Cosmos series presented by the late Cornell University physicist Carl Sagan in the 1970’s. That show was so popular that Sagan’s frequent iteration of the phrase “billions and billions” when discussing vast distances in the universe briefly became a laugh line for late-night comedians. Enormity of size and number is a theme of the new Cosmos as it was of the old—how could it not be?—and the first hour of the new series dramatizes the scale of cosmic space-time, and the mind-boggling disproportion between us and the size and duration of the universe we inhabit, with a neat visual image, a calendar, divided into 12 squares , one square for each month, with January on the upper left corner and December on the bottom right. At one point in the show, Tyson stands at the tip of the lower right hand square of his calendar—December 31—to indicate the small fraction of universal time that our earth, not to mention our species, has existed. It is an effective image, its point clear: in the universal context, we are very very small, our communal and personal existence staggeringly overshadowed by the expanse of time and space that surrounds and precedes us. It’s hard to avoid the inference that, against such a background, our lives and all that fills them are laughably inconsequential, that we are no more than, in Hamlet’s words, a mere “quintessence of dust”— specs vanishing in a cosmic eye blink.

And yet, for us to acknowledge our smallness is to immediately to court a paradox, for as Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane famously concedes, this spec is also “infinite in faculties,” our mental reach potentially as far ranging and consequential as our physical existence is bounded and insignificant. As far as we know, of all the tiny dust particles flying about the universal immensity, only we have the ability to step outside of our smallness and wonder at the enormity that dwarfs us. Only we have the ability to “take in,” as we say, the vastness surrounding us. I want to talk a bit about that notion of “taking in,” and what it says about our lives generally and about yours particularly, graduates, in the years ahead.

In my Philosophy course, one of the earliest pieces we read is a meditation by the twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell on the value of philosophical investigation. Russell notes that philosophy historically has pushed at the margins of the known and thus given birth over time to new disciplines that we no longer consider philosophy at all, science being one major example, psychology another. But Russell’s true defense of philosophy lies elsewhere and amounts to this: by turning our gaze upon the unknown, upon what he calls the “not-Self,” we of necessity expand ourselves in order to comprehend the object of our perception. In short, we become bigger—mentally, intellectually, spiritually—by trying to encompass what lies beyond us. This is how Russell himself puts it, “In contemplation,..we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.”

Russell develops this notion of our expansive potential by contrasting it to another approach to life, one that he, somewhat unfairly, dubs the life of “the practical man.” By this he means a life circumscribed by exclusively utilitarian concerns, with material well-being, the goods of the body, the small circle of self and family. The opposition between these two dispositions—the self as narrowly bounded, indeed imprisoned, on the one hand, and open-ended, free and expansive on the other—is in fact a commonplace running through much of western literature and philosophy. You can find it in Dante, in Emerson and Whitman, and, as we have seen, famously in Shakespeare. Russell’s own language in describing this self-imposed smallness is crafted to evoke an earlier and, indeed, controlling text—Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic; for like the prisoners shackled to their seats in Plato’s cavern, who mistake the flickering shadows cast on the wall before them for reality, Russell’s practical man is “shut up” and “confined,” “imprisoned,” Russell says, “in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.” This is a vision of the human being as hemmed in by—and again I quote Russell—“the tyranny of custom,” or what Plato refers to disparaging as the world of “belief” and “opinion.” “Such a confinement,” Russell says, rather interestingly, “though it seeks security in a insecure world, brings with it not peace but anxiety,” his idea being that the effort to win peace of mind at the price of our true birthright ultimately leaves us dissatisfied, metaphysically and spiritually frustrated, and beset by innumerable petty grievances. “In one way or another,” to quote Russell one last time, “if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.” We must, in other words, turn our eyes away from the simple, false securities of habit and received ideas, to the contemplation of the Not Self. We must enlarge ourselves.

Now, it’s at this point that the humanist in me is supposed to pivot and instruct you that what will free you from a life of bondage to mindless prejudice and uncritical received opinion, from the anxieties and cares of smallness, is a good liberal arts education. And as old fashioned as that sounds, it’s true: you will be more civilized, more complex, more fully and richly developed human beings if, over the next four years, you allow yourselves to drink deeply from the well of the humanizing disciplines college offers you (and I include the sciences in that description). I honestly believe that you will be better off in all sorts of ways if you take those courses in Asian military history, the Gothic novel, and nineteenth-century European social thought.

I can hear the skeptical rejoinder. The anxiety of petty grievances, you say! Economists and social scientists remind us every day that we live in a new age of anxiety. Uncertainty and dislocation swirl around us, threatening old securities, especially when it comes to jobs and the economy. In such an environment, isn’t it a bit fatuous to counsel you to use the next four years to tend to your souls and the life of intellectual enlargement when the question of whether a job awaits you at graduation is a real one? Can you really afford, in today’s economic environment, to squander college credits on classes in literature, art, music, and the rest, all to chase some vague humanistic goal of personal enrichment?

Actually, as things stand today, you can’t afford not to. What is different about the world confronting you from the world of your parents is that that this self-enrichment I speak of will not only make you a more civilized and interesting person; it will make you more marketable. Writers like Daniel Pink have pointed out that the economy of the coming decades will demand not the ability to perform narrow repetitive tasks well—even fairly high level tasks that in the past have required a college degree. These jobs will increasingly be computerized or outsourced to developing economies half way around the globe. What can’t be digitalized—at least not yet—are careers that draw upon the so-called right brain functions, like empathy, cooperation, and the ability to see the big picture and forge links between apparently disparate phenomena—the very sorts of skills, in other words, that a wide and varied humanistic education, as opposed to a narrowly drawn syllabus, is likely to foster.
To put it another way, in the modern, globalized and increasingly digitalized world, Russell’s traditional opposition between intellectual contemplation and practical life is collapsing. Indeed, Russell’s Platonic model has long been open to criticism from other philosophers. The American pragmatist John Dewey, for one, launched a powerful critique of the Greek philosophical tradition and its privileging of contemplation over practice. As Dewey noted, the society Plato envisioned, where the practical arts are devalued and the solitary contemplation of an eternal good exalted, is both static and fundamentally undemocratic, a world divided between the elite few and the ignorant many, a world grounded on very different values and realities than our modern American democracy. For Dewey, real knowledge is inseparable from action. It’s not only that we learn by doing. Knowledge itself is dynamic, something we create as we interact with and transform the world around us. On this view, true “enlargement,” both personal and societal, demands not a passive contemplation of the Not Self, but a vital engagement and shaping of the world to accommodate our own vision of what the world should be. Today, Dewey’s dynamic, democratic vision is more and more our social and economic reality. This means it will not serve you, graduates, to content yourselves with a narrow conception of study or career, to lower your gaze, in a false sense of security, to the comfortable ground at your feet. It won’t do to say, I’m a business major, or I’m an engineer; I have no need to take art classes or to understand human psychology or the way people in other cultures feel and think. Or, for that matter, I’m an English major, I don’t need to understand technology or economics. The chances are very good that whatever career you contemplate now will transform itself in your lifetime, evolve into something else as yet uncreated, or merge with some other practice that will require new combinations of skills. This will prove to be the rule and not the exception in your working lives. More than ever before, the world of work demands versatility, adaptability, creativity, agility of mind and imagination. That’s true whether you intend to be an engineer, a doctor, a teacher or the CEO of your own start-up. Smallness, narrowness of focus, is not a winning strategy. To put it somewhat baldly, that course on the Russian novel? Somewhere down the line, a job may depend on it.

All of which leads me to some final exhortations. We have a done a lot here at CSS to offer you opportunities for personal growth and expansion. Think only about your ECS this past year, and how it called you, sometimes in ways that were uncomfortable and difficult, to move beyond the narrow confines of your safe self. College will offer you more such opportunities, though perhaps you’ll never get a chance to pour iron again. If you are smart and courageous, you will take as many of those chances as you can. Some of you already know, or think you know, what you want to major in, what your strengths are, what you want to do, as the phrase goes, “with your life.” Maybe you do. But the world you enter is a shifting, protean one, and it may well have other ideas for you. So, major in chemistry, but take that course in the Japanese novel or medieval art, or the history of Philosophy. Be an art major, but don’t turn away from courses in history and biology and international relations. By all means, major in business, but don’t kid yourself that you won’t be a better businessman for having taken classes in or anthropology and political science, and Balinese dance.

Finally, this all goes double for those personal passions we too often drop by the wayside as we move forward in life. Here’s something you will never hear an adult say, “When I was younger, I used to play piano, or paint, or do martial arts, but I let it drop—and boy, I’m glad I did!” If you play the guitar, keep playing the guitar! When I entered graduate school, intent on a life of literary scholarship and teaching, I gifted away my Gibson Firebird to another guitar player, thinking, wrongly that I was a at a crossroads and it had to be one thing or the other. I’m still dealing with the fallout from that decision to diminish myself. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t play the blues and study microbiology, or that a love of poetry is unseemly in a business major or a political scientist. Above all, don’t attend to any voice, your own or anyone else’s, that tells you that your business is here at your feet and not there on the periphery or out on the horizon. They are wrong. It’s both. Don’t let anyone tell you your job is to till the row at your feet, to keep your head down. They mean well, no doubt, but they are looking at things from too narrow and outmoded a point of view. Your job in this life calls you to be bigger than that.

Thank you.”