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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Hope of College and the College of Hope

A graduation "lecture" presented this spring at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. It's good for any stage of life.

I’m deeply honored to be with you this afternoon. I’m also deeply curious, in both senses of the word. Very few of you have ever taken a class with me, and I have always considered this a sign of your wisdom. But now I’m beginning to have my doubts. Somebody in the senior class has a very peculiar sense of humor, because you have chosen a last lecturer who doesn’t really lecture very much. As some of you know, my standard operating procedure in class is to assign what my students call “too much reading” or to give them something strange to do—like counting all of the stuff in your dorm room—and then to come to class and ask “What do you think?” It’s so simple, and so stupid, that I’m always amazed that the college pays me to do it. Please don’t tell President Anderson.

Another curiosity about this honor is that almost all of you are substantially smarter than I am. When I went to college, way back in the last century, I was not a very good student. I had other things on my mind. So almost 80 percent of you have a GPA that is higher than mine was. When I applied to graduate school, one of my best recommendations read, in full, “I do not remember this man, but he got a B+ in my class.” Do you really need a last lecture from this man?

Finally, I think it’s curious that I’ve been asked to lecture today, since I specialize in stuff that people already know. One of my classes, for example, begins with a reading on “Why We Brush Our Teeth and Other Ideological Questions.” In my American Studies classes and in Campus Ecology, we read essays on cars and computers, condoms and clothes, hamburgers and French fries, TV and toilets, fun and Facebook, entertainment and wild parties, bodies and Bibles, good sex and the good life, work and play, private life and politics, the St. Olaf bubble and the so-called “real world.” Who needs a lecture from a person who only knows normal stuff? But need it or not, here it is.

Frankly, I’m not fond of graduation. While it’s definitely and deservedly a day of celebration, a day of honoring your good work at St. Olaf, it’s also a day when you leave St. Olaf, a day when I lose your presence, if not your friendship. It’s a commencement for you, but for me it’s just the end of some of the best conversations of my life. As I sit and watch the graduates cross the stage to get their degrees, I am always filled with questions.

You know a lot that you didn't know four years ago. You’ve all completed general education requirements, and specialized in a major. But I always wonder: is it enough? We know that you know a lot, because we’ve tested you on it. But we don’t really know if you’re wise, because we don’t know enough to know how to test you on it—and some of us aren’t wise anyhow. But if we were wise, here are some of the things we might ask about.

Here's what I hope you've been learning at St. Olaf:

I hope you're learning how the world works—biologically, socially, aesthetically, and spiritually. I hope you’re learning to ask the big questions of life. My favorite question is the title of one of Wendell Berry’s books, What Are People For? If you can answer that question, you’ve done well here at St. Olaf. But there are other important questions too. “What am I good at?” “What am I good for?” At graduation, we especially need to ask, “What in the world is my education good for?” But we also need to ask "What good is it for the world?" The answers to these questions aren’t easy, and most of us won’t have satisfactory answers today, but I hope you’re learning how to live comfortably with life’s cosmic questions.

I hope you’re learning to love language and to love the ways that our words affect our worlds, and vice versa. I hope you’ve noticed that when you use a word like “vocation” instead of a word like “job,” your expectations change. When you’re willing to use a word like “virtue” or to talk seriously about the “goodness” of the good life, you make it possible for people to re-think their lives and American life. So I hope you’re getting comfortable with the words that make it easier for people to be as good as they can be—words like virtue and frugality, friendship and love, commitment and community and communion and humility, and peace and justice and justice (it’s the word that needs to be said twice).

I hope you’re learning, as Wendell Berry says in Standing by Words, that “language is communal, and that its purpose is to tell the truth.” In this society, of course, a lot of language is designed to tell the half-truth, or to hide the truth. Hemingway said that a writer needs “a built-in, shockproof crap detector” to cope with the modern world. I think students and citizens need one too, so I hope you’ve developed that crap detector, and I even hope you’re using it now.

Dr. Seuss made the same argument, more artfully, in a commencement address that he gave at Lake Forest College in 1977. The title of the commencement address, which is my favorite of all time, was “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers,” and here it is, in its entirety:

My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant's bill of fare.

And when they were served,

he regarded them with a penetrating stare . . .

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

``To eat these things,'' said my uncle,

``you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what's solid . . .

BUT . . .

you must spit out the air!''

And as you partake of the world's bill of fare,

That's darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air

And be careful what you swallow.

In addition to this ethics of language, I also hope you’re learning the beauties of language, noting that it’s functional not just when it’s good, but also when it affects us aesthetically. I hope that you’re learning that a good sentence is a good thing, that people love the lilt and the rhythms of evocative language. I hope you’ve learned the art of rhetoric, which is not the art of lying with a straight face, but the art of helping people hear the truths they need to know. Too often, I think, we think of ethics and aesthetics as luxuries. But I hope you’re learning that goodness and beauty are among the essentials of life.

As an American historian and a professor of American Studies, I hope you’re learning something about the moral ecology of everyday life, about American values—not just our expressed values, but our operative values. The expressed values of Americans are noble—freedom and equality, individualism and initiative, democracy and civic engagement, peace and prosperity—and they’re even more noble when we practice them. But the operative values of Americans are also important, and we practice most of them without preaching them. Environmentally, for example, we say we love nature and that we value conservation and efficiency. But our operative values—the ones we actually put into practice—say something else. When we look honestly at our lives, we basically buy into different values. When we look at the moral ecology of everyday life, our operative values include cheapness and novelty, fun and fashion, comfort and convenience, cool-ness and conformity. When push comes to shove, we’d rather look good than be good. We’d rather have low, low prices than high, high standards. Instead of acting out a preferential option for the poor, we exercise a preferential option for the affluent. And in the process, we endanger the earth’s ecosystems. When you look at the values that actually govern our actions, it’s pretty clear that—even though we never, never say it—Americans don’t actually practice the values we profess. We are often, as a recent survey suggests, “a society at odds with our values.”

Let’s look closer at one of our most important operative values, fun. In the 21st century, almost all Americans are fundamentalists—not religious people with strict beliefs—but people who believe that one of the primary purposes of life is to have fun. Martha Wolfenstein calls this “fun morality”—the idea that we’re obligated to have fun. Every week, we chant the great American interdenominational prayer, “Thank God it’s Friday!” And college life is no exception—it conforms to the shape of American life, in which people endure the workweek because they’re “waiting for the weekend.” To some extent, too, college students take classes from professors who are not boring, but entertaining. This implies that fun is the standard by which we measure our activity, and increasingly it is.

But as Thomas Pynchon suggests in Gravity's Rainbow, if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers. If we ask if something is fun—and not if it's fulfilling—we end up with radically different answers. Fun, for the most part, is episodic. We speak of a fun time, but not a fun life. We say we had fun at the concert, but not that all music is fun. Fulfillment, on the other hand, doesn't have to be episodic, nor is it necessarily fun. Fulfillment describes the satisfaction that comes from living a good life—not "the good life" of consumer culture, but a life characterized by a right relation to the world. Fulfillment comes from going deep instead of skimming the surface of life. It comes from service, not from selfishness. Fulfillment satisfies the soul as well as the senses. Good relationships are fulfilling, because they challenge us to be good, which is not always fun. Raising children is fulfilling, but it's not always fun. Learning to write well is fulfilling, but it isn't fun. And good work is fulfilling, even though it can be challenging. So the funny thing about fun morality—watching TV, playing video games, drinking hard like the people we see in beer ads—is how much it keeps us distracted from other possibilities of deeper pleasure. In your classes at St. Olaf, I hope you’ve experienced the intellectual play that’s involved in serious thinking, and the deep fulfillment that comes from doing good work.

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his co-authors contend that, in terms of values, Americans speak first and second languages—not English or Spanish or Somali, but words that reflect the different worlds of the American experience. These days, they suggest, our first languages are instrumental and expressive individualism. Instrumental individualism assumes that the world was created for the advancement of the individual; it’s expressed beautifully on the bumpersticker that says, “After me, you come first.” Expressive individualism is related, but it’s less competitive. It’s the idea, pervasive in American culture, that we need to express our own unique personalities. In both cases, our first language focuses our attention on self-interest and self-expression—and, to some extent, therefore, on selfishness.

But Bellah also suggests that we still resonate with older languages from the American experience, the languages of Biblical and republican individualism, languages that locate the self solidly in a community committed to the common good. These languages, when used by people like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Rachel Carson, have inspired Americans to consult what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” and to act, as King said, to create “the beloved community.” We never succeed at this, of course, and Lutherans know why: there’s evil and imperfection in the world. But we do have substantial traditions that call us forcefully to be good for each other, and—these days—to be good for the earth.

At St. Olaf, we speak the common languages of instrumental and expressive individualism. We still want to get ahead in the world. We do want a good job so we can lead the good life. We want individualized Facebook profiles and iPod playlists to express ourselves. We dress for success, or we wear clothes that seemingly express who we are—like my gaudy American Studies tie today. We wouldn’t be Americans if we didn’t understand that language. But at St. Olaf, we also speak the deeper languages. We speak of lives of worth and service, of a college whose vocation is vocation, of ideals to action, and—even more importantly—it’s not all bullshit. On our good days, we actually practice what we preach—not all the time, of course, but enough that students like you get some—and give some—examples of an alternative reality. Think of daily chapel, and choirs and bands and orchestras, and the volunteer network. Think of the wind turbine, and the composter, and local foods in the caf. Think Minnesota nice, and Northfield nice, and the genuine friendliness that attracted you here in the first place. Think about a staff that enforces the rules to create an institution where it’s easier for you to be good. Think about professors who are smart enough to get more lucrative jobs in the so-called “real world,” but who are wise enough to know that there’s no better work than spending time with you. Think about your friends who are going to Peace Corps or Lutheran Volunteer Corps or Teach for America.

So I trust you’ve been learning languages of solidarity and not selfishness, and I hope you’re learning to create community. In recent years, sociologists have focused attention on what they call “social capital,” which is, roughly speaking, the confidence and power that comes from communities. In a nation where social capital seems to be declining, you’ve just spent the last four years of your life in a social capital factory, as the Ole culture that you create encourages trust and collaboration and community. One important piece of evidence is the backpacks that you all drop on the floor before you enter Stav Hall, trusting that they’ll be there when you return.

I hope you're learning to define your community not just socially but ecologically. I hope you're flourishing in face-to-face communities of family, and friends, and faculty. But I also hope that you're learning more extensive definitions of community than you had when you arrived on the Hill. I hope you're learning to extend your understanding of community to people you don't see—some on the other side of the world—and to the community of plants and other animals that constitute a biotic community. I hope you are learning to act as if the biosphere were a community, for the very simple reason that it is.

I hope you're getting a sense of the sacramental imagination. Especially at a college of the church, I hope somebody has mentioned that some things are holy, and that you can’t screw around with the sacred. I hope that you’ve learned a sense of reverence, that synthesis of awe and connectedness that reaches us deep down where we really live.

I hope you're learning to go back to nature, and immediately, if not sooner. Usually when we talk about getting back to nature, we mean going to the wilderness. But I don't want you to leave for the Boundary Waters or the national parks immediately. I want you to pay attention to the nature that's already immediate—the nature that's right here right now. I want you to be like Thoreau, who went back to nature by paying attention to where he was. Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem called "Going to Walden," in which she thinks about taking a trip to Walden Woods, and, more broadly, about how to follow Thoreau’s example.

Going to Walden

Mary Oliver

It isn't very far as highways lie.

I might be back by nightfall, having seen

The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.

Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.

They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:

How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

Many have gone, and think me half a fool

To miss a day in the cool country.

Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,

Going to Walden is not so easy a thing

As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult

Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

I hope you've learning that slow and difficult trick of living, and I hope you find it whereever you find yourself after graduation.

I hope you’re learning how small decisions make a big difference. Too often, we opt out of a good cause or a good action by saying that “it’s no big deal.” But many of our most pressing problems are the product of billions of decisions that are no big deal—in the case of global climate change, individual decisions to use fossil fuels in place of regenerative forms of energy. I don’t know how much you’ve been paying attention, but in your time here at St. Olaf, the college has been teaching you everyday how small decisions matter. The wind turbine is, of course, a big deal, teaching us that we can generate energy from moving air, and offering hope that we can eventually harness the vast power of professors’ boring lectures. But it also reminds us that we can conserve energy by small decisions, like turning off our computers and appliances, and reducing our energy demands. The college generates megawatts with its windmill, but each of us can generate negawatts by our own restraint and responsibility.

Another example. On the average, in the caf, students like you waste about 2 ounces of food per person per meal—no big deal. But that adds up to a quarter of a million pounds a year, and that is a big deal. We’re managing it beautifully with our composter, which is feeding all of the flower beds you see on campus today. But it would also be possible to generate less waste in the first place, taking less food and eating more of what we take.

Three times a day, in Stav Hall, Bon Appetit has also been teaching you how small decisions make a big difference. Each of us drinks a glass or two of milk a day, but all of us together drink about 250 gallons. Over the course of a year, that’s about $300,000 worth of milk that comes from the Hastings Dairy, a Minnesota business that delivers hormone-free and antibiotic-free milk to campus. We get good milk, we put our money in the local economy, and—most importantly—we put our money where our values are.

The same sort of thing is true of the STOGROW farm, St. Olaf’s organic garden. Three years ago, when she was getting started, your classmate Day Burtness asked Bon Appetit if they’d be willing to buy any organic vegetables she might grow. They said, “Sure, we’ll buy all of them,” and they started a productive partnership that culminated last week with a $3000 award to STOGROW from national Bon Appetit for doing the kind of work that brings good food—and not just food that tastes good—to consumers like us.

In this very room, there are small decisions that make a big difference. When we remodeled the chapel last year, we insulated the roof with a bio-foam sugar-based product that raises the R-value from about 1 to 24. As usual, we used quarry tiles on the roof, because they last almost forever, and because they have the lowest long-term life-cycle costs. When we put new wood on the ceiling inside, we used Minnesota poplar, both because it's local (and thus reduces the fossil fuels needed to transport it), but also because it grows so fast it's almost sustainable. The platform that I'm standing on has a parquet floor made of thousands of small pieces of birch-wood that we got not by cutting down trees, but by raising up sunken trees from Lake Superior. Come up take a look at it if I ever finish this lecture.

After you graduate tomorrow, you’ll get to make many small decisions—where to work, where to live, what to eat, what to wear, how to get around, how to spend your time when there’s no homework and no beer pong. Each of these small decisions offers you a chance to make a big difference, by putting your time and your money where your values are—and not just doing what everyone else does. I hope you’ve already figured out how to make these good decisions, but just in case you’ve been postponing thinking about that, let me recommend The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Ask for it as a graduation gift, and then pass it on to your parents. If they’re like me, it wasn’t a part of their college education.

In addition to these individual actions, I hope you’re learning to be institutionalized. Usually, when we use that word, we mean that people are locked up for being crazy. I’m not hoping for your incarceration, even though I do think that it’s perfectly rational to be considered crazy in an insane world. Instead, I hope you're learning how to be institutionalized by embedding your values in the standard operating procedures of American institutions. If you change an individual, including yourself, that’s wonderful. If you change an institution—which is nothing more than an established pattern of human behavior—you can affect all of the individuals who come in contact with it.

Therefore—and this is the perhaps weirdest one—I hope you’re learning to work on committees. I don’t know all that you’ve learned here, but one of the things I’ve learned in my experience at St. Olaf is that committees do the work of the world. If you think students ought to think about peace, you get on the Peace Prize Forum committee. If you have ideas about the purposes of college education, you get on the committee that’s writing the mission statement. If you want the college to become more sustainable, you get on the task force. Committees are thought to be boring—and some of them definitely are—but one person has more influence on a committee than just about anywhere else. The St. Olaf motto is “Ideals to Action,” and one important place where that happens is on committees.

Another place where it happens is in politics, so I hope you’re learning to be political. Many St. Olaf students tell me that they’re not political, but I don’t believe them. What that really means is that I’m not actively political, and what that means is I’ll let any idiot who is political determine my fate for me. The United States was founded on a robust ideal of citizenship (spelled with a c), but in recent years we’ve opted for “sitizenship” (spelled with an s), which is the act of sitting around, watching TV, and bitching about politics. This apathy and indifference and cynicism is un-American and unworthy of people like you, who know enough to know better. Politics is often understood as the art of the possible, the art of compromise—and that’s true. But when it’s practiced passionately and proactively, it’s also the art of making the impossible possible.

Let me give one example. During the 1850s, a self-taught Illinois lawyer, tall and gangly and aggressively ugly, began to think about slavery and the Constitution. He began to wonder if “we, the people” was inclusive enough. Against the very best political advice of his time, he began to speak about slavery as a moral issue. In 1858, he lost a campaign for the Senate in Illinois, and in 1860 he was elected President with just 40 percent of the vote. In 1863, he issued the emancipation proclamation, and in 1865 slavery was abolished. Abraham Lincoln—like Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King—practiced politics to make the impossible possible, and these histories of hope are our histories too.

As you work in the world, as you work on committees and on political campaigns, I hope you're also learning to fail like Lincoln. Most of you are really bright students, the ones who succeed in college classes because you're willing to commit your head and heart and hands to good work. I treasure all of your successes, but I still hope you learn to fail. The world's work—the work that will make the planet wild and precious and humane—is difficult work, and you won't always succeed. Success is pretty easy to handle, but it's harder to handle failure successfully. We need to learn how to absorb failure, to learn from it, and to leverage it in the direction of our hopes. And we need to learn how to make mistakes without mistaking them for failure.

I hope you’re learning your own life’s story, and the ways that it connects to bigger stories of creation and creativity, character and community. In his essay “Doing Good Work Together,” William Kittredge reminds us that “We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things.” I hope that you are learning to reinvent the reasons for your lives, and to live in larger stories of peace and justice, hope and charity. In Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael, a character contends that "you can't just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in." So I hope you’re also learning to practice "prefigurative thinking,” creating positive stories of the future that are attractive enough to work for.

For this reason, I hope you’re learning the realism of idealism, which is that if you don’t imagine a new world, you’ll never get there. At St. Olaf, whether you liked it or not, you’ve been living in somebody else’s ideals. On campus, you’re living in the imagination of generations of builders and landscapers, and in the imagination of the hundreds of staff people who care for you in ways that are sometimes invisible, but never inconsequential. In all of your classes, you’re living to some extent in some professor’s imagination. Today’s real world is yesterday’s imaginary world, and the real world of tomorrow depends on the quality of our imagination. Therefore, I hope you're learning to imagine a new world, a better world, a world in which our institutions make it easier to be good.

I also hope you're learning how to change the world. I suspect you are, because many of you have changed my world. Even showing up for rituals like this is a way of changing the world because each of you gives support to all the rest of us. And small actions like this can have larger repercussions. As Robert Kennedy said in apartheid South Africa in 1966, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man [or a woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [they send] forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Another way of saying this is that I hope you’re learning to love—and not just romantically. I hope you’re learning that making love doesn’t just happen behind closed doors, but also in the wider world. I hope you’re learning to do the hard things that love requires—like telling the truth to people who need to hear it, and doing the dirty work of organizations and relationships. They’re often a pain in the ass, but the heart isn’t the only organ involved in love. In your love life, I hope you’re becoming biophiliacs—people who love the intricate web of life that is one expression of God’s love. I hope you're learning to love this place, and I hope you're learning the skill of making a place for yourself, of making yourself at home on the planet—and at home with the planet.

As you've noticed if you’ve been paying attention, the verb of choice today is hope—and that's my final hope. I hope you're learning to hope. I hope you’re learning the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is often wishful thinking, an assumption that, sooner or later, things will get better. Hope is a virtue, rooted in a fundamental sense of rightness, which assumes that things will get better when people get active, sooner rather than later.

I hope that you’re learning how to be hope for each other. We live in a stressful society, and usually we’re advised to find “coping mechanisms” to deal with it—time management, exercise, drugs, and any number of electronic escapes from reality. But what we really need is “hoping mechanisms,” people and places that inspire our hope and help us realize it in the world. Hoping mechanisms can be institutional—St. Olaf is one of my hoping mechanisms, as is the radical Catholic church I attend. But hoping mechanisms can also be individual—family or friends or even public figures. They can be close or distant, dead or alive. Writers like Thoreau and Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard are hoping mechanisms for me. And so, quite frankly, are many of you.

In his wonderful book, Hunting for Hope, Scott Russell Sanders notes that hope comes from a word that means “leaping up in expectation.” I hope that you realize many of your hopes and dreams. But I also hope that you spend a lifetime “leaping up in expectation,” because there’s always more to hope for. As Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

I’d like to conclude with a meditation that appears on the internet as a prayer of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology. I doubt that St. Francis had anything to do with it, and I’m sure he didn’t upload it, but here it is anyway:

May God bless you with . . . . . discomfort
at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships
so that you will live deep in your heart.

May God bless you with . . . . . anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth
so that you will work for justice, equity and peace

May God bless you with . . . . . tears
to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out with your hands
to comfort them and change their pain into joy

And may God bless you with . . . . . . the foolishness
to think that you can make a difference in the world
so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.

Amen and thank you.

--Professor Jim Farrell

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