Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Convocation Speech: The Idea of Difficulty

The Idea of Difficulty

On behalf of the faculty, I have been asked to say a few words to you about your educations. No doubt you have heard and will hear much about what an education can do for you, all of which are more or less true. No doubt an education will help you get a job by providing you with a marketable set of skills. Yet, this afternoon, I would like to focus on a comment I often hear from students: “School is hard.”  Perhaps we have all said this at one time or another, and indeed it is true that finishing a degree of study is as hard as anything you will do. Yet, when understood, we see difficulty as a sign of opportunity, a means of inspiring and, in some ways, measuring achievement.
In 1962, when attempting to inspire a nation to support the space program, JFK famously said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." To some this might sound masochistic or merely macho posturing. Who would really choose to do something hard instead of something easy? On its face, the idea seems counter-intuitive. We are conditioned to seek the simple, feeling entitled to simple explanations, obvious tasks, and static ideas that only reaffirm our provincial preconceptions. Anything else is seen as some kind of special pleading or brainwashing. However, out of this uncritical affirmation nothing meaningful emerges, no knowledge and certainly no intellectual growth. All we get is cynical resignation. Becoming educated, as JFK’s simple idea reveals, is achieved not only by accepting that doing so will be hard, because it will be, but seeking out, by choosing, those tasks that are in and of themselves difficult. In confronting difficult tasks you will grow, you will move beyond expectations of simplicity and begin asking and seeking answers to questions that matter and lead to something good.
When JFK delivered this phrase, he was asking scientists to seize the profligate technologies that had been developed to kill, to deliver hatred across seas and continents, and transform them into tools that might could use to achieve something good, something hard. Violence and hatred are easy, peace and empathy are hard. JFK realized, as did his speech writer and many others, that important achievements were enmeshed within difficulty problems, answers to which would require imagination, critical thinking, thoughtful analysis, and sincere commitment to the truth. The values implicit in seeking these answers define an education, the very kind that the Husson faculty have committed to providing you. Only in confronting difficult tasks will you grow, moving beyond your preconceived, and often misinformed, notions to a deeper understanding of how knowledge is related. How knowledge can be used to solve problems that motivate positive change rather than promote cynicism and encourage fear.
Look around you. When your parents go off to work to determine why an engine isn’t working and how it might be fixed; or diagnose a patient and then explaining how she might be healed; or plan how to pay for your education, your sibling’s food, and their retirement, they are doing something that is hard. When your professors stand before you to explain a difficult principle or sit to evaluate your performance, they are doing something that is hard. When you seek solutions to equations, stand before your classmates to deliver a speech, write a research paper, or develop a business plan, you are doing something that is hard. And you should celebrate these difficulties, seeking them out, because it is through them that you will grow, that you will, as have your parents and your professors, become educated.
  And the person you will be when you emerge from Husson University will be able to work, will no longer fear the world and its challenges, will be able to differentiate between truth and lies, and will have empathy for his neighbors, for her community, for those living in other parts of the world. In short, you will be an educated person, who will understand, without hesitation or gloss, the importance of JFK’s ideas, and of facing difficulty with resolve.