Friday, April 26, 2013

Scholar's Dinner Speech--April 25, 2013

[I delivered this (5 minute) speech during the 2013 Husson University Scholar's Dinner. This dinner was organized to honor those seniors who had achieved a 3.6 or above grade point average. My aim, as expressed by the Provost, was to offer these students some thoughts on life after graduation.]

I realize that you will hear much about the importance of your education over the next few weeks. As is often the case, some of these assertions will sound familiar, drawn from an old tradition that includes such evocative statements as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar”: “books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst” (23). Indeed, given this history and enormity of such insights, speakers can claim only so much about how what you have learned will affect what you will do or who you will become.

I, for instance, remember nearly nothing from the events surrounding my undergraduate graduation. I couldn't tell you who spoke at what event or for that matter what was said about the importance of the years I had just spent in the classroom—though I never doubted that those years were important. As with many of you, my thoughts were elsewhere. During the run-up to graduation, my girlfriend asked me what I planned to do, and I actually said, “I would like to sit for a thousand years.” As you might imagine, she was not impressed, and now looking back the angst of that statement makes me laugh. Yet that assertion, if I take it seriously for a moment, articulated my implicit desire to find something to do, to construct out of the noise of my young life some purpose, which in the final wash is what our educations can help us do, and is what I would like to explore in these brief remarks.

Though we rarely consider this point, the purposes that shape our lives often emerge not from a will to succeed but from a sense of place, which through our experiences and education we pull from diffuse and sterile space. This idea might seem merely academic; yet the distinction between space and place points to the following observation: we draw from the generalities and abstractions of everyday life, such as going to work, shopping, or talking with friends, specific objects or impressions or realities that in being emotionally prescient give our lives meaning. Yi-Fu Tuan, a social geographer, describes the creation of such places, claiming that “all people undertake to change amorphous space into articulated geography” (83). Determining how these geographies are articulated and why that might matter is challenging? Michel De Certeau, a French social critic, argues that these geographies are created through the stories we share: “stories,” he claims, “traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories” (115). These stories are the stuff of reality, which is what De Certeau means by trajectories. Individually as well as collectively, these stories suggest paths through and relationships among the complexities of life, complexities that we navigate by developing and committing to a purpose.

We construct such purposes as we connect the objects–which include physical items, images, and associated impressions–into emotionally resonant narratives. For example, you will remember little of what I say this afternoon and that is to be expected. Unless we choose consciously to do so, we don’t record the ephemeral moments of our lives. Instead, these experiences become implanted as general impressions that invest a place with emotional as much as intellectual meaning. In the years to come, you might recall the feel of the seat, the perfume of the person beside you, the temperature of the room; or you might recall an image or phrase that links in surprising ways with what you are now thinking. These impressions become points of reference, moment of tension, that drive the narrative of your lives, and out of which the outlines of your identities emerge. These outlines shift as we gather experience, becoming the fabric of our ambition, the foundation of our purpose.

One instance from my own life is as follows: I recall walking into my grandmother’s barn when I was a teenager. My grandfather had built the barn in the 1930s and it had housed a milk cow, several pigs, a work bench, and a number of peculiar farming implements. I remembered examining these implements as my father told me stories about them. The seed planter used to plant corn, the scythe used to cut hay, or the blood stained block used to butcher chickens became invested with familial significance. Later in graduate school, my memory of these objects became redemptive, suggesting through my relationship to that larger history they a sense purpose. That purpose registered simply as the feeling that I could do something, that I was not, as we can all sometimes feel, irrelevant.

Embedded in the things of your life, your purpose will not just be anything, but will run deep, reverberating with the stories that will give your life meaning. You have and will continue to tell each other such stories. They resonate around kitchens, workplaces, and restaurants, they reverberate like strings, linking you to different people and perspectives, to a larger reality. In the end, it is this story that you will pass on and is what your education will help you build and revise and finally express. It is my hope that you will leave here inspired to continue your story and with enough courage to tell it. Thank you.