Delivered on May 16, 2013.
The Valedictorian speech at a liberal arts college follows a very predictable arc. This is true at least of the few that I’ve read , and the one that I’m currently reading. There are 3 parts. The valedictorian will start by presenting a forceful, and somewhat forced, justification of the value and purpose of the liberal arts in general, since, at our proudest moment, we feel the need to expose our greatest insecurities about our endeavour here. The valedictorian will then add some details and anecdotes to make this specific to their university. Finally, they will conclude with a farewell and some sort of a call for action, not for anything too specific, but for doing something, anything.
Part 1. A story. When I was a young boy, there was a mouse in our home. Elusive as it was, it eventually fell for the peanut butter on the catch and release trap. With a live mouse in the box, what better opportunity for a father to teach young Simcha about the virtues of kindness to animals than to bring him along to the woods to release the mouse? At the entrance to the forest, my father opened the box and the mouse made a brave dash towards freedom. Not more than a few metres from this great teachable moment in humaneness to animals, a swooping bird saw a different opportunity: lunch, and changed this from a lesson about not causing harm to a helpless creature into a lesson, I think, about the value of our liberal arts education. Let me explain.
From the story of a child setting out to learn about kindness and instead also finding out about how alarming the most routine ways of nature can be, I think we can learn something about what King’s does so well, which is that the important thing in education is not to learn exactly what you came to learn, but to learn something completely different.
I can barely remember what I thought I was coming to learn. I said all sorts of things about great books this and interdisciplinary that, and some other things I read on the website, but no one really had any idea what was about to happen to us when we entered Alumni Hall.
I don’t remember telling too many people that a great motivating factor in my decision, is that when you come to King’s you don’t need to pick very many courses. Someone much wiser has written out a reading list for you. The assumption, then, is not that you’re already a fully formed person who knows exactly what information they need to become a proper adult, that only needs a few skills and a few blanks filled in and they can then be off to work. The assumption instead is that education should be allowed to change you, to teach you something that you didn’t expect to learn and lots of things that you don’t immediately know what to do with.
Part 2. When I stepped into the Quad, the day before Frosh week, we ran into President Barker. “President Barker,” my brother said, “This is my brother, Simcha, he’s coming to King’s this year!” President Barker’s response: “Another sacrifice.” As frightening as this welcome to King’s may have been, I think we know what he meant.
It’s undeniable, almost to the point of banality, that every student who has made it this far has made sacrifices to be here. Not just tuition reluctantly paid, days spent in our beautiful library, or nights spent in its windowless cousin, hoping no one will smell your Subway shame. We’ve also given King’s whatever was left of our (probably wasted) youths. We’ve allowed King’s to help determine the direction our lives were heading in, even if we still have no idea where we’re headed or if we learnt that the “direction” our lives head in is not the world-defining event we thought it was.
The sacrifice, obviously, was not just ours. A whole host of other people conspired to make this happen, from parents, to our professors who have, among so many other things, convinced us that we’re neither as dumb nor as smart as we think; from all the King’s staff to the three people who have served as president in the past three years. But at whose altar have we all been sacrificing ourselves? Certainly not the altar of employability. That’s the joke you hear with increasing anxiety as you approach graduation. Even our friends in journalism, who now bear professional qualifications (and who demanded that I mention them), probably aren’t finding the easiest time of it.
It seems to me that when we translate them out, the values of what we’re doing here get turned into something that we don’t really believe. We’re probably all going to tell prospective employers that our humanities education has honed our skills in critical thinking, in thoughtful decision making. But if useful skill development is what we are after, then it’s hard to believe that staying up all night in a dorm room asking the question concerning technology or memorizing the terraces of Purgatory is the most direct way to achieve that. A trope you hear a lot lately is that liberal arts students are the ones who are most capable of doing all sorts of jobs, but if all we’re doing here is training for the work force, this is a pretty elaborate ruse.
We’re probably all actually here sacrificing for a variety of reasons, some of them contradictory. For example, everyone who makes it as far as the 4th week of FYP learns about the value of the contemplative life, that it’s the happiest and most pleasurable thing and the highest human good. Maybe that’s why we’re all here: to pursue knowledge for its own sake. But those who make it to October generally make it to February where Nietzsche tells them that “‘Knowledge for its own sake’ —that is the last snare of morality: with that one becomes completely entangled in it once more” (64). The thing about King’s is how much we take both of these as true. Nothing you study here turns out to be the ultimate truth, but each plays an essential role in the painstaking process of trying to think about the world, to affirm what needs to be affirmed, to criticize what needs to be criticized, and to imagine new possibilities emerging. This isn’t just an empty exercise in studying a skill without a content; this way of thinking isn’t just another talent we’re trying to add to our holsters. It’s a tradition of thought. Maybe the idea is that something that urgently needs thinking about has been thought in the West in the past few millennia, or, if the whole history of the West has been one continuous catastrophe, from start, to ever-more-imminent end, if we’re going to do anything meaningful about it we may just have to think the whole thing through. And, in order to do that, we were shown that we need to take responsibility for the tradition we inherited and the world we inhabit. For this, thoughts and ideas are important, even though we’ve never been free from serious doubts, never free from the suspicion that we’re actually doing something ridiculous.
King’s isn’t just an oddly dressed group of pretentious hipsters who speak too much in Dal classes. It is that, but it’s also a school that recognizes that sometimes more can be learnt over a box of wine than in a classroom; where the most cutting edge scholarship is presented on audiovisual equipment salvaged from the Cold War; where, on a Sunday morning in spring, three quarters of the students in residence think they have been dreaming of a donkey walking around the quad, while the others realize that it’s Palm Sunday. It’s a place where for one night a year you can wear your clothes backwards and people will know that really it’s your head that’s on backwards and you’re in Inferno for being a diviner.
Part 3. We entered King’s, many of us, without any idea what we were going to do with our lives. We now leave, many of us, without any idea what we are going to do with our lives. We might not even be able to give good explanations for why we worked so hard to get here. Some of us have rarely left the quad these four years and some of us hated FYP and never took another King’s class. Either way, we’ve all dragged ourselves to Encaenia and not to any old convocation.
We’ve each had visions of this event. For some of us, it’s a vision of a new future. For others, it’s a vision of relief, of freedom from the nuisance of papers, readings, lectures, or roommates we’ve kept for too long. For others, this signifies the end of the best time of our lives, of the closest community we’ve known, the most fun we’ve had, and the greatest challenges we’ve met, and so the vision of this ceremony, happy on its surface, borders on the apocalyptic end we hoped would never come, after which lies nothing but chaos and uncertainty. Probably for most this ceremony marks some bittersweet combination.
Whatever it means for us, after this, we’re going to have to do something else. Though I finally have, for these few minutes, a pretty nice high horse from which to tell you all the problems in the world that I’d like you to go and fix, I think you probably don’t need me to do that. All I will say is that whether what we do does or does not have anything directly to do with what we learnt here, we’re going to do it differently than we otherwise would have. Whether you feel like you cannot really remember a single thing you learnt here or if your interpretation of Hegel really is definitive, you can’t take back your time here. So, when you do something, you’re going to do it in the way a King’s grad does it. I don’t know, right now, what that means, but I’m pretty sure we’ll find it does mean something.