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Lewis Lapham’s Convocation Address

Lewis Lapham's Convocation Address

When I look back on my own college graduation fifty-odd years ago I remember being worried about what came next. I thought that the future was a place—like Paris or the Arctic Circle. The supposition proved to be mistaken. The future turns out to be something that you make instead of find. It isn’t waiting for your arrival, either with an arrest warrant or a band; it doesn’t care how you come dressed or demand to see a ticket of admission. It’s no further away than the next sentence, the next best guess, the next sketch for the painting of a life’s portrait that may or may not become a masterpiece. The future is an empty canvas or a blank sheet of paper, and if you have the courage of your own thought and your own observation, you can make of it what you will.

The wisdoms in office prefer the comfort of their best-loved superstition and the fog of welcome lies, but a civilization worthy of the name stands in need of as many questions as a new generation can think to ask. The political arguments going forward in the world at the moment, in Mexico and what was once the Soviet Union as well as in Ottawa and downtown Damascus, are the same ones that enlivened the scaffolds of Renaissance Italy and the annals of Imperial Rome. The familiar and usually blood-stained quarrel between time past and time future, between the inertia of things-as-they-are and the energy inherent in the hope of things-as-they-might become.

All of you belong, by definition if not by choice, to the party of things-as-they-might become. Your best hope is your idealism, and your best weapon is the freedom of your own mind. Within the profession of journalism I’ve often have heard it said that the truth shall make men free, but I have noticed that relatively few people know what the phrase means. The truth isn’t about the assimilation of doctrine or an assembling of data, not even about yesterday’s report of scandal in Hollywood or Washington. The truth is synonymous with the learning to trust to the thinking and seeing for oneself.

Don’t underestimate the guile of the status quo. Its owners and operators rely on two lines of false argument, both of them expensively advertised. First, that the future is extremely dangerous, very difficult, very complicated, very far beyond the grasp of mere youths who have never have met a payroll or served with Nelson at Trafalgar. The media have a hand in the deception, and I speak from experience when I tell you that the fear of the future is what sells newspapers and instills the habits of obedience. The seers who look into the abyss never lack for evil omens, they predict catastrophes appropriate to the self-interest of the audiences they have been paid to alarm, and none of us is ever safe from the din of dire prophecy. During my years as the editor of Harper’s Magazine I remember receiving in a single week the galley-proofs of three new books entitled, in order of their arrival, The End of Nature, The End of Science, and The End of History.

The rumors are exaggerated. As often as not, they are the work of people enraged by the prospect of a future likely to find them ridiculous or irrelevant. They remind me of the French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, who, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the Palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back among the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”

When I was your age, I thought the world knew exactly what it was doing, but as I grew older I noticed—first to my surprise and then to my distress—that the more loudly people claimed to know all the answers, the less likely that they knew even a few of the questions. The walls of the establishment are made of paper, the fortifications manned by wizards of Oz propped up behind the sandbags of intimidating ceremony. They ally themselves with human weakness, with vanity, ignorance and greed. I don’t know how the game works in Canada, but in the United States we now spend upwards of $500 billion a year on alcohol, pornography, celebrity and drugs. The Cold War against the American intellect constitutes a more profitable business than the old arrangement with the Russians.

Few pleasures equal the joy of the mind when it is being put to imaginative use, and what you have learned here at King’s College is the beginning, not the end, of your education. The discussions in the American newspapers about the failure of its schools sometimes mention the existence of “the educated citizen,” but to the best of my knowledge I never have met such a person, and so I assume that the phrase refers to a mythical figure not unlike the unicorn in a medieval bestiary. Even the idea of an educated citizen strikes me as far-fetched. I can conceive of a “self-educating citizen,” and I have had the good fortune to meet a number of people who can be so described, but none of them would be fool enough to proclaim themselves educated. Without exception they possess the valor of their ignorance, conceiving of education neither as a luxury good or blessed state of being, but rather as a ceaseless process of discovering that the world is not oneself. If in sixteen years they have spent 10,000 hours in a classroom (roughly the equivalent of fifteen months), they expect to spend another fifty years revising what they thought they had learned in school.

Nobody ever put the proposition better than T. H. White in his novel, The Once and Future King. The wizard Merlin finds the young King Arthur gazing mournfully into a fishpond, on the verge of succumbing to the temptation of self-pity.

“The best thing for being sad,” Merlin says, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

The second line of false argument employed by the party of things-as-they-are is the one that says that this is the best of all possible worlds and that nothing important remains to be done, or said, or discovered. We who are here in office deserve to be here in office because of our wisdom and grace.

You have only to consult the listings in any newspaper—any week, any edition—to know that this is not true. The news is mostly the story of human folly—futile wars and frightened governments, the systematic poisoning of the atmosphere and the oceans, no shortage of evil lunatics. Quite clearly, almost everything remains to be done, or said, or discovered, and the world needs as much help as it can get. If it doesn’t get that help from people like yourselves, then on whom can it rely for the hope of a new answer, or even better, a new question?

I wish you well, and my reasons are self-serving. You are the light on the horizon of the human imagination, and those of us further inland count on you to give voice to its powers of expression.