Kurt Vonnegut delivers the commencement address to the Class of 2004.
Author and social critic Kurt Vonnegut offered wry observations on society and advised graduates to remember the happy moments in life when he delivered the address for the 136th commencement exercises in May.
“You men here are Adam, and you women here are Eve, and this has been the Garden of Eden,” he told the crowd gathered in Goodman Stadium on the unseasonably hot and humid May morning. “You’re about to get kicked out of here because you’ve eaten the apple of knowledge ... Go forth … and make war on ignorance, sickness and environmental degradation.”
In his talk, he apologized for his generation’s failure to provide universal health care and a college education for all, noting that a college degree now costs parents “an arm and a leg.
“I could buy a Hummer with that kind of money and speed up global warming,” he quipped.
”Make your soul grow”
He also urged graduates to get involved in the arts, not to get rich, but to enrich their souls.
He went on to praise artistic expression, saying, “To draw or paint a picture, to make up a story, to sing in the shower or dance to the radio, to write a poem about how sad or happy you are, is a way to become, a way to make your soul grow. So please do that.”
He earned his most enthusiastic applause when he told the crowd that the “last thing I expected here in Bethlehem was to uncover scandal,” and said that “something fishy is going on in the admissions office. Only beautiful women are allowed to come here.”
The author, whose long and varied career included graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago, enlistment in the U.S. Army, a stint as a publicist for General Electric, and a fiction career that spawned literary classics such as Slaughterhouse Five
and Cat's Cradle
, also made some serious points in his talk.
”Get a gang”
He offered a list of current trends and events that he found distasteful, such as the war in Iraq, the deplorable scale of American values, the unfair redistribution of wealth upward through exorbitant salaries of corporate CEOs, and the disappearance of the extended family.
“A human being needs an extended family as much as he or she needs vitamins and essential minerals,” he said. “But practically no Americans have extended families anymore, with the exception of the Bushes and the Navajos. When a husband and a wife fight, they think it’s about money or how to raise kids or whatever. But what they’re actually saying to each other is, ‘You are not enough people.’
“So get a gang.”
From his own “gang,” Vonnegut says he has sought knowledge about life, and turned to his son, a pediatrician in Boston and author of his own book, The Eden Express
His son told him that "we’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” Vonnegut, in turn, offered that bit of wisdom to the young graduates in Goodman Stadium.
Vonnegut commented that most speeches he’s given in recent years invariably include a reference to his Uncle Alex, whom he described as a “childless life insurance agent in Indiana, as well as a Harvard grad, who was very wise and very well-read.”
One of his uncle’s most endearing traits was his ability to appreciate the happier moments in life by commenting, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
He then asked everyone in the audience to raise their hand if they had a teacher who inspired them, and then to share that name with someone sitting next to them.
As murmurs of conversation spread through the crowd, Vonnegut paused and looked at the graduates on the football field and their loved ones in the stands.
“If this isn’t nice,” he said, “I don’t know what is.”
Always welcome at Lehigh
Vonnegut was introduced by Gregory C. Farrington, Lehigh president, who reminded students that the “road to your degree ends today.”
What happens next, he said, is “life. As in real.”
He urged students to be proud of what they accomplished during their time at Lehigh, and to “take time to remember Lehigh with your time and talent.”
“You’re always welcome here on South Mountain,” Farrington said.
Prior to Farrington’s talk, Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain, delivered the invocation, which celebrated the “educated heart” that is sympathetic, kind, ready to laugh, discerning and giving, and able to accept responsibility for a world community that is complex, diverse, and morally challenging.
He advised the young graduates to “take responsibility to use the gifts of mind and heart to confront ignorance and hatred, and to make gentle the hard places of a fractured and violent world.”
Nearly 1,200 undergraduates and 300 graduate students accepted their degrees at the ceremony, which also included the conferring of honorary degrees upon Vonnegut and four other accomplished academics: Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment of the Arts; Ruzena Bajcsy, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley; John W. Hutchinson, the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Applied Mechanics at Harvard, and Mark Juergensmeyer, an internationally renowned expert on religious violence and professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
For an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in which he discusses war, Mars, and his forays into art, music, and film, read:
Vonnegut: “I’m really surprised when anything works”