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Barbara Traister's Commencement Speech

President Farrington, fellow faculty and staff, honored guests, family and friends, and most of all graduates, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. The last occasion I had to address such a ceremony was when I graduated from high school. My senior English teacher picked the topic for my address. Four seniors were told to divide up a line from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” I was allotted the last four words, and allowed five minutes to speak about “and not to yield,” one of the most difficult assignments I have ever had. You’ll be relieved to hear that I’m not going to recapitulate that speech for you today, though I will try to remember its brevity. Instead I want to talk a bit about the importance of language.

As I thought about the occasion which brings us all together here in celebration, I realized that I did not know what term I should be using to refer to this moment. Today we are attending Lehigh’s last winter “Commencement”; you are holding commencement programs, and I am a commencement speaker. Yet you’ve probably received “graduation” cards, you’re wearing graduation robes, and many well-wishers have probably asked you about or congratulated you on your “graduation.” Both words are correctly associated with today’s occasion, and both have long and venerable pedigrees. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that the earliest recorded use of “commencement” to refer to such a ceremony dates from 1387 at “the University of Oxford.”

“Graduation,” a bit newer, is first recorded in 1639. “Graduation” is more frequently used in the United States than in England; “commencement” is more often reserved for the ceremony which conveys the degree of Master or Doctor, though it is also used for Bachelor’s degrees. In ordinary conversation, however, the words are interchangeable.

Despite their interchangeability, I’d like to look more closely at these two words because it seems to me that whether you regard this moment as a graduation or as a commencement makes a difference. Other meanings of “graduation” include “an elevation by degrees into a higher condition” and (a meaning which derives from alchemy and then chemistry) “the process of tempering the composition of a substance to a required degree.” “Elevation by degrees into a higher condition” is certainly related to what is going on here. You have, over many years, elevated yourselves from kindergarten, elementary school, and high school into university and, for a number of you, into graduate school. This day marks the culmination of a long climb through the educational system. The chemical meaning may not seem quite as relevant--“the process of tempering the composition of a substance to a required degree”--yet it too can be associated with what happens at a university. We, the faculty, temper you, heat you, examine you, and finally pronounce you finished to the required degree. The process is complete; you are ready to leave.

“Commencement,” on the other hand, has only one alternative and very simple meaning, “beginning or time of beginning.” When you think about these two words, then, their connotations are quite different. One suggests a completion, a finishing of a process or a step in a process, while the other refers to a beginning, a new start. Both meanings are appropriate for this moment, of course, because one chapter of your life is completed and another is beginning, but my hope for you is that you embrace the term “commencement” rather than content yourself with the accomplishment of “graduation.”

Choosing language to express ideas is usually a very subjective process. Almost any noun, verb, or adjective in our language has alternative words which come close to expressing the same idea, just as we could choose either commencement or graduation to speak about what’s happening now. The particular words I choose are likely to say as much about me as about what I am describing. For example, if a dog were to walk down the aisle right now, I might call it a mutt, a mongrel, a bitch, a pup, a pooch, a Labrador Retriever, or by a proper name like Gus. The term I choose tells you more about me--how much I know about dogs, whether I like dogs, whether I know this particular dog-- than it tells you about the dog itself.

We live in a time and culture where language often gets a bad rap. Advertising has overused and nearly ruined some of the most wonderful words in our language; politicians routinely use language to make extravagant promises that are rarely kept. Communication over the internet has devolved into a series of phonetic signs: “R U there?” and, as we do our instant messaging, we rarely use complete sentences. Distrust of language is evident in some of our culture’s most overused cliches: “Actions speak louder than words” and “It’s not what you say, but what you do”; even the dismissive “Yadda, yadda, yadda” which refers to someone’s inconsequential conversation. Yet language has power, however much it is discounted, distorted, or tortured. When a president chooses to use the word “war” to describe a confrontation which could have been referred to by other names, that word sets in motion a whole series of laws, codes, and possible actions which alternative words like “campaign,” “assault,” or “struggle” would not have triggered. When a prominent person, or an ordinary person, uses a derogatory ethnic or racial term, he or she causes pain and anger, and when such words are used frequently or in particularly tense situations, conflagrations can result.

In Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s novel, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Alice travels through Looking Glass World which is set up as a giant chessboard. One of the squares on the chessboard is a wood where no one can remember her own name or the name of anything else. It is a wood without any nouns. As Alice walks through the wood she meets a young deer. They try to introduce themselves to one another, but, of course, they have forgotten who and what they are.

The Fawn agrees to accompany Alice through this disconcerting forest. They walked on together through the wood, Alice with her Arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arms. “I’m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight. “And, dear me, You’re a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.
The fawn is delighted to have recovered its name and identity, but when words are available to mark difference, it also becomes suddenly afraid of the human child. Words have the power to drive us apart or to bring us together.

At the end of an education which has been conducted largely in words-- words in books, words in lectures, words which you have written to us in your papers and exams-- I ask you to remember the importance of words in transmitting our culture, in consolidating its achievements and recording its failures and in motivating and directing its future. You should be alert to the complexity of words, their ambiguities and connotations, not only the words you choose to use but also the words you hear, whether from the media, our political leaders, or your colleagues. Do not accept uncritically the words you encounter, and do not speak or write without considering what it is you are saying about yourself by the words you select.

Sir Isaac Newton, the English philosopher and mathematician credited with formulating calculus and the laws of gravity and motion, is famously reported to have declared: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Actually, as the sociologist Robert Merton has shown in a book called On the Shoulders of Giants, the phrase had its origins in classical times and has been repeated with slightly different wording by a variety of writers, most notably before Newton by Robert Burton whose version reads: “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.” It is with this idea, standing on the shoulders of giants, that I wish to conclude this talk. You are standing now--metaphorically, as you sit patiently waiting for me to finish talking-- on the shoulders of giants. In one sense, a university education is largely about learning the identities and the accomplishments of the giants on whose shoulders you stand. You do not have to rediscover the laws of gravity or reinvent calculus. Newton has taken his place in the chain of giants who support your education and mine. No matter how much or how little each one of us knows about these individual Giants, we cannot choose whether or not to be on their shoulders; our whole culture is built on the accomplishments--for good or for bad--of those men and women of all races and cultures who have come before us. We can choose, however, how we stand on those shoulders and what responsibility we take for the chain of knowledge and achievement of which we are, willy-nilly, a part. If you accept this moment in your life as a “graduation,” as a completion of the process which you have been toiling at for nearly two decades or more, you may hunker down on those shoulders, grab on for support, consolidate your position, and reap the rewards of your labor. Who could blame you? But if you choose this position, hanging on for dear life to the shoulders on which you are perched, you will not see anything new and you will not provide a very good support for the person who needs to climb on your shoulders.

It’s a bit more risky to think of this moment as a commencement, to stand tall on the shoulders of the giant and to stretch and look out farther than the giant or we, your variously sized professors, have ever been able to see. You won’t have much to hold on to, and you, yourself, may not be a giant. As Burton’s version of the giant’s shoulders reminds us, however, even a dwarf who looks closely can see farther than anyone else has seen before. You may teach a child, or build a building, or found a company, or mentor a colleague, or encourage an artist who will be a giant or support a giant. If you see this day as a beginning of your own contribution to the legacy built up by both the giants and the ordinary-sized people before you, you will provide the necessary support for the next generation who will build on your achievements.

So on this occasion, Lehigh’s last winter commencement and your own commencement, I salute you. It is on your shoulders that the future will stand. Thank you very much.

Posted on Thursday, January 01, 2004

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