Having survived the Core, our exams, essays, and the Shoreland, I think we should be proud to have made it here in one piece. In all seriousness, today is a milestone for each us and our families, and it is to our loved ones that we owe our deepest thanks. After today, we leave the protection of the College, the community of our friends, roommates, and teachers, to find and forge new communities of our own. Who knows where our individual paths will take us in the world beyond Hyde Park?
In the time I have here, I won’t claim to know how to face the many opportunities and challenges of postgraduate life. Instead, I want to spend our final moments together reflecting on the distinctive kind of education that has shaped the way in which we think about those opportunities and challenges. When asked about the University of Chicago’s virtues, I reply that we have a spirit truly unlike any other: we pride ourselves on our uncommon creativity, our commitment to learning, and on the weekends, reaching what my econ friends call the “Nash Equilibrium”, which I think just means ‘fun’.
That we do things in our own way is not a new characteristic of this great institution. Eighty years ago, University President Robert Maynard Hutchins had this to say about pursuing the ambitious idea of a Chicago education:
“We lay ourselves open to the attack as dreamers and fanatics. But we also commend ourselves…[to] those interested in earnest efforts to improve education and advance knowledge…[O]nly by experiment constantly criticized and revised shall we produce…a generation more educated than our own and individuals better educated than ourselves.”
I believe Hutchins’ words still ring true, loud and clear as ever: We, the class of 2012, are the dreamers that he had in mind. We have improved the education of our peers and advanced our own knowledge. Now parents, you’ve seen our t-shirts, and I can hear what you’re thinking: “That’s well and good in theory, but does it work in this economy”? Rest assured, we are better thinkers and problem solvers than we were four years ago. We’re college graduates now; if we could handle Kant’s first critique, honors analysis, and the green line, we can handle anything.
But to my fellow graduates: if there is a lesson for how to navigate our future paths as leaders and citizens—if there is a method for thinking about which vocation to choose, which risks to take, and what sorts of persons to become—I can think of no better advice than that of President Hutchins: to see our individual paths beyond Hyde Park as “experiments constantly criticized and revised”.
Right now, it’s tempting to try to sum up the past four years. It’d be nice to pack up everything we’ve learned, fix a little handle on it, carry it with us onto the shiny train of the future to say “This was my time at the University of Chicago! Wasn’t it great?”
It doesn’t really work like that, of course. In our academic lives, we want to analyze and synthesize. In our real lives, we make fairly poor subjects for the same kind of study. We want big epiphanies, profound truths, and Meaning.
But real life, the day-to-day, isn’t always vibrant with significance. Things turn out ambiguous, incomplete, sloppy. There were books we lost; dollar milkshakes that weren’t worth the wait, boring Friday nights lost to flash-card-flipping. Loose ends don’t get wrapped up, lessons aren’t learned.
But guess what? It turns out this is okay. More than okay, actually. It’s just plain wonderful.
A few months ago, my friends and I were sitting around in one of these everyday moments, doing nothing of consequence: watching TV, wearing sweatpants, playing an intensely competitive game of Jenga. The kinds of things you do when just being with your friends is enough to make you content. Fun, sure, but not really remarkable.
And I suddenly had this flash. I imagined myself transported from ten years in the future, looking at this ordinary tableau, and I felt dumbfounded. This silly little instant, this doodle in the margin of my life’s manuscript, was yanking me by the wrist and demanding attention.
Why? There was nothing inherently profound or sacred about what we were doing, unless you think board games are a metaphor for something. No one was contemplating the nature of truth and beauty or even talking about Sosc reading.
But it was a moment that, in all its seeming mundanity, owed its whole existence to the unspoken force of our friendship. And that is where the meaning comes from.
Grand, resounding revelations only define some of the things we do in college. The rest, even the majority, are shaped by simple time with the people around us: the ones joking with us, quizzing us on definitions, or standing beside us in line for a shake.
I realized the future isn’t some high-speed train that’s impatient for the next station. It’s a carful of all the friends I’ve made, honking at me from the driveway to get going, and all I have to do is pour a travel mug of coffee, maybe grab a map, and get out there. Be with them. Make more moments.
Because it’s not that we’re going somewhere, it’s just that we’re going. Embodying the verb tense: being present. Progressing.
So look at your college life, but not as some literal big picture that’s been sketched, studied, and carefully captioned. See it as a mosaic.
All the absurd little episodes of your time here, all the proofing each others’ papers, all the trips to Doc when you should have been cramming, all the breakfasts laughing in the dining hall: these are the fragments you’ve been gluing together. These are the things that possess the truest vitality. These are the things that build you.
This was our time at the University of Chicago. Wasn’t it great?
I’m going to start with a controversial opinion:
I loved it here.
I loved it here. But it wasn’t always easy to.
It wasn’t easy to read all those long books.
It wasn’t easy to learn all those long words.
It wasn’t easy to wake up for all those early classes.
And it certainly wasn’t easy when we saw none other than the “that kid” from our SOSC class in the Polar Bear Run.
But UChicago showed me that if it something was easy, it was probably boring. And if I wasn’t being pushed, I was probably approaching it the wrong way.
We were not held by the hand. We were not coddled. We endured.
We endured the Core, even when we felt battered by Marx and his critics and differential equations. We endured long midterms with no bell-curves. We endured unending winters (“How could it only be March?”).
And when papers were due, with cold coffee in our hands, we endured the sight of back-to-back sunrises from a window in the Reg,
And maybe, sometimes, early in the morning on the Reg’s first floor, we wondered what sort of person we would have become if we had received a thin envelope instead of a thick one on a Spring day that seems an era ago. We wondered who we would have become, if we had chosen schools with mild climates and flexible class requirements.
I actually met that person, the unChicago me, because I transferred here. And at this other school, I was smart but not curious. I was driven but not focused. The work was hard but rarely challenging. The people were bright but rarely surprising.
And I had always sensed that something was missing from my education but it wasn’t until I got here, until I joined you all, that I understood what it was. It was class-long debates on the merits of fairy tales. It was party conversations that devolved into heated arguments about Foucault.
More than anyone else, you, class of 2012, made my education uncommon.
Here, together, we endured. We wallowed. We revelled. And now we’ve emerged.
We’ve emerged better read, more passionate than when we had begun
We’ve emerged more confident and more confused than when we had begun.
We’ve emerged as the smartest we’ve ever been. The most engaged. The most creative. And the most sleep-deprived.
We’ve emerged as the selves we were meant to be. Whole and complete. No postscripts, asterisks or footnotes.
I can’t predict the future:, what the world be like when we return for our 25th reunion in 2037. Will we have sustainable energy? Will global conflict cease to exist? Will Pierce’s plumbing finally be working?
I only know that whatever paths we take, they won’t be the easy ones. We know we will have to endure again. But we will be prepared, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
And we know we will emerge, again. And however we emerge, each and every time, we will be marked as UChicago alumni, as people who know that what’s too easy is apt to be boring.
And, let me tell you, Class of 2012, boring, is the one thing that we definitely are not.