The Commencement Speech I Can’t Give

Harpur College won’t let me give this commencement speech. Not because it’s bad or anything, but just because they’re letting someone else be the student commencement speaker for the May 2015 Fine Arts & Humanities ceremony. I was a finalist to be the student speaker, but no dice. Oh well!
Here it is anyway. I’m indebted to the dozens of other commencement speeches I’ve read and drawn from — those by Toni Morrison and Lewis Lapham in particular.

Good afternoon, parents, administrators, friends, staff, faculty, and the class of 2015.

I’m extraordinarily grateful that some strangers made the decision to let me talk to you this afternoon. I’m also grateful that you actually came all the way up from Long Island to listen to me. Seriously, I really appreciate it.

This is a strange ending to an education. Four years of figuring out Proust or InDesign, and now we’re in a sports stadium, where you’re pretending to listen to me.

When I tell people that I’m an editor at Pipe Dream, the student newspaper here, one question I’m often asked is, “who’s the coolest person you’ve interviewed?”

I’ve had the great fortune of interviewing a lot of awesome people at my time at Binghamton. Hugh Grant, Nick Offerman, Alexis Ohanian.

But I never give their names as an answer.

The coolest people I’ve talked to at Binghamton are the students here. I don’t think there’s quite any other school where students are so motivated to not only excel in their classes, but to excel beyond them.

In class, we are given the cognitive tools needed to adapt to our rapidly changing world. The amount we’ve excelled with these tools on campus alone is incredible. The humanities are what make humans human. And most importantly, the humanities has its graduation ceremony at noon, a reasonable hour, and not 8:30, which is just ridiculous.

At Binghamton University, a student is never just an English major. He’s an English major who founded a collective of movie-makers and can make a short film in under 48 hours. A student is never just a philosophy major, she’s a philosophy major who edits the sports section of the student paper and unflaggingly champions the school’s basketball team, even though… well you know.

But the thing is, no one studies the humanities for money. I’ve found that people study the humanities for two reasons: one, because they love it. And two, to seek wisdom, to figure out what it means to be a human being, and what to do with that information.

But wisdom, I’ve found, isn’t taught in the classroom. That’s what the Binghamton student understands. The classroom tells us how to understand the world, and then we students go out into the world and do stuff.

Wisdom — much like homework — is a thing that accumulates by accident, when you’re doing something else.

We can control, to some degree, the accidents that grant us wisdom, by putting ourselves in places where we’re prone to them. It can be a physical place, like a university, or a mental place, like simply having intellectual curiosity, and having the vocabulary and clarity and knowledge to engage with new ideas. I decided to be a journalist so that I could learn new things for the rest of my life as a job, to put myself in places where I might accidentally stumble upon some wisdom.

I’m reminded of a quote from “The Once and Future King,” by T.H. White, a piece of advice the wizard Merlin gives to a young King Arthur:

“The best thing for being sad 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 exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.”

The humanities is not a thing that you do, it’s a way you live. We did not get an education where the next phase in life is to just get a job. I mean, I hope we all get jobs. But the next phase is to be an engaged citizen of our ever-changing, rapidly shifting world. The next phase is to learn, because that’s what allows you to appreciate this wonderful world we have the great fortune to live in, and that’s what can make us happy in it.

Well, class of 2015, four years have just passed where you spent actual capital — and ate several bottles of vitamin D supplements — to amass four years’ worth of intellectual capital. What are you going to spend it on? What wisdom will you seek?

Wherever you go, whatever changes you will have, remember that you are part of the future, and the future is already happening. Do not take this for granted.

Remember that we are young. So we belong by definition not in the status quo, but among that which is yet to come. The status quo is to say that things may not be perfect, but nothing is seriously amiss. The status quo may tell you that this is the best of all possible worlds, that the future is dangerous and complicated and beyond our grasp, that agents beyond our understanding move the world forward and we merely follow in their wake.

Do not believe this. Do not ever believe this. Those who support the status quo were once like us, and they are still more like us than they want to believe.

We have done a lot, as a society. We have attained universal suffrage, we’ve been on the moon, and we now have tan leggings. But there is still much to do. The hardest parts are to convince ourselves that the world can be made anew, and to have the clarity of mind of what a new world should be, what morals and truths we value, and what falsehoods and ideas we want to deny entry. We are still young, and there will be radical changes in our lives — it is inevitable — and we have the moral obligation to meet them. It is risky, and sometimes the ideas you’ll have will make you feel like the dumbest person in the world, a joke on the margins of society, but it’s what we have to do.

Like I said, the coolest people I’ve talked to at Binghamton are the students here. But if there’s anything I have learned from Hugh Grant or Nick Offerman or Alexis Ohanian, is that they’re just people. They are accomplished people, to be sure, but they are no more accomplished than anyone here could be. And take it from me, you’re already cooler than them. Class of 2015, I wish the best for you.

— Jacob Shamsian

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