When I was asked to give the talk this year, I grumbled that this was a burden, that I didn’t know what I could possibly say that hadn’t been said thousands of times before.
But in truth–and I’m sure this is no surprise to anyone who has sat in one of my classes or sat with me in a meeting and heard me say for the thousandth time, “Well, I do have an opinion about that topic”– there was a part of me that was rubbing its hands in glee thinking about the opportunity to sound off in front of a large audience. So I started drawing up a list of things that I’d like to talk about. Let’s just say that it started with Afghanistan and ended with Zimbabwe and there was enough in between that Fidel Castro would have been seen as a master of brevity by the time I was finished.
So I cut everything in between the beginning and the end, which left Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.
What lies in between Afghanistan and Zimbabwe is the main piece of advice that I have for Swarthmore graduates (well, aside from telling you to think very carefully before deciding to go to graduate school, but you can get that off my web site) .
I know that unsolicited advice about your future is something that you just can’t get enough of around graduation time, but I’ll try not to be too annoying. Mostly I want to tell you this because I get endless cheap thrills out of saying, “I told you so”.
This has been a hard year for all of us, and in the middle of your well-deserved pleasure in your accomplishments I am sure some of you have been looking back with sadness as well as joy. For me, the sadness of September 11th has been tempered by raising my 16-month old daughter, and deepened by the unexpected death of my father almost exactly a year ago today. Much of what I am going to tell you now comes as much from my father as from me, from my contemplation of his life and my own, of what he taught me and what I hope I taught him.
I think many Swarthmore students often try, immediately after graduating, to accomplish a critical task at exactly the wrong time in exactly the wrong way. I am not referring to your next jobs. Many of you will be doing jobs next year that you will be underpaid in and overqualified for. Tough luck on that, but it’ll get better eventually.
What I am thinking of is that many of you will try to do good and change the world for the better. And I do not think that you should. I think that this is exactly the wrong time for you to try and you will try to do it in exactly the wrong way. In trying, you misunderstand what it is that you are best qualified to do in the coming years, and you misunderstand exactly how it is that you go about doing good in the world.
What did you learn at Swarthmore? Many of you acquired specific bodies of knowledge, and all of you (I hope) acquired at least some of the art of knowledge. You learned how to think, how to reason, how to adapt to changing circumstances and requirements. Many of you also honed your own fierce desires to expose and defeat injustice, or had those desires awoken within you. You acquired some measure of what President Bloom calls “ethical intelligence”.
Keep those desires. Hone your ethical intelligence. But you are now about to discover what it is that Swarthmore does not and cannot teach, and you will need to have humility in the face of that.
You must remember that the faculty here relate to knowledge the same way that a farmer relates to his animals. We domesticate it. You are now going into the jungle, where knowledge roams wild and dangerous. Many of you will continue to act as if you are down on the farm, and some of you will be sad or frightened or shocked the day you discover that this is not so. Some of you will have the courage or willpower to face that change. Some of you will turn away and walk deeper into comforting delusions, or will defer a confrontation that every truly intelligent and wise person must eventually go through.
I was an undergraduate at Wesleyan in the 1980s, and I think it is fair to say that in terms of social conscience, in terms of the imperative to “do good”, it is very similar to Swarthmore except with more drugs and fewer Quakers. I left Wesleyan with the same hunger that many Swatties experience, the desire to make the world a better place.
Not very long after that, I found myself doing research for my dissertation in Zimbabwe, drawn there in part by my earlier involvement with the anti-apartheid movement. I had scholarly reasons for being there, but much of what I said and did and thought when I arrived was also governed always by the thought that I was trying to change things for the better, to fix a world which seemed to me to be evidently broken.
I started to feel the stirrings of discomfort with this commitment as the months went by. On one occasion, I met another American scholar who had an even more activist sensibility than myself, and he took me to a squatter camp that he brought food to regularly. When we arrived, some members of the Rhema Church, a local evangelical movement, were just leaving after having brought food themselves. My colleague proceeded to yell at the headman of the camp for having allowed the church into the camp, since they were in his eyes reactionaries. All I could think as I sat over to the side listening to his harangue is that squatters aren’t exactly in a position to refuse food, whatever the source, and that perhaps my colleague’s ideological lessons were no more or less palatable to them than the Rhema Church’s.
The longer I was in Zimbabwe, the more typical this colleague seemed to me. Changing the world or doing good seemed for some reason to invariably be accompanied by an invisible set of rules and directives to ignore some things and refuse to see others. I was supposed to see the evident signs of the continuing power of white Rhodesian settlers (and there were indeed plenty of those signs) but I wasn’t supposed to see the massacre of Ndebele-speaking farmers by the Zimbabwean government. I was supposed to see the injustices of capitalism (and there were plenty of them) but I was not supposed to be alarmed by the epidemic spread of the abuse of official power. I was supposed to see how bad things had been before 1979, but not see how bad things were in 1990 or 2000–unless I was always willing to say that how bad things were right now was a direct consequence of how bad they had been 20 or 50 years ago (but never 200 years ago: that was equally off-limits).
Last year, I heard from a Swarthmore alumnus who had gone off after graduation to teach English in a developing society that I honestly think is one of the worst places on Earth to live. He was terribly depressed because he’d had to leave in a hurry, both because he felt completely helpless and psychologically overwhelmed in the face of how truly bad the place was and because he’d actually said a few things about local politics and been told that he was in some danger as a result. But the thing he felt most burdened by was that he felt that he couldn’t even admit to himself how horrible this society was, that somehow to describe what he’d seen honestly and unsparingly was a betrayal of his activist principles. I knew where he was coming from. I had been there myself.
If you set out to change the world for the better a week, a month or a year from now, with will and determination, with a sense of commitment and dedication, you are like an agronomy student setting off to practice your best cow-milking technique on a jaguar. It is the wrong time, but more importantly, it is the wrong attitude. People whose only goal is a total, overall or general change to the world for the better are people who end up disillusioned at best, and at worst, become the tools of–or weapons of–more cynical and calculating people.
What you are qualified to do tomorrow, or the next week, or the next year–not just qualified, but superbly capable of doing–is bearing witness. You are qualified to see the world as it is, to observe it meticulously, without blinders or filters. You are qualified to tell the truth, with rigor and discipline. This may come as some news to you, given how conflicted and ambivalent academics have become about what constitutes truth, and for good reason. Truth is not simple. It is not black and white. It is never predictable. Two people can witness the world honestly and end up seeing something very different, and both visions can be equally true. Truth is often a matter of perspective, and is often found through insight, inspiration and creativity.
Truth is hard, not easy. You can see it, if you will only allow yourselves to. That’s what critical thought does for you. That’s what ethical intelligence really is.
Your job now is to open yourselves as fully as you can to the richness and mystery of the human condition, to its irresolvable contradictions, to the dangers of knowledge. Don’t look away because you’re not supposed to see something. Don’t let anyone bully you out of being curious, or having a passion for knowledge. Don’t ever convince yourself that you have an obligation to lie, or to conceal the truth, to simplify things for reasons of political expediency.
My colleagues in southern African studies–and to my shame, myself for the early part of my career–looked away from the truth of what was happening in Zimbabwe after its independence in 1980. As a result, some of them are still unable to speak with any ethical clarity or even empirical accuracy about the contemporary situation, and my little corner of the profession has been diminished as a result.
Too many scholars who study Zimbabwe don’t seem to know what virtually all Zimbabweans know about the nature of the current crisis, and that is an obscenity.
I think most fields in the humanities and social sciences have silences like this, problems that have been quietly shelved, contradictions that have been glibly resolved, complexities that have been simplified not for reasons of momentary heuristic clarity but for reasons of dogma. There are scholars in our disciplines who have been ostracized or attacked merely because they wrote about what some consider an inconvenient or unimportant truth. We diminish ourselves when we try to stage-manage knowledge, to make it be what we need.
Similarly, it is no secret around Swarthmore that I was disappointed by the reaction of many academics to September 11th. I think many academics were too attached to inflexible paradigms, both political and scholarly, and unable to speak clearly and unambiguously about the wrongness of that day. We wanted too much to quickly domesticate the event, to resolve away the painful mystery of evil (even given all the descriptive shortcomings that the word ‘evil’ has) in the world into banal, familiar and manageable propositions about history and politics. Too many simply dusted off worn-out slogans and tired formulations in the face of uncertainty and change.
Of course, this all applies with equal or even greater force to many of those who have supported the “war on terrorism”, particularly to the propaganda ministers of the Bush Administration. Everything I have said today applies with equal force to conservatives as well as liberals, to reactionaries and radicals.
That is why it falls to you to bear witness, to be fiercely devoted to truth, because so many who should do not, because so many who have a responsibility to see the world in all its mysterious complexity so willfully and grotesquely abrogate that responsibility. You must shoulder that burden because it is yours to bear, and because if you do not, no one will.
A liberal arts education and its accompanying ethical intelligence should make you a better citizen, a better member of a democratic public, whatever society you are a part of. That is what you can do starting Monday morning, and that is where doing good in the world really begins.
Of course I want you to do good, to not just be good but act with good intent in the world. And of course I want you to change the world for the better. But doing good, it seems to me, is frequently not a matter of commitment to causes or fidelity to ideologies. It is usually a matter of small decencies and ordinary kindnesses. It is harder in some ways day in and day out to be a good father, a good friend, a good lover, a good teacher, a good colleague than it is to minister to thousands of lepers or airlift food supplies to a famine-stricken region.
If you look at the people who really have changed the world for the better–because most injustice is systematic, and really does require systematic attention from organized groups of people fighting for what’s right–you’ll see that most of them didn’t set out in life with the activist’s version of a “will to power”, determined above all things to change the world for the better. Nelson Mandela just wanted to escape an arranged marriage and live his life the way he wanted to. Gandhi just wanted to be a lawyer. If you want to change the world, just wait. The opportunity will find you at the right time, and when it does, your commitment to change will be organic, a part of your life rather than something outside of it. It will arise from within the conditions of your journey through the world rather than from hubris or fierce neediness.
You cannot change the world unless you first learn to bear witness unsparingly to all the horrible and beautiful things it contains. Keep a sense of wonder alive, an open-minded appreciation for the unpredictable and unknown. That is your first responsibility. Do this for yourself, and do it for us all. Good luck to you.