Great Commencement Speeches (Part II)

The second installment in our Great Commencement Speeches series comes from the same venue as the first. After Mark Ouweleen’s 1986 Cohonguroton address, Fr. James P.M. Walsh, S.J. accepted the Bunn Award for Faculty Excellence. For those who do not know Father Walsh, he has a knack for recognizing bits of everyday life that illustrate common habits of mind so perfectly as to seem archetypal. As far as I know, most of these cannot be found in written form anywhere in captivity. Fortunately, this 1986 speech, “Farewell,” is built around one such vignette.

If you don’t understand the greeting, in which Fr. Walsh refers to his audience as “Fellow Weenies,” you may want to re-read Part I of this series more carefully.

Father Davis, My Dear Mother and Sister, Esteemed Colleagues, Parents and Members of the Class of ’86, Friends, Brother Chimes, Fellow Weenies:

Thank you for the honor you have done me. It means much to me, and I am very grateful. By the way, you seniors: remember earlier this spring, when you were voting on who would receive the Bunn Award, I happened to mention to a couple of you that I only had a few months to live? Well, I just got a call from the doctor and it was all a mistake – everything’s fine.

I’m not sure what my role in these proceedings is meant to be—whether I am to sum up and give expression to what is in everyone’s heart and mind, or if I just happen to come at the end of the program, a sort of genial addendum. Am I to be like Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, or Andy Rooney at the end of Sixty Minutes?

Actually I was on this stage your first day at Georgetown, that last Friday in August, 1982. The Chimes were up here beguiling the time with song when you assembled to hear Fr. Healy welcome you, and I well remember looking out at you while we sang and the other Chimes were scoping the freshman class. It’s pleasant to come full circle this way. I was struck, that day, by the look on your faces: anxious, apprehensive, utterly at a loss even as to what expectations you should have. What will college be like? You didn’t have any idea; that seemed clear. I thought then of a story about expectations. Many years ago I went to a movie theatre in New York City which was showing a triple feature of horror films. One was Tales From the Crypt, starring Ralph Richardson to his embarrassment, the other I forget, and the third, anomalously, was a film by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel called Un Chien Andalou, or in English Andalusian Dog. Andalusian Dog is a work of surrealism, with many striking, even unforgettable, images but—of set purpose—no discernible logic or linear sorts of rational connections. That is its point. (One typical image, of those it would be appropriate to recount here, was of two priests, dressed in soutanes and wide-brimmed shovel hats, straining to pull, with stout ropes, a grand piano on top of which lay splayed a dead cow. A dead cow. I’m not making this up.) Surreal, beyond rational grasp or tidy explication. Well, two boys, about ten years old, came out of the theatre and went up to the man in the ticket kiosk to ask him about the next feature, which was that very Andalusian Dog. They were obviously undecided about whether to stay or leave. “Mister,” the kids demanded, “what’s the next movie?” “Andalusian Dog,” he said. “What’s it about?” The man was busy selling tickets and making change, and clearly didn’t want to be bothered giving any explanations—and how would you explain a surrealist film to ten-year-olds, or anybody else, anyways?—so without looking up from his work he airily replied, “It’s about a dog. You’ll love it.” “Okay,” they said enthusiastically, and ran back in.

That was the story I wanted to tell that day four years ago. It might have helped. In fact, though, I had had something to do with your introduction to Georgetown anyway, thanks to the Dean’s office. One of the mailings you received the summer before you came contained a letter from the dean of freshmen quoting at some length a paper I had written some years earlier, about education. In it I suggested that education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you in to it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends. Many of them are sitting on the stage behind me. I think also, and especially, of Mike Foley, who showed that it is possible to be rigorous without being pompous, and to be incisive without being hurtful. I think of Phil Tacka, from whom I learned that is possible actually to like your students and to make class fun. And so many others. They make the conversation a joy.

Senior Week is a sad time in many ways. You go on the (excuse the expression) Booze Cruise and meet someone you’ve seen for four years but never known and you talk, and realize, with a sinking feeling, that you could have been great friends but now you’re going away, and it’s too late. There are so many “could have”s that occur to us now. I feel that way. I wish there had been more conversation: that the spirit or ethos of this place allowed people to talk about ideas and books and music without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to love the things of the mind and not have to be self-protective, pretending to be cool. I wish people here could work at learning for its own sake, for love of it, not in the driven and competitive and if I may say so joyless way we are all familiar with.

There are three things alumni say when they come back. (Four, if you count, “There’s no more green on campus.”) I suppose you will be saying them now. One is, “I couldn’t get in here now.” Another is, “Tell them not to worry about getting a job: there’ll be a job.” And the third is, “I wish I had taken more [Theology/History/English/Philosophy: liberal arts courses] and not picked my courses to make sure I would [make law school/get a job/get into medical school].” I think what they are saying could be put this way: they “could have” given themselves to the conversation for its own sake—beyond pragmatic considerations. In their own way they are paying tribute to the ideal of scholé, “leisure,” which is the basis of scholastic work. To read books, to talk about them, to enjoy friendship, for no other reason than that conversation—listening to other people, being responsive to them, opening up to them, loving them—is what human life is all about.

Well you have, to whatever extent, had this experience of conversation. You should assess and reflect on this experience of the last four years. It would help you get ready for the next four, and the years after those. You know how much you’ve changed, and even grown, during these years? You will be going through changes of the same magnitude between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six as you did from eighteen to twenty-two. (You’ll just have to take my word for that.) Four more years. What are you in for? More of the same. There will be the same pressures to self-absorption you have experienced during your time at Georgetown, fortified, now, by the demands of the world of work or graduate school. There will be the same possibilities of joy, though, joy in others—in friendship—if you let it happen. What you’ve learned you’ll keep learning. What you let get in the way of learning here threatens to blight your joy in the future—if you let it happen. But mostly life gets richer. The things you’ve studied and read about come to life as more the mere words, as you share in the same experiences that generated those words for the authors who wrote them. I like to tell a story about this dialectic between words and experience, experience and words. An old Jesuit, Fr. Peter Lutz, enjoyed remarkably good health all his life. He had cared for people who were ill, in schools, in seminaries, in his community, but himself was robust: never sick a moment. One day, towards the end of his life, he was walking down the stairs and suddenly felt funny. Nausea, say, came over him. He grabbed the banister and looked oddly at his companion, and said, “This must be what they mean when they say they are sick.” The word suddenly had become an experiential reality. That’s the way it works. So you will grab the banister and say, “This must be what they mean when they say . . .” grace, or compunction, or love, or gratitude. Life keeps getting more interesting.

There’s a passage in Paul where he is telling the Christians of Philippi to do this and avoid that and don’t forget that other thing—Paul loved to give advice. But he breaks off and says, in effect, if there’s anything else God will remind you. I believe that is true. So don’t be anxious.

Yet you will be anxious. You’re wondering what you’re in for, really. What will it be like? What’s it all about?

It’s about a dog. You’ll love it.


3 Responses to “Great Commencement Speeches (Part II)”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Having good teachers really is a curse. Thanks for this Mark, it forces me to remember, even from so far away.

  2. Nikolai Wenzel Says:

    Thanks, Mark, for sharing this As you know, I have just started teaching myself. The material is the easy part (I teach undergraduates, and mostly principles of economics). The difficult part is knowing how to teach, and figuring out how to instill habits of the mind… and what my role really is. To inspire? To teach? To challenge?

    I look back at my years at Georgetown and wonder what I really learned; I certainly don’t remember most of the books or classes or lectures. But I did learn how to read and how to write — and, mostly from Fr. Walsh — the importance of imagination.

  3. The Meaning of Life, by Terry Eagleton « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] by Mark Grannis in Arts and Letters, Book Reviews. trackback Readers of this blog know life is about a dog, and that it’s important to leave room for the Holy Spirit and avoid making Movie-Indians. […]

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