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My Wish for You, Graduates

28 May 2016

When I heard that a few of my students had asked that I be the professor to deliver the faculty convocation address for our department graduation, I was surprised by how deeply grateful I felt. Sometimes in life, it’s the small incidental acts when another person reaches out and says something kind that can transform a moment or, if we’re lucky, the way we see the world, in some small incidental way. And so I wanted to honor and thank those students for esteeming my thoughts a worthy way to mark your graduation—a great accomplishment and moment of transition in your life—by putting to paper some of what I might have said to them in a graduation speech. The graduation speech is a venerable art form in American life, and I cannot hope to match the great ones; so this is just from my heart and mind right now thinking about what matters to me most as a man and as a professor. I sent it to my students and post it here with all its imperfections in the hopes that they might find a nugget of wisdom for themselves at this liminal time in their lives.

My Wish for You

from Prof. Ormsbee who has been honored to be your teacher

21 May 2016

In some ways, we have no choice but to speak from where we are at the moment we take a breath to speak. What I want to share with you today, then, comes unavoidably out of my current life moment as I face the other side of middle age, the disappointments of life, and my failures. Yet my thoughts also emerge from the past few years of seeing you nearly every week in the classroom, and watching you learn and change and grow as you struggle with new ideas, new perspectives, and facts unknown to you before—because in some ways, talking to students, reading their work, watching them transform gradually before my eyes is without a doubt one of my life’s greatest pleasures and among the accomplishments I am truly proud of. Above all, today I want you to know that I have no doubt of the potential of each of you to become Good, with a capital-G, in your lives and in the lives of others.

Of course, saying as much presumes that I know what being “good” even is, or in the old philosophical formulation, what it means to have a “good life,” or as Socrates would have said what “a life worth living” might be. Human values are always emergent; that is, they are always in the process of becoming as we argue and struggle with each other over what we actually value, what is worthy of our time and attention and strength. And so we have to work out together what it means to be Good. We must talk about it, reckon, try it out, fail and try again. In this way, much like calculating limits in Calculus, we might throughout our lives approach goodness, maybe get closer and closer, so that when we are preparing for death or have died, people will look at our lives and think, “She was a good woman” or “He was a good man.”

I cannot sugarcoat this for you—having a conversation about goodness in our world can be almost ridiculous. Every generation has its own struggles and problems—I am not arguing that we are unique in that regard. But I am saying that we live in a global culture that makes being “good” and striving for “goodness” more and more difficult, if not laughable. We have hidden “goodness” away behind a fog of jobs and accumulation of consumer goods and celebrity; and within the clouds of always-on, always connected, iCulture. Indeed, there’s a way in which just talking about “being good” or having a “good life” evokes either mocking snickers or impassioned Jeremiads about STEM education and job markets. Goodness seems to be “out of touch” with the real world, even hopelessly naïve. And yet, in the face of youtube videos of beheadings, looming mass starvation in drought-stricken regions around the world, a melting polar ice cap, drone strikes and collateral damage, and staggering global poverty,  how can we afford not to talk about what goodness might mean at this moment in history?

Any serious talk can be challenging in a world filled with constant noise and distraction demanding our attention. Some of these distractions are the very real, weighty matters of day-to-day life: How will I pay my rent this month? How do I feed my kids today after working a 10-hour shift? Will I be able to get enough sleep tonight? Other distractions are mere attention-seekers that want us not to think too deeply and indeed make profit from our daily desire to escape into shallow entertainments and mouse clicks. These are the flashy advertisements for useless plastic objects and shoes we don’t need; the Facebook updates about someone’s encountering with an ugly person in the dairy case at the grocer’s; the news headlines designed to eliminate complexity in favor of quick emotional payoff. In most ways, our human values have been narrowed and pruned down until all that is left is a quick efficiency calculation: how much money, and how much time. In this world of economic efficiency, who has the time or brain-power left to ask the questions that matter?

Even education has been reshaped to follow above all the efficiency calculus: starting in preschool, with children barely out of diapers pushing reading programs before brains are developed enough for the task; elementary schools driven by standardized testing that treats children like widgets in a factory; high schools that are ranked based on the appearance of success, shown through graduation statistics and college acceptance letters; and universities that have shrunk students down into quantifiable “learning objectives” and rubrics to justify budgets and demonstrate, you guessed it, efficiency. We have slowly created a university system aimed at producing what C. Wright Mills, a mid-twentieth century social theorist, called the “happy robots” of the American labor force, who obey, acquiesce, and work without questioning.

In this moment in history, then, a bachelor’s degree in the Humanities can be a rare gift, as it affords to us a few years out of life to ponder and ask the questions that really matter, the questions that help us determine what it means to be “Good” and what a life worth living would look like. Of course, using your bachelors degree as a time to think about Big Questions is not what the current economic system demands, and indeed is what many of the bureaucrats, budgeteers, and reformers at SJSU usually think of as a waste of time and money because it cannot be measured or quantified and does not “add value” to your “marketability” as a potential employee.

I’m not going to indulge here in a defense of the Humanities as a course of study—you can find those online if you search hard enough, wading through all of the anti-education noise. Rather, I want to ask to you to consider your time in the Humanities department in what may be a different light. Your time here has not merely given you skills you need to be teachers and workers; this was not merely a few years out of your life to check off requirement boxes on your way to jobs, credential programs, marriage and children. No. In our time together, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in the background, we have been asking what it means to be Good and what it means to lead a Good life, a life worth living. These four or five years of your life have hopefully introduced you to ideas, thoughts, and perspectives that will serve for you as a life-long foundation to build your life’s Goodness upon.

When the puritans came to North America in the 17th century, one of their dreams was to found a Good society. The last five U.S. presidents have all misquoted and misused John Winthrop’s now-famous “city on a hill” sermon as a paean to American exceptionalism, the essential superiority of The United States as a nation. But Winthrop’s speech actually hoped, from a particular Christian perspective, for a society of mutual care and responsibility to each other, a profoundly good society. About a hundred and fifty years later, Thomas Jefferson imagined a society of radical equality, where each person mattered, each person was in a way “chosen” and valued and endowed with rights. For Jefferson, the Good Life was “the pursuit of happiness.” In some ways, the puritan focus on mutual obligation stands in contradiction to Jefferson’s individualism (and many of you know how I personally feel about Americans’ specialsnowflakery). But when you put the two together, they may offer valuable rethinking of goodness that is not merely the pleasure or Jefferson’s happiness of the individual, but includes social responsibility to the people around us. In this way, goodness can be considered an act of balancing the individual happiness with society’s interdependence, and by extension an act of choosing ethical life with other people.

Whereas colonial Americans may offer us a possible ideal of social and individual goodness, ancient Chinese philosophy may contain some practical ways to actually become good people. Inspired by philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s insistence that a worthwhile Humanities education must include cultures beyond the traditional “West,” I started reading Chinese philosophy last fall in my free time. Although I’m new to Chinese philosophy, and we have an expert in Prof. Jochim in our midst, I will attempt to do two thinkers a small bit of justice. Confucius taught that one does not perform religious ritual because there are real supernatural beings or powers out there in the universe. Rather, we perform ritual because the ritual act itself ties us to the past, to each other, and to the future, such that we are attempting to enact a world that should be, but is not. From there, he taught that we can create small rituals that we perform in order to become what we should be. Humans, in this thinking, are works in progress, not innately good or essentially “complete,” but imperfect beings who can and should strive to be better. A later Chinese philosopher called Mencius saw the world as an unpredictable and possibly dangerous place that we, as humans, have no choice but to live in. For Mencius, goodness is a quality that must be cultivated within our hearts and minds, much as one would care for a garden. We prepare ourselves for goodness by becoming good ourselves. This can only happen through care and attention. Clearly, I have only begun my journey into ancient Chinese philosophy from the Axial Age, but just this bare introduction has transformed the way I think about how I live my life, and the kind of man I might become in creating life rituals and cultivating my mind and heart in order to be good.

Many students know some of my own religious history, as sometimes I share pieces of it in class, how I was raised in a strict, very conservative minority Christian sect. As a gay child and teenager, that upbringing did much damage that to this day I still must contend with. Yet I have chosen to retain one habit of mind from my childhood religious experience, one that values holiness. As many of you may know from taking Dr. Rycenga’s or Dr. George’s religious studies courses, most traditional versions of monotheism teach that holiness is “out there,” transcendent, from God, an experience that happens to us, or an outside presence that we encounter. On the other hand, many mystical traditions and in some religious traditions from India, holiness is an emanation that interpenetrates the entire world, and that we all participate in. Finally, in modern, post-Enlightenment Judaism, holiness has come to mean something that we do, something we create through our actions in the world. In this view, humans are themselves creators as through their work in the world they make the world holy—humans have the ability, the potential, the responsibility to repair what is broken in the world, tikkun olam, by making it holy. I realize that many of us are not religious at all—I myself am, at most, agnostic. And others of us have very strong commitments to specific religions. My hope is that wherever you fall along the religious-spiritual-secular spectrum, you can imagine and consider just for a moment this idea, that we are the sources of holiness, we through our own actions make the world worth living in, beautiful, holy.

In each of these—American, Chinese, Jewish—the history of the ideas presents us with profound contradictions and disturbing realities. The puritans despised and excluded all who were not of their specific Calvinist branch of Christianity from their community. Thomas Jefferson had a decades long “affair” with a slave who was his own wife’s half sister, a relationship that can only be thought of as some form of rape, and left his own children in slavery upon his death. America at large is the story of the displacement of Native Americans; the enslavement of Africans; the theft of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines; 200 years of indentured servitude, misogyny, homophobia, and nativism. What use are American ideals of goodness? Chinese imperial history is not immune from this kind of critique either, as over time it expanded and contracted over fast geographical regions imposing a particular form of Han cultures on peoples throughout the continent. And modern Jewish ethics has at its core a struggle between the particularism of being Jewish and the necessity to think ethically about all humans in a more universalist way. No conversation about the value of goodness is beyond a reflexive critique of the society and people who created it. And yet, that is what humans do: They create value ideals and fail to live up to them.

But for me personally, this whole conversation can feel beside the point, either too historical or too philosophical and abstract. Sometimes life guts us without warning, and as Martha Nussbaum reminds us, at such moments in our lives, the emotions can overtake our consciousness, creating profound “upheavals of thought.” These are the moments that make philosophy, poetry, art, history, social science seem useless, while at the same time insisting on our deep need for philosophy, poetry, art, and history to help us make sense of all this. For me, I didn’t really understand what an upheaval of thought could be until one of my best friends was killed on Flight 93 on 9/11. I still don’t know how exactly to describe the shock and breathless grief that took me that morning, as I was frantically calling people to make sure that he was not on one of those flights (I knew that he was scheduled to be back in San Francisco that day). I sat in a bar in a hotel in downtown San Francisco a few days later for his wake, and still in shock, all I could see was that everything he was, everything he could have been, everything he might have done was gone, done, cut out of the fabric of the universe. My Aunt Karen passed away yesterday morning from an aggressive cancer that had already metastasized throughout her body, undiagnosed because they thought her pain was from post-polio syndrome, a lifelong condition suffered by survivors of polio. When I was very small, Aunt Karen was one of the few people in my extended family that I always felt deep, unconditional, profound and unquestioning love and acceptance from. And her life is ended, over in 5 days of unimaginable, unavoidable pain.

What can goodness then really be in the face of widespread historical injustice and our everyday, personal, even common suffering and pain? This spring, some of us encountered together for the first time George Eliot’s profound contemplation on life and love, Middlemarch. Because our class’s focus was elsewhere, we didn’t really explore in any depth the real heart of Eliot’s novel, her insistence on our connection and duty to each other as humans. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she writes, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Eliot believed that part of being human is the unavoidable consequences of our actions, the ways that we, most often unintentionally, affect the people around us. Sometimes our deeds don’t fully manifest in other people’s lives for weeks or even years. But that intense interconnection, if we paid attention to it, might be overwhelming. Prof. Riley, whom many of you know, uses the phrase “openhearted” to talk about how to deal with this reality. We must not run away from nor ignore either historical injustices or the private suffering of the people around us. Goodness and a life worth living lie in somehow encountering the world and our fellows with an open heart and willing hands, all while minding our own well-being and happiness. Although we cannot right all the world’s wrongs, nor alleviate all the suffering, I must believe that its better to spend our lives working to make the world good knowing the task’s enormity and potential impossibility, than to give in to greed, tribalism, consumerism, or endless swiping through and ranking headless bodies on our iPhones. We can commit to being present in our lives for each other, to make the world and a life worth living.

As each of you have touched my life in ways that I cannot even identify nor quantify using the crass, inhumane efficiency calculus, I want you to know that I am changed for having known you. I am honored to have been part of your lives for a short time in this limited way as your teacher. As you take this significant step, all bedecked in your bedazzled mortar boards, I cannot hope for a life without suffering for you, simply because that is not possible. And I will not hope for a life of wealth or success for you, as I’m no longer convinced that is what makes a life worth living. Rather, from this moment in my life and with an open heart, I thank you for your generosity in sharing a piece of yourselves with me for the past few years by wishing for you the strength, wisdom, love, and commitment necessary to make goodness with your lives.

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