Congratulations to the Class of 2020!
In the words of Professor John Bender, "go forth into a future extraordinarily mysterious, with puzzles far more intricate than those usually proffered by each step into the unknown. Yet, because of literature, you possess intuition beyond the ordinary. Stay in touch with that intuition during every moment of your lives!"
I am writing to thank you for all that you have taught me in your years in the English department. It has been my great privilege to work beside you and to learn from you.
I have learned from your precision, your passion, your humor, your fierce desire to make a fine and sturdy map of the world.
To watch you as you seeded and grew your powers has been breathtaking. The maps you made here will change of course—maybe many times.
The people you are at 30 or 40 may be unrecognizable to you now.
But my hope is that the Stanford English department has given you tools to fashion strong and powerful adult lives, adult voices.
The kind of adult voice celebrated by Gwendolyn Brooks in her tribute to Paul Robeson, the great actor, singer, and activist—the voice that binds us together:
by Gwendolyn Brooks
we all heard it, cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day. The major Voice.
The adult Voice forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s magnitude and bond.
I know the education you received here will help ground you as your maps of the world change. As the ground has changed around me, my own study of literature has been the most steady and certain guide I’ve found.
Literature has helped me understand human motivations, human striving, human suffering, and human pain. It has helped me understand what people endure.
It has also helped me really understand the truth of June Jordan’s words:
“Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. In the process of telling the truth about what you feel or what you see, each of us has to get in touch with himself or herself in a really deep, serious way. Our culture does not encourage us to undertake that attunement. Consequently, most of us really exist at the mercy of other people’s formulations of what’s important.
But if you’re in the difficult process of living as a poet, you’re constantly trying to make an attunement to yourself which no outside manipulation or propaganda can disturb. That makes you a sturdy, dependable voice—which others want to hear and respond to. So, poetry becomes a means for useful dialogue between people who are not only unknown, but mute to each other. It produces a dialogue among people that guards all of us against manipulation by our so-called leaders.”
Now you are entering a world that none of us could have imagined. All the maps we have handed you are obsolete.
The global economy and most commerce have ground to a sudden stop. The rotting core of the brutal American carceral system is finally being exposed and powerfully challenged. After years of activism and intense labor, Black Lives Matter has become one of the most powerful political forces in the world. Climate change tipping points are closer than ever. And American politics are the most polarized they’ve been since the 1960’s and possibly since the Civil War, in part because of the technologies developed right on our front doorstep.
Just as it was my privilege to work beside you, it will be my privilege to watch you build a new and better world. I hope it is a world whose values are solidarity, community, compassion, dignity for all humans, care for all living creatures, and for our beautiful, fragile home.
One thing I’ve learned (from John Milton in fact) is that it is hard to build and easy to destroy. There is a fundamental asymmetry between good and bad, between creation and destruction. The idea is beautifully articulated by a psychiatrist named Gordon Livingston: “Only bad things happen quickly. Virtually all the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues” (Livingston 83). You know this already from your own lives—indeed you are living this asymmetry now. You know how hard it was to build up your skills in adolescence and how hard it was to shape your curiosity and drive into useful tools in college. And you saw how in a matter of a few months the end of your college education could be thrown off course by the pandemic. You have borne this setback with enormous strength.
I hope the world you build—patiently, slowly, deliberately—will reject the rancid habits of competition, domination, fratricidal hatred, extraction of the earth’s resources, racism, oppression, and harsh dismissal of humans whose moral frameworks are different. You will need each other. And we need you to be “each other’s harvest…each other’s magnitude and bond.”
Livingston, Gordon. Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now. (Hackett Books, 2009).
Albert Guérard Professor in Literature
Chair, Department of English