Last Lecture – Convocation, 2015
It’s my privilege to speak to you tonight and deliver your “last lecture” at St. Mary’s College. It was a real honor to be invited to do so and I feel very fortunate to be a part of the conclusion to your time here, as well as to help celebrate the 175th anniversary of our school.
What I’d like to do is think for just a few minutes about three seemingly straightforward ideas that we often employ but perhaps don’t often think deeply about.
The reason I’ve chosen to focus on these ideas is that I think they’re true, they’re important, and yet they’re easy to dismiss. It’s my hope that by focusing on them here – by giving them pride of place at your final lecture as an undergraduate student – they will be easier to hold on to and take seriously throughout the rest of your life.
The first is the idea that “knowledge is power.” That’s easy enough to say, but when we unpack it we can understand it to have at least two distinct meanings.
The first is that knowledge is instrumentally valuable – having it helps you to accomplish your goals, be good at your work, earn money (along with the status and opportunity that often follows in its wake), and generally be able to do things in the world. If you don’t know how to accomplish a task you are left like a sailboat without wind, unable to move forward towards a destination, and perhaps not even knowing what your destination ought to be.
The second way we can understand the phrase, “knowledge is power” is that knowledge is intrinsically valuable. But, in order to understand what that means we have to back up a step and think about what it is to be a person rather than a thing.
The concept of personhood packs a heavy conceptual punch – lots of meaning gets smuggled in to claiming that you are a person.
One thing that it means is that you are a knower – you are the kind of being that can believe things, either with good or bad justification.
Sometimes that knowledge is big and impressive. It might take the form of scientific research or medical discovery. It can also be embodied knowledge – knowing how to scale a mountainside or touch the canvas with your paintbrush with just the right amount of pressure in order to create a masterpiece.
However, not all knowledge is so big and impressive; it doesn’t always have to take the form of what is often traditionally thought of to be “knowledge” with a capital K. In fact, lots of the knowledge that is most valuable to us is often small and quiet – knowledge about how to care for people in your life, about how to season a recipe just right, about what it’s like to feel the wind in your face or watch the sun set over the St. Mary’s river.
My point is that everything that you accomplish in life – everything you feel proud of, both little and big – is predicated on your being a knower. And, since we identify ourselves in large part by the things that we accomplish – you might be an artist or an athlete, an academic or an activist – who you are is a direct product of what you know.
But, being a knower is not just a static capacity – it’s not something you just have. Your mind is like a muscle, and it grows with use. As attractive as it is (for a variety of reasons) to believe that some people are just born smart, in my experience that’s largely untrue. “Smart” is something that you do, that you work at over time, and that you become – not something that just happens to you.
What I want to suggest, then, is that the intrinsic value of knowledge – part of how we should understand what it means to say that “knowledge is power” – is that being knowledgeable makes you more fully and completely the kind of being that you are. You are greater, more fully you, and simply … more … when you have knowledge than when you lack it.
(There is, by the way, an ongoing, national conversation about what the value of a liberal arts education amounts to. In my view much of that conversation importantly misses the point and focuses simply on job preparedness and ignores what it means to be a person in the world. In doing so, such conversations reduce current and future students to their economic or instrumental value. What makes such conversations inadequate, in other words, is that they focus on the value of education and ignore the deep value of the students who are to be educated.)
Ok, that was the idea that knowledge is power. On to the second idea.
It is sometimes said that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That idea is easier to interpret: I take it to mean roughly that, if you are in a position to help, if you are able to make things better, then if all else is equal, you ought to do so. That seems simple enough.
But, here’s the thing: if knowledge is power, as soon to be graduates from St. Mary’s College, all of you bear great responsibility.
And that’s where things get trickier. It’s one thing simply to say that you bear great responsibility. The much more complicated question is, responsibility for what?
Like the claim that “knowledge is power,” we can also think about responsibility in broadly two central ways.
The first is in terms of praise or blame for actions that you commit or fail to commit. That type of responsibility is the stuff of everyday moral life that you’ve been learning about since you were in kindergarten. You shouldn’t break promises and you should tell the truth, you shouldn’t hurt other people and you should be generous.
However, we can also understand responsibility to mean that you ought to do some things, not because of any past action of yours or any state of affairs of your own making. This type of responsibility is what we might think of as the responsibility to promote justice.
All of us found ourselves born into a world that we did not create, possessing forms of privilege or facing forms of oppression that we did not choose. But, paraphrasing philosopher Alison Jaggar, “we can only start where we are – beings who have been created in a cruelly racist, capitalist, and male-dominated society that has shaped our bodies and our minds, our perceptions, our values and emotions.”
And so, I contend that part of what your great responsibility for justice amounts to is working to challenge those structures that systematically subordinate the interests and life chances of some social groups to others.
It is to resist oppressive ideologies and cognitive biases that cause you to perceive others in ways that perpetuate racism and sexism, homophobia and speciesism.
It is to say no to a world that cages others in and to say yes - joyfully and with deep resolve – to a world that helps others to be healthier, happier, more able to exercise their autonomy, and more wholehearted and less fragmented: in short, to help others – all others – to flourish.
So, how do you do this?
You can do it through both your professional and your personal lives. How you spend your time and labor, who you love and care for, how you regard or think about others, what you do in both the big and small moments of everyday life - each of these are opportunities for you to satisfy the great responsibility that you bear.
I don’t have the time here tonight to say more about just what that means, and there would be real limitations to what I could say even if I did. The reason why is that you must decide, each day, within the context of your own, personal and unique lives, how you will satisfy the great responsibility you bear. My hope is that your time at St. Mary’s has given you the lines; it is up to you to fill them in with color.
Ok, that was the second idea – that with great power comes great responsibility.
The third idea I want to unpack is theologian Ian Maclaren’s, who said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Again, we can interpret this in two ways, the first of which is more simple and straightforward than the second.
The idea of kindness is simple enough; it’s again a part of that commonsense morality that we all learn about in kindergarten. But, even then things are more complicated, for again it’s often not at all clear what kindness means in any particular context. And, even if you feel like you’ve got a pretty good grasp on what it means to be kind, it’s often all too easy to be kind only to those people with whom you most directly interact and not to stretch yourself or engage with others who might very much need your kindness, but whom it is easy to ignore or overlook.
Focusing on the second part of the idea, we should ask what it means to say that everyone is “fighting a hard battle”. Well, if you take seriously your responsibility to promote justice in the world, it will weigh on you – sometimes very heavily. To live in and to be engaged with a world shot through with injustice is to be terrifically vulnerable to great pain and sustained, ongoing harm.
But, just as crucial to recognize is that it’s also often hard just to be a person – to make the choice each day to be a part of the world.
Agency – being in charge of yourself – is one of the sharpest of double-edged swords. It is simultaneously both the origin of many of the very best things in life, and also itself exhausting, brutal in its relentlessness.
So, you must remember as you move on from this place that you matter too. Since you are fighting a hard battle, you are one of the people that it is often easy to overlook when you think about what it means to be kind.
Bringing these three ideas together, here’s what we’re left with:
You are simultaneously powerful and vulnerable – able to do great things with your life because of the great knowledge you have acquired, but also exposed and open to the costs and weight of not only doing those things, but also being the kind of being that must decide whether to do those things.
And, you are also responsible – you owe quite a lot - both to yourself and to others. If you take that responsibility seriously you will very often go to bed feeling like you haven’t done or given all that you owed, and it is a very good day indeed when you feel as though you have.
The thing to do is to keep at it, to keep moving forward – sometimes quickly, sometimes painfully slowly – over the course of your life. There is much important work to be done and you are the ones to do it. The point is to keep going, and to be kind and gentle with yourself as you do.
Before I conclude I want to note that I joined the faculty of St. Mary’s four years ago, along with the class of 2015. I have had the great good fortune to work with many of you in classes where we talk about ideas like those I’ve explored tonight. In that time I have most certainly learned as much from you as you have from me. I will miss you as you move on from this place but I am profoundly grateful for our time together and for the chance to be your teacher. I wish all of you the very best.