by Michael Hayden Armacost, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
It is a great pleasure for me to return to this great college and this lovely campus. I last attended commencement ceremonies here 43 years ago. My brother Sam graduated in 1961. Another brother, Pete, was also a graduate; I might have come here myself had he not chosen to attend Denison. I wanted to be on my own, so I went off to another splendid college up in Minnesota. I was later offered a job in the Political Science Department here in the early 1960s, but had just made a commitment to teach at Pomona College when the invitation arrived. So my connections with Denison have had a "near miss" quality, but I am proud to walk away today with an Honorary Degree, and I thank you for it.
Over the years I have spoken at a fair number of commencements. I have always done so with certain reservations. An old friend, General Carlos P. Romulo -- a great Philippine statesman and a superb speaker -- maintained that commencement addresses are among the most forgettable of all human utterances. Romulo -- a man of elephantine memory -- acknowledged that he could not remember who had spoken at his high school or college graduations nor the subjects of their remarks. Sadly, neither can I.
Fortunately, Winston Churchill offered a useful guideline for speaking on such occasions: "Say what you have to say," he urged, "and the first time you come to a sentence with a grammatical ending, sit down!" A sensible idea. I shall be mercifully brief.
I have no intention of commenting on the daunting situation we face in Iraq or anywhere else in the world for that matter. When pressed for the subject of these remarks, I offered the lame title, "Gratuitous Advice." But I cannot sum up the essence of my experience in the pithy and practical way Anthony Burgess or Erma Bombeck have. Burgess offered this timeless counsel: "Laugh and the world will laugh with you; snore and you will sleep alone." That is worth remembering. So is Bombeck's shrewd admonition: "Never go to a doctor whose office plants are dead." Instead of tendering advice, therefore, allow me to ignore my title and simply express a few of my hopes for those of you who are graduating today.
I hope that your experience at Denison has taught you that a University is not so much a place to satisfy curiosity, but to arouse the right kind of curiosity. John Henry Newman once described education as the thread on which received knowledge -- "the jewels of the great tradition" -- can be strung. I trust that Denison has acquainted you with some of those jewels. I hope your experience here has awakened your capacity for awe; stimulated your moral imagination; deepened your appreciation of nature; enhanced your precision in the use of language; and, having aroused your intellectual curiosity, given you a mastery of the tools of logic with which to satisfy that curiosity.
I hope you have discovered that the best evidence of a sound education is the ability to ask timely and thoughtful questions. Don't you wish the members of the Tyco or Enron boards had done so? When I was studying at Columbia University, I once heard the great Nobel prize-winning physicist, Isador Rabi, speak. He attributed his own zest for knowledge to the fact that when he came home from school each day his mother never asked "What did you learn today?" but "Izzy, did you ask any good questions today?"
"Science," H.G. Wells wrote, "is a match that man has just got alight" in hopes of illuminating "walls inscribed with wonderful secrets." The reality, of course, is that after a match's "preliminary sputter is over and the flame burns clear," the light is only strong enough for us to catch a glimpse of ourselves and the patch of earth on which we stand. The progress of science requires the lighting of many matches; the pursuit of a useful life, the posing of many questions. In the years ahead, you will be frequently judged by the quality of the questions you ask.
I hope that your years at Denison have endowed you with "social sympathy" -- something that is harder to teach than logic, but arguably more important. It requires imagination of a special kind to comprehend how other people live and to empathize with the problems they confront. That is particularly so in college where one spends so much time wrestling with abstractions.
I remember a symposium held at Pomona College when I was a young instructor. Its aim was to examine the concept of sin from various angles, utilizing analytic tools supplied by Marx and Freud among others. Having been raised as a Baptist, it struck me as odd to listen to an extensive and abstract discussion of sin with scarcely any reference to sinners.
Abstractions are essential to education. But I hope that you have also learned something about Jesus of Nazareth, restoring sight to the blind in Judea, of Albert Schweitzer, healing the sick in Equatorial Africa, of Jane Adams, ministering to slum dwellers in Chicago, or Mother Teresa, caring for the dying in Calcutta. Their lives, devoted to relieving the suffering of others, represent, as George Will has noted, a "triumph over the natural human tendency toward abstraction." Theirs are lives worthy of emulation.
I hope you will leave Denison unafflicted by the spirit of entitlement that is so visible around us. It is evident in the conduct of the skier who chose to litigate against the owner of a ski resort for normal injuries sustained during his own recreation. The world is not free of risks, and you should have learned by now that you cannot escape responsibility for those you take and lose.
I hope you have discovered the importance of committing yourselves to durable relationships. Don't neglect the claims of family. Cultivate the friendships you have established here. You can always make new friends -- and I am sure you will do so. But "old friends" are harder to come by. Cherish them.
I hope that during your time here you have acquired some understanding of both your potential and your limitations. I don't mean the kind of self-knowledge exhibited by a Yale undergraduate who left on his door a typed note for the janitor that read: "Call me at 7 a.m. It's absolutely essential that I get up at seven. Make no mistake. Keep knocking until I answer." Under these urgent instructions, he had written in his own hand, "Try again at 10!"
I am speaking rather of that quality of which Robert Bolt wrote in his play "A Man for All Seasons" in which he described Sir Thomas More as one who "knew where he began and where he left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. . ." He knew what he could bring himself to do. He possessed firm principles on which he was prepared to make a stand. I hope that you have developed some strong convictions, and, equally important, the courage to bear witness to them.
I hope the sharpening of your critical faculties has not diminished your pride in this great country. I have been privileged to serve our nation abroad, and I always returned with a heightened awareness of its uniqueness and strengths. What is perhaps most distinctive about America is that our national identity is defined not by religion, nor ethnicity, nor tribal loyalties, but by a shared commitment to a political creed -- a belief in freedom, equality before the law, limited government, democratic procedures. We have no monopoly on these ideas. But in no nation have so many embraced them so strongly over so extended a period of time with such salutary results.
These ideas are no less relevant today than they were for the Founding Fathers. They continue to illumine our purposes at home and abroad. They serve as a source of restraint against arbitrary government. Whatever your thoughts about the record of the current administration, remember that as a nation we hold ourselves -Thank God -- to higher standards of conduct than most other countries. Our ideals and our aspirations stand constantly in judgment of our current policies. Consequently, the promise of our future is occasionally an indictment of the American present. Yet it is the capacity for self-criticism -- hence, self-renewal -- that is our greatest strength. Our country continues to require that quality of self-reflection, and I hope that you will help provide it.
Americans have generally been an optimistic people. At times this spirit is hard to sustain. But I hope that you have acquired in the course of your education not only a sense of humor but a realization that the ancient art of comedy involved serious drama ending in a mood of joy rather than sorrow. Its essential feature, as Clara Parks wrote, was not the happy ending but the quality of the characters that enabled them to earn a happy ending. "Hope," she added, "is not the lucky gift of circumstance or disposition, but a virtue like faith and love, to be practiced whether or not we find it easy or even natural, because it is necessary to our survival as human beings." That quality of hope -- and the character that nourishes it -- is one you will need in a world in which each advance of technology seems to present ever more daunting ethical dilemmas.
I hope that you have learned not to be ashamed of the desire to achieve material advancement for yourself and your loved ones. It is a natural and admirable aim. But I also hope that such desires are tempered by a readiness to be of service to others. There are few satisfactions greater than those that come from the application of your best effort to a worthy cause. Public service is a worthy endeavor, and I hope that many of you will consider careers in public life. If you don't, as one pundit observed, you forfeit the right to whine that elective offices and high government positions are always dominated by second-rate lawyers and third-rate insurance brokers.
Finally, I hope that Denison has not only given you a desire to succeed in life, but endowed you with the ability to define success in a thoughtful way. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best: "To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the approval of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
Set such standards for yourselves, and you will be a credit to this Institution.