Commencement 2012 - Senior Class Address
By Nicholas Anthony Pandolfi '12
Fellow members of the graduating class of 2012, today I am thinking about maps. Having come of age in the twenty-first century, we are accustomed to thinking of maps as things concrete; detailed schematics double- and triple-checked by military satellites. The age of exploration has come and gone, and now any cartographic discrepancies are the result of deliberate, often political, choices. Not all that long ago, however, cartography was more of an art than a science and conjured a wildly different set of images and connotations. During the Golden Age of Mapmaking in the late 16th and 17th centuries, cartography was a pursuit characterized by risky adventuring, romanticism and a healthy dose of mythos. One need not read biographies of old mapmakers to find evidence of this romantic sensibility. It is present in the maps themselves, many of which include lavish illustrations of sea monsters, rolling ships and exotic shores. It strikes me that these are the kinds of maps all of us will begin to draw for ourselves as we fly the educational coop, despite the apparent "chartedness" of the modern world. For a map is as much a diagram of the cartographer's inner geography as it is a representation of the contours of coastlines and mountains they encounter on their journey.
As we begin to draft these maps, we are faced by the perilous truth that we are both the victims and beneficiaries of our own imaginations. I would guess that many of you have indulged, as I have, in the dangerous game of imagining your future self. These imaginings might involve graduate school or, more terrifying still, joining the work force. How strangely bleak that phrase can seem. Although these two words individually convey a sense of industriousness and power, taken together they suggest a sea of suits and furrowed brows. Many of us have probably encountered our own corporate ghosts in this sea. It is easy for this exercise to drift into the realm of hyperbole or melodrama, but it is still worthwhile, if for no other reason than it serves to remind us of the value of preserving the crucial spark of selfhood in the face of forces that tend toward homogeneity and normalization.
If we ever grow disheartened, there are examples of this kind of resilient individuality to be found in the natural world all around us. One of the most rewarding elements of my final semester at Denison has been delving into the marvels of geology. Some people are drawn to this field out of an awed sense of humility at the sheer scale of geological time and process, and it is certainly humbling to consider the relative insignificance of humanity in a geological context. But what I find most remarkable is the lasting presence of geological specimens that tell the millennia-old stories of the tiniest fragments of the Earth. These distinct pieces of a four-and-a-half-billion-year history lie stubbornly embedded all around us. Of course they gradually change, as all things must. But they also retain something of their specific nature as they stay the course of time.
I think it's a safe bet that Denison has served as some kind of crucible for all of us. It is unlikely that any of us will ever again find ourselves in such a condensed environment, constantly being influenced by our proximity to a wide array of perspectives and our interactions with people dedicated full-time to improving their knowledge of the world and themselves. We are the product of the forces that have shaped us, like rock fragments formed deep in the belly of the Earth by pressures outside of ourselves. As such, each of us is a particular blend of ideas, aptitudes and inner demons. And although there may be a kind of simplicity or even a guilty sense of relief in letting yourself get swept away to sea by winds beyond your control, it is better not to.
You have not solicited my advice. You may not even think me qualified to give any. But I think this kind of speech is supposed to offer some by way of conclusion, so here goes. Leave Mercatur and the other old school cartographers behind. The power in drawing your own maps comes from getting to decide which way is North and being able to draw the sea monsters you will face along the way. Arm yourself with courage, compass and pen and bring yourself unflinchingly to the table.