Address by President David E. Maxwell
May 10, 2003
In the early colleges of colonial and 19th century America, the president-usually an ordained minister-gave the commencement address, in which he (it was always a he) attempted to place the students' collegiate education in a moral and ethical context. To put it more bluntly, it was an opportunity to provide the students with a set of instructions on how they should lead their lives if they wanted to meet with the president's approval.
Some of you may know that in a former life I was a college professor; I taught Russian language and literature for many years. I miss much of that part of my life-the opportunity to talk about books that I love to read with smart young people, so for the last several years, each spring at commencement, i abuse the privilege of the presidency by reviving the old colonial tradition: I'm about to deliver some moral instruction by explaining to you how and why some of the giants of literature-particularly Russian literature-have given meaning to my life. I hope that makes sense to you-I am one of those people who believes in the power of narratives, of stories-that it is the stories that we tell that ultimately define, and explain, who we are-as individuals, as groups and organizations, as universities.
I had an epiphany years ago when i was teaching at Tufts University. You all know what an epiphany is, right? You know, it's when you get woken up at 3 in the morning by a huge, bright beam of light shining through your window and a loud, deep voice that sounds like James Earl Jones delivering a life-altering message? (Wait, that doesn't happen to you...?)
Anyway, i was on my way to my Russian literature class-a course on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, where we were going to be talking about Crime & Punishment. We'd been discussing the novel for two weeks. And on the way to class, I had an epiphany, right out in the middle of campus where everyone could see it. The James Earl Jones voice said, "You know what, Dr. Maxwell (epiphanies are very respectful and polite), your students haven't the vaguest idea what to do with the books you're making them read, and you haven't told them yet.
I walked into class, and started by saying, "You know, as usual I've got 15 pages of notes of things i want to talk about today, but I want to try an experiment-I have a question to ask you that might start a pretty interesting discussion. If it flops, we'll go back to doing what we've been doing, but I want to give it a try."
Crime and Punishment is a novel about a young man, Raskolnikov, a student at St Petersburg University in the 19th century who kills two women with an axe to see if he is a superman, a person to whom normal human laws do not apply. The murders take place almost immediately in the novel, and the next 500 pages are the chronicle of the mighty struggle between reason and faith for Raskolnikov's soul.
So I asked my students, "Tell me who Raskolnikov is." And their answers at first were pretty much a repetition of what we'd been discussing in class for two weeks-Raskolnikov is the symbolic embodiment of Dostoevsky's life-long exploration of the struggle between reason and faith.
And I said, "No, tell me who he is as a person," and the students looked at me a bit confused and puzzled (it happens a lot...). I tried to help by saying, "Let's pretend he's going home with you this weekend, and you're on the phone with your mother, telling her about the friend you're taking with you (but leave out the part about the axe murders..). Who is he?
Well, my epiphany was right-they hadn't the vaguest idea what I was after, and I said, "Raskolnikov is a college student! He's your age! He's one of you!! Have you distanced yourself from the reality of this novel because it's 100 years old, written 4,000 miles away in a language with a funny alphabet, and although it's interesting and provocative and exciting, ultimately it has nothing to do with you?"
And I was right-that's what they had done.
I hadn't taught my students, and no one else had either, that understanding the narratives of others, understanding the stories, helps us understand ourselves and our own stories-and that the more stories we read and understand, the more we can make sense of the world around us.
Dostoevsky understood the power of those stories. Raskolnikov believed in the concept of the superman, and believed that it was morally acceptable for him to kill, because he'd been doing nothing but reading stories. He had spent a burning hot summer in St Petersburg isolated in his stuffy, airless attic room sick, with fever and starvation, reading German philosophy, immersing himself in an abstract world of reason and rationalism - a world that, according to Dostoevsky, was devoid of spirituality, devoid of god, devoid of humanity. Hidden in his room, his senses distorted by illness and hunger, Raskolnikov did not make the connection between the stories and the reality on the streets of Petersburg-if he had, he would have seen that the stories he was reading were wrong-there are not supermen who have the right to kill others in the name of a greater good.
So, here's my moral instruction (I'll bet you were starting to wonder where I was going with all this): READ - Read every story you can get your hands-and eyes-on. Read stories from other cultures, other times, from our culture and our time. Read fiction, read history, read biography. They are worlds you can fly to without having to empty your pockets and take your shoes off at the airport-but don't use them just for escape into another place (though that's often fun, and useful)-take what you learn from them back into the reality that you are, and the reality that you live in-everything that you learn from good stories enriches you, and adds to who you are, and ultimately will be the only way that you can make sense of the world around you.
As you leave Drake today, I hope that you will recognize that you're taking an important story with you, and that is the story of Drake University, and of your experience in this community. I hope that story will continue to be part of your lives - that Drake has helped shape who you are and who you will be in the same way that your presence here has shaped us as a community. We have begun an important relationship from which you can't escape - the alumni office will make sure of that - so I encourage you to continue to be an active part of the Drake community of learning, to call on us for knowledge, for advice and counsel, as we would like to call on you. And I hope that you'll be out there telling the story for us, to everyone who will listen.
As someone who is a few chapters closer to the end of the book than you are, I can tell you that the passages ahead of you are filled with the excitement of discovery, the joys of new people and new places, and the satisfaction of accomplishing goals. I wish you peace, joy, and success - and, as my grandmother used to say, "Do good, and don't be a stranger."