Address by President David E. Maxwell
May 9, 2004
As those few of you who read your Drake e-mail know, a few weeks ago I sent an message to members of the Class of 2004 that said, in essence, "whether you want to or not, you're going to be subjected to a burst of rhetoric from the president at Commencement-what would you like me to talk about?"
I received dozens of thoughtful, reflective, and helpful responses, for which I'm very grateful. One of my favorites said that the topic itself wasn't important, as long as I spoke about something that I'm passionate about. But the most common theme-perhaps not surprisingly-had to do with transition -the transition from the life of a student at Drake University to the life of an adult professional in the "real world"-what one of you termed "the big adventure
One of you said, "I'd like to hear about how scary it might be to be done with a part of our lives, but that with our experiences, efforts, and human qualities that we've picked up along the way, we'll be ok." And that statement reflected the theme of majority of the emails, and a of lot of the conversations I've had with many of you in recent weeks-some version of the question: "So what is it like out there, and how do you know that we're ready for it?" I've given that question a great deal of thought, and after careful reflection, my answer is: "How on earth should I know? ø I never left! I went to college, graduate school, and then became a professor and an administrator-I've never been out thereÉ).
Having said that, I should tell you that a cardinal rule of being a university president is that ignorance of a subject should never be an impediment to speaking authoritatively and voicing your strong opinions about it, so even though I've been hiding behind the walls of academia since I was 17, for the next few minutes I'm going to try to bring all these suggestions together and answer, at least in part, the question, "what's it like out there?" (about which I'm very passionate), tell you why there's no question in my mind that you're ready for it, and then finally let my favorite Russian author, Anton Chekhov, tell you what is really in store for you.
When I first started thinking about the ways in which I'd describe "out there," I was troubled because for each thing that I thought of, for every characteristic of the stage of the world you're entering, I also easily thought of an opposite-it all seemed, initially, so contradictory, so confusing, so lacking in clarity. As I struggled with these contradictions, though, it occurred to me that maybe that's the most important thing that I can tell you-that from a purely logical point of view, "out there" makes absolutely no sense at all (bear with me-it's not all that negative or pessimistic-but saying that does get your attention, doesn't itÉ?). The trick is to find a way that works for you to make sense of it all, to find a set of reasons and rules that help you find your own way.
But actually the contradictions are not surprising, or problematic-they are a manifestation of a fundamental principle of our universe. We live in a contradictory, often ambiguous world, a world often characterized by dualities, of pairs-a world of devils and gods, evil and good, protons and electrons, energy and entropy, liberal and conservative, centrifugal force and centripetal force, right and left, yin and yang, cold and hot, Michael Jackson and Mahalia Jackson (unfortunately, you probably don't even know who she was, do you?).
The challenge is that this world of contradictions "out there" is an endless series of choices, and there are three points that I want to emphasize-if I leave you with any "words of Maxwell wisdom," (some might consider that an oxymoron. . .) something that I'm really passionate about, it's this:
Number 1 : most of the important choices won't be easy . The right answer will not only rarely be obvious, but there may be more than one right answer, and you'll have to figure out which one is really the right one for the situation. There will be choices that are simultaneously beneficial for some members of a group and harmful to others. There may be no answer that you really like, and you'll still have to make a choice. Inaction and avoidance are unacceptable-you have to make choices, even in a world of contradiction and ambiguity. Inaction itself is a choice-and it's usually the worst choice.
Number 2 : Your choices should be guided by a set of clearly articulated personal beliefs, of values to which you are deeply committed , so that you are not misled by expediency and personal gain, or by intellectual laziness, or by the path of least resistance. If you don't know what your own guiding values and beliefs are, spend some time soon figuring it out-you're going to need them.
Number 3 : Ultimately, your choices define who you are as a human being . In spite of the fact that we live in a culture that tends to define people by their titles, their riches, the houses they live in, by their clothes and by the cars they drive, the reality is that you define your life by what you say and what you do-by the choices that you make.
SoÉnow that I've scared you half to death with a world filled with ambiguity and hard choices, let me answer the other half of the question that I heard from many of you: " why do you think we're ready for it ?" Well, there's at least one easy way to answer that, and it's part of the right answer-I know you're ready for it because you're smart, energetic, committed, and capable young people. I know a lot of you personally, and who you are and what you've accomplished already is truly impressive. Add to that a terrific educational experience, and I think you're prepared for almost anything. And that's true, I do believe that, but it's too easy.
So let me tell you why I really know you're ready. One of my most important teachers, one the people who taught me most about values and beliefs, was a Russian writer who died 100 years ago this coming July ø Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. He has had a huge influence on who I am and what I believe, and I want you to hear what he says about the life ahead of you.
In 1894 Chekhov wrote a wonderful story called "The Student," about a young man your age , Ivan Velikopolskij, who is walking home through the fields at night on Good Friday, and he stops to talk with an elderly peasant woman and her daughter. He tells the women the Gospel of Peter's denial of Jesus in the garden of the high priest, and the old woman begins to cry. Seeing her cry, Ivan realizes, and I quote:
It was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present. . .
And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take a breath. 'The past," he thought, "is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end, the other quivered."
So that's the other part of my answer to your question; there are 55,000 people who've come before you at Drake University-55,000 people who left Drake full of hope, and excitement, and anticipation, and no small amount of anxiety about the future. You're the next link in a chain that began when the first class was graduated almost 120 years ago. While Madeleine and I haven't met all 55,000 of these folks, we have met hundreds and hundreds-probably thousands-and I can tell you that they are wonderful people who are doing wonderful and important things. They tell you that Drake is the place where they figured out who they wanted to be, and that helped them become that person. Look over there at those alumni in the flashy gold robes-they left Drake University 50 years ago, and I suspect every one of them will tell you that they were ready for all the challenges that they faced. They're the ones who give me confidence that you're ready for your future.
But I don't want to leave you with the impression that all that faces you is an endless series of hard choices. What I do want to do is read to you the last paragraph of Chekhov's story, "The Student," and hope that you notice that you're not unique in your wonder about the future. I also hope that you will leave Drake University with Chekhov's words as much a part of your lives as they are of mine (and as I read them, please remember that he's writing about a student , and someone your age-most of you!):
. . . he thought that the truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigor- he was only twenty-two -and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.
So let Chekhov tell you what's really out there-it's enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning. Go out there and love every minute of it-go out there and make the other end of the chain quiver. And while you're at it, kick over a few apple carts and rattle a few cages (I thought I'd keep the metaphorical thing rollingÉ). And get in touch every once in a while and let me know if Chekhov was right-I obviously think he is. We're very, very proud of you for who you are and what you've done, and full of excitement for your future.