Over the past few months, in preparation for and in reflection of the commencement address I had the privilege of giving at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University on May 12, I watched scores of them on YouTube and read literally hundreds of them as well as their reviews.
A few days after my speech, I came upon a piece by actor/director/producer James Franco on the subject of commencement addresses with particular interest.
Having just delivered a commencement address, Mr. Franco shared a few takeaways: “Commencement speeches suck,” they are “easily forgotten” and at least in his case, crafting one requires the assistance of the likes of Seth Rogen. Mr. Rogen wasn’t available to help me with mine, though thankfully other folks, including my friend Mark Durham, were. There’s no shame in getting help — on this Mr. Franco and I agree.
While I admire Mr. Franco for his academic prowess as well as his obvious and prodigious talent (hosting the Academy Awards notwithstanding), I don’t think he is entirely right about commencement speeches. They don’t all suck, not all of the speakers are famous and I can personally attest to the fact that they are not all forgotten.
When I graduated Stanford University in 1971 (am I really that old?), Eric Sevareid, one of the most literate and respected journalists of his time, was the commencement speaker. His speech was eloquent, indeed poetic. I remember it to this day some 40 years later, parts of it verbatim. I remember it because it inspired me, it challenged me, and it made me realize that what we did mattered. It wasn’t just about where I was going — it was about where we were all going.
I know many expect commencement speeches to be little more than a good-natured roast with some platitudes about life being an open book, but I for one think the times demand more. These students are graduating with an unparalleled amount of debt into an anemic economy and job market (For more on that, read my recent columns on the subject). They’ve made incredible sacrifices for their degrees — many, sadly, don’t realize just how much they’ve sacrificed (servicing a six figure loan can have a way of cramping the style of a 22-year-old).
So, what’s it all for? The system by which we fund higher education in this country may be horribly broken, but that in no way means the people who are a product of it should be written off. They have a vital role to play both in the reform of that system and steering the direction of our country in general. It’s important that these graduates feel empowered to effect these changes. If they don’t — if they’re all too cynical and feel there’s no use in trying — then we’re in big trouble.
In my speech at Rutgers (which I’ve included below) I tried to accomplish what Sevareid did. I focused on the relentless assault on enlightenment and adulthood at a moment in time when our nation seems to need so much of both. I took the speech very seriously.
I’m not particularly famous, but I hope that what I said about those subjects resonated with my listeners the way his speech resonated with me — in times that were turbulent, threatening and dark, just like now.
As Plato noted long ago when enlightenment was itself a new idea: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when adults are afraid of the light.”
MASON GROSS SCHOOL OF THE ARTS
MAY 12, 2012
Speaker: Adam K. Levin
Today we mark a rite of passage.
By your dedication and hard work, you have earned the honor that is about to be bestowed upon you.
You have a ticket to a destination of your own choosing, a chance to forge your own future. And you have chosen a career in the arts. For all this, I salute you.
Artists, scientists, and social innovators have something in common: the love of the question, the willingness to embrace uncertainty.
I would venture to say that everything worth doing demands that. It’s a prerequisite to changing the world.
Not everyone has a taste for this, nor the courage to do it. But then again you’re not like anyone.
As artists, you have chosen a life of questioning, of testing the limits — your own limits, the limits of art, the limits of meaning and reality.
You have chosen truth over comfort, inquiry over complacency — resistance over acceptance.
The world needs you and others like you.
Not to numb audiences with mediocrity or bombard them with trivia. Not to distract and divert them with rough cuts of “reality” reworked to thrill the Entertainment Tonight crowd. But to show them what is, and provoke them to dream what can be.
The world needs honest witnesses — people with the guts to seek the meaning of what they see and feel; to explore, to question — courageously, relentlessly.
The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said it well: “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he’s one who asks the right questions.” This is true for the artist as well. And it is certainly true for all citizens in a democratic society.
To discover the truths that matter, you as an artist — and as a citizen — must have the courage to question what others take for granted. You must, at the same time, embrace the question as a way of life — which means embracing, in your heart and in the art you practice, the fact of the unknown.
There’s a cost. This path requires courage and agility. It demands a blend of objectivity and empathy. Above all, it calls for confidence and strength of character — the sort of integrity that holds to principle without losing touch with what is real.
But there is a benefit as well. By embracing the question, by engaging the unknown on its own terms, you engage the future.
This may sound like a given. It isn’t.
Because while it may be easy for you, having been schooled in a culture of inquiry, to imagine a future different from what we’re living today, this is not the general case. Fear and doubt have crippled our politics and numbed our culture. The future is seen as a threat, and stasis as the best we can do.
Big dreams are boiled down to big cars, big houses, and big paychecks. In short, hope has been left by the wayside, and imagination is in short supply.
But when I reflect upon the wealth of talent and imagination present here today, I am confident that we can and will do better.
And while there are serious threats ahead — from global warming to urban poverty, from disease and illiteracy to deep-rooted misogyny — I look forward to a transformed future, and new ideas don’t scare me. I am firmly in the camp of composer John Cage who said: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
In short, I’m an optimist.
As an optimist, I see the challenges ahead as an opportunity to remake the world we share for the better. I see creative souls like you as the catalyst.
“It’s not what you see that is art,” said Marcel Duchamp. “Art is the gap.”
I would add:
Art is interrogative. It asks. It invites. It opens.
The blank page, the blank canvas, the empty stage, the silent auditorium — each of these is a question waiting to be asked. What will happen there? What will we discover? Where will it lead us?
As you practice your art, it’s your questions that will set those journeys in motion.
Even your closing lines and final brushstrokes, your codas and curtain calls will be a precursor: to thought, to feeling, to action.
That, to me, is the true value of originality — far more important than the profit and fame that flow from copyrights and bylines. Your work is a knock on the door of human possibility, a bell rung in human consciousness, a spur to further invention. The new that you produce is a challenge to be taken up by those who follow — a wager on the future and an invitation to create it.
As the great American playwright Arthur Miller put it: “The job is to ask questions — it always was — and to ask them as inexorably as I can. And to face the absence of precise answers with a certain humility.”
Miller knew the value of questioning. He also knew its risks. His 1953 play The Crucible, which dramatized the 17th-century Salem witch trials, was an allegory of the persecution of artists and activists under McCarthyism.
The following year, Miller was denied a passport to attend the play’s London opening; two years later, he himself was convicted of contempt of Congress when he refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Miller’s case exemplifies the gap between questioning and interrogation — between a culture of inquiry and invention and one based on fear and intimidation. And it provides ample evidence — if evidence is needed — that those in power will fight hard to keep the right questions from being asked, to decide which truths can be told and which must be buried, which voices will be heard and which will simply disappear.
Above all, Miller’s case, like thousands more, shows how desperately we need artists who are willing to ask questions to which they don’t yet know the answer — and then follow the thread wherever it leads.
Artists generate turbulence and dissent. They invite new guests to sit at the table, new voices to join the choir. They make people wonder. They give people hope. They open the door to an unknown future.
That power to inspire is precisely why so much effort went into silencing screenwriters, actors and directors in the early years of the Cold War — when Senator Joseph McCarthy flouted every standard of decency to find, brand, and blacklist supposed “communists” in Hollywood.
Actors and directors like Orson Welles and Paul Robeson; authors and playwrights like Langston Hughes, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Miller himself; conductors and composers like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland — all were pursued by McCarthy. To him and his supporters, they had to be reined in, silenced, and brought down.
To achieve the same effect today, it is common practice to flatten reality into predigested talking points and made-for-TV caricatures, burying truth in a landslide of trivial lies.
This approach offers the tactical advantage of combining the popular desire for a scapegoat with the quick buzz of bringing misfortune to others — effectively boosting ratings, winning elections, or stifling dissent. It’s no wonder that the American political landscape often feels like a bad reality TV series.
Thomas Pynchon summed it up nicely in Gravity’s Rainbow:
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”
When I graduated from Stanford University in 1971, veteran CBS journalist Eric Sevareid gave a commencement address that still haunts me today.
It was a time of deep divisions, driven by vicious racism and an unpopular war.
Sevareid spoke of those divisions, and of how easily we can be led to disregard the complexity and humanity of those outside our circle. He said:
Many now see human beings as symbols. It is enough, for them, to characterize those of whom they disapprove as pigs or hippies, or Bolsheviks or capitalists or bourgeoisie. By this mental exercise their enemies are automatically dehumanized and can, with a clear conscience, be executed, imprisoned, exiled, or shouted down. Since they are unhuman, they are presumed not to bleed when stabbed.
This is perhaps the profoundest corruption of our time.
This profound corruption — the mental violence that reduces living, breathing human beings to symbols and stereotypes — is, if anything, more pervasive today. It is, beyond any doubt, used more consciously and cynically than ever by the frauds and flatteners of reality who now dominate our media.
I believe Sevareid saw it as a corruption of truth as well as ideology, and saw the culture of inquiry as a powerful antidote to this lethal poison.
The arts have a powerful part to play in delivering that antidote.
Today, our society is still at war. Some battles are new; some are as old as human history.
Make no mistake — while some have the nerve to deny it, there is a war on women being waged in this country and across the world, from the councils of the Taliban to the halls of Congress.
It must end. We all have a role to play in ending it.
Recently, a certain “conservative radio host” took it upon himself to lead a public shaming of a 30-year-old law student. Why? She had the audacity to suggest that in the institutions of our democratic government, women’s voices should be heard on the issue of women’s reproductive health.
The language of his tirade was extreme and revealing, and his contempt could not have been more clear — contempt for women; for language, logic, and evidence; and for honest discourse.
I won’t repeat the vile language used — which, in any case, says more about the speaker than the person spoken of.
But I will say what should be clear to anyone who heard it: the language chosen was meant to shame, demean, intimidate, and exclude women from the debate — just as they had been excluded from the congressional hearing that started the whole mess. It was a hearing on women’s reproductive health whose witness list consisted entirely of men — male religious leaders at that. Shades of 17th-century Salem.
Somewhere, Arthur Miller was smiling a wry smile.
Now, I say it should be clear because in a few notable cases, it clearly wasn’t. To hear a presidential candidate who clearly can’t afford to alienate any members of his party say that “it’s not the language I would have used,” makes me wonder what the right language would have been. When a politician comments that “an entertainer can be absurd,” I have to ask in what universe pornographic slander counts as “entertainment.”
On the other hand, there were people like David Frum, former assistant to President George W. Bush, who called the rant “brutal, ugly and deliberate” — making it plain, as did thousands of others, that this was a matter of decency, not party.
But the most admirable response was that of Sandra Fluke herself — who, despite her understandable shock, “tried to see this for what it is,” and succeeded.
Looking past the grotesque language and vicious tone, she zeroed in on its purpose: to bully and intimidate her and women like her into shutting up and stepping back. It was, she said, “an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue.”
She would not be silenced. She refused to be distracted by vile comparisons and twisted logic. She brushed off the cheap insults, cartoonish fantasies, and locker-room language. She kept her wits about her, kept it classy and stuck to her guns.
And she kept speaking out — not to defend herself against this crazed pornographic rant (its delusional logic made that unnecessary) — but to turn our attention back to the question at hand. To insist that a reasoned dialogue is necessary and that women will not be excluded from the debate.
As a result, an amazing thing happened. He lost.
The would-be shaming failed, boomeranging back on the would-be assailant. In the end, he humiliated only himself and lost millions of dollars for good measure.
Why does this matter here?
Because it demonstrates the power of the question.
It illustrates what can happen when you have the courage and conviction to follow wherever inquiry and inspiration lead — in politics or art, in science or society. Refusing to submit to the sound-bite culture of fragmentation, segmentation, disconnection and division, Sandra Fluke spoke honestly, with integrity, in her own voice — and found that millions of people had her back.
You could do worse than to follow her example.
Now allow me to offer a few words of advice:
People will warn you against taking chances. Ignore them.
People will offer you a life with no room for your vision. Refuse them.
People will seek to smother your curiosity in a plush bed of certainty. Resist them.
As an artist, you will always be questioning and testing your own practice of your art. The arts are driven by a spirit of inquiry and exploration — by a willingness to try new things, a passion for the unknown, a fascination with boundaries and what lies beyond them. You are possessed by a restless inventiveness, a love affair with what’s true and new, a conviction that together, honesty and talent will lead to something unique and irreplaceable.
Sometimes these questions lead you into places that are uncomfortable, for you and for others; to inconvenient truths; to visions that aren’t on anyone’s wish list; to realities that are a bit too real.
But not for you, because you’re wired like that. You were born this way. And your craft has given you the tools that will take you from passion through exploration to realization.
As Rilke wrote to a young poet: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.”
Now, I’m going to ask you to imagine for a moment what I see today as I look at you.
And although this is your day, I’m going to ask you, for just a brief moment, to turn your thoughts from the lives upon which you are about to embark.
Imagine the generation that will come after you.
Imagine the children who will be born on this day — your day; or this week; or this month. The children the summer will bring. The children of 2012, the year you start taking on the world’s challenges and making them your own.
My son will be one of those children. God willing, he will be with us in July. And I wonder, in a couple of decades, when he’s sitting where you are seated now, what world will he see?
Since the odds may not be in my favor, and I may not have the opportunity to share this wonderful day with him, I entrust the future to you, so the answer is up to you.
So go now from this place, on this glorious day, with all of the love, support and blessings that we can give you.
Do what you do.
Enrich the world. Connect hearts and minds. Multiply voices and perspectives. And endlessly, relentlessly, joyfully: question, question, question.
For yourselves and for all who come after you, throw open that door and make us proud.
This article originally appeared on Credit.com.