On December 8, 2018, Professor Don Hedrick provided the commencement address for the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University, following on receipt of the 2017 Gaches Lifetime Teaching Award from the College. Below is the text of his speech. Many thanks to Don for allowing us to share it here. (You can view his presentation through the university’s archived video as of 25:41.)
Welcome, friends, parents, family, loved ones, and especially you graduates shortly to be.
Did you sometimes think this would never happen, that never was never till now?
Me, too. I was worried about what to say today. You see, the last graduation talk I gave as a senior in my high school, was a disaster. To show off, I quoted from a Faulkner novel in which life’s purpose is described as getting ready to be dead for a long time. . .
Really inspiring—right?—comparing graduation to death?
To avoid such disaster today, but not forgetting we ARE lucky to be alive we’re alive, I’ll skip telling you life’s why or because and take a safer route, one even the stupidest professors take: I Googled “Graduation Wishes.” Bingo. Sure enough, Hallmark Cards has a website to help the clueless find just the right sentiments to wish graduates. So with a little help from Hallmark, and a couple of plagiarisms, my talk follows four customer-tested categories: 1.Share Memory or Experience, 2. Look to the Future, 3. Give Advice, and — most importantly — 4. “the Warm Closing.” Forgive me some uninspiring clichés, but I’m sure you graduates are eager to get on with it. You’ll still have to wait a bit to hear my secret advice for finding a job and for finding love.
1. SHARE MEMORIES OR EXPERIENCES
I, too, graduated from a College of Arts and Sciences, ages ago: I’m so old I remember when it was just “LGB.” My big geezer memories include the moon landing, fated to be unfortunately mixed with Vietnam and Nixon. So what about our graduating from “Arts AND Sciences”? One diploma but two institutions? Their common denominator is the Imagination. In third grade I sold parent-subsidized Christmas cards to get enough sales points for a “MoonScope,” a flimsy but actual reflector telescope, to be able to imagine landing on the moon. That prize lead to meteor shower watching and astronomy, to science fair projects in math and then psychology, and finally — as a first generation college student (like many of you?) — I found a soft, artsy landing site in English literature.
My five senior-year housemates also graduated fifty years ago, scattering to winds of Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, Boulder and, yes, right here. Naming ourselves the “Live and Learn Society,” we all — hallelujah — found jobs — half in the arts, half the sciences — and all found love, against the odds all staying married from the hippie summer of Woodstock on. I, in fact, married a Wildcat. Amazingly, we have often all six met frequently since then. I wish for you today to find friends like these.
That same summer saw the first man on the moon, with images of the distant earth being viewed for the first time, as a whole, as one, as a common home we might need to share. Ryan Gosling — playing Neil Armstrong in the new movie First Man — describes the film as not so much about landing on the moon as about landing back on earth. Fast forward five decades, as today you replay his “one step for man” when you step up here for your diploma, then make an imaginative “giant leap for mankind,” as you step down on the other side, a graduate of K-State, back to earth and ordinary air.
I now see “Arts and Sciences” as really one, or one times one, as they multiply each other, work together. My car even has a bumper sticker “Stand Up for Science,” and I hope you graduating in the sciences will Stand Up for the Arts. While I admire our Diversity and its goals, I love the oneness of our “uni,” as the Brits call it, our “one-versity.” I hope that K-State has expanded your Imagination, and hope that you remember, not just the stupid professors, but the one amazing professor who spoke to your soul.
2. LOOK TO THE FUTURE
For the immediate future, I’m happy to announce that you will no longer suffer Senioritis! Did you have it? I bet mine was worse: in my last semester I lowered my GPA by taking a bowling class.
Educated at, alas, great effort and expense (as you and your family well know), the value of your degree is using this new imagination. Maybe you’ll help society magnificently, as one of my roommates’ wives did by founding the largest program for the homeless in Canada’s history. Or maybe you’ll just help me out — like when I saw that the Hallmark website was created by one of my former students. Or maybe you’ll amazingly contribute something in between — helping your community or making someone else happy — college values that can’t be monetized.
So here’s a little participation exercise and question I’ll ask you right now about K-States’ total value to you. I’m not going to suggest you forget the debt, or to imagine you’re Danish and didn’t have to pay for college (a happy thought that), but rather right now for you to imagine the following scenario: Say, when you first got here, you were offered the choice of paying at once all four years college expenses, to thereby receive your degree on the spot, without the bother of all those years here. Would you skip the whole K-State college experience, take the diploma and run? [No hands raised.] I thought not.
Looking to the bigger future, I promised myself I wouldn’t be too political about what Shakespeare calls the “book of fate” has in store for you and for all of us. Instead, I can recall the famous so-called “Chinese curse,” when you ironically wish someone you dislike that they might live in “interesting times,” and so I hereby wish instead that you might live in less interesting times than our present ones.
3. GIVE ADVICE
While the overall value of your college experience may, like the earth seen as a green leaf, be difficult to see as a whole, as one, you might also overlook smaller takeaways–like the skillful use of search terms when Googling. One student of mine now holding a government job told me she used to scorn having to cram for exams as not being real learning, but now finds she regularly has to cram for the next day’s legislative hearing. Even dorm life gives you handy imaginative skills: Rental housing in Los Angeles is now so pricey that young college-educated workers are recreating dorm life, calling it “co-living.” But to appreciate your whole experience as one, think of it as professors can if they were able to watch you over four years, as you eventually shut your books and take charge of your own learning.
For more advice, I polled my other roommates: From Joe, by way of Thomas Aquinas, “Seldom affirm. Never deny. Always distinguish.” From Steve: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right, and seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.” And from Tim: “The path will wait until you remove the stone from your shoe.”
I would only add some speed advice:
Confront your own prejudices and privileges.
With apologies to Bill Snyder’s 10th rule of life (“Never give up.”).
— Sometimes grown ups have to give up. Life is not football.
Read a book; expand your vocabulary.
Respect those with less power or without your degree.
And finally, my two secrets on how to get a job and how to get love: To get a job: “Wear nice clothes and smile a lot.” To get love: “Wear nice clothes and smile a lot.”
4. WARM CLOSING, in two parts.
The first requires you right now to get out and turn on your phones…. We’re family, as I think you’ve heard before, but in the original meaning of the word “family,” not as blood relatives but as everyone living under the same roof. So, right now, take a selfie with the person next to you as your last picture of yourself before graduating: labelled “BEFORE — a nincompoop,” and shortly when you have received your diploma you will be taking others, labelled as “AFTER — a smartypants.”
Use the hashtag “18ArtSciGrad” (which is listed on the bookmark you found this morning on your chair) to post to Twitter or Facebook, and with that hashtag you’ll be able to find pictures of your fellow graduating K-State Family. So go ahead, make a memory right now! [View some of the selfies on Twitter at #18ArtSciGrad.]
Finally, I want to thank you with this poem, “1 x 1 [if everything happens that can’t be done]” by e.e. cummings — a beatnik moment from the sixties, accompanied by Brandon Collins of the Music Department:
if everything happens that can’t be done
(and anything’s righter
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
around we go yes)
there’s nothing as something as one
one hasn’t a why or because or although
(and buds know better
one’s anything old being everything new
(with a what
around we come who)
one’s everything so
so world is a leaf so tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
up around again fly)
forever was never till now
now I love you and you love me
(and books are shutter
and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
(with a shout
around we go all)
there’s somebody calling who’s we
we’re anything brighter than even the sun
(we’re everything greater
we’re everything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one
Thank you for being our students.
— Don Hedrick, Professor