Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dan Shiner on "Lives in Obscurity"

Daniel Shiner is a 1977 graduate of Shimer College. He subsequently headed the Development Office, and later served on the Board of Trustees from 1987 to 1997 and from 2005 to the present. This is the text of the speech he gave at Shimer's Spring 1989 commencement, as reprinted in the 1990 monograph In My Beginning Is My End: Commencement Speeches at Shimer College (pp. 9-18).

Standing here before you today reminds me of the last time I formally spoke to the Shimer community. It was fourteen years ago, during the inauguration of a previous president of the College, and I was the student representative. My speech at that time was on the virtue of impertinence -- of asking the questions one is "not supposed to ask" and doing the things one is "not supposed to do." I have changed in many ways over the past fourteen years, but my feelings on the value of impertinence have largely stayed the same. Consequently, I would like to dedicate my speech this afternoon to the person who, though I only met him once, really instilled in me the virtue of impertinence. The story of that meeting is worth retelling.

In 1969, I was editor of a high school newspaper in New Jersey. That spring, all high school newspaper editors in the area were invited to spend a day attending workshops at Columbia University in New York. When I arrived, late in the morning, a crowd of students was starting to gather around a makeshift platform at the center of campus. I joined them -- it looked like a potential newspaper story. Soon, the first speaker arrived -- the leader of the New York City Black Panther Party. He was followed by other radicals with other causes. And the crowd grew, a thousand, two thousand, three, and became restless, wanting action, or some kind of catharsis.

Then, suddenly, he was on stage. Young, smiling, totally relaxed, totally in control, his extemporaneous speech -- a collection of disparate statements vaguely tied together with a nihilist's philosophical thread -- brought the crowd to fever pitch Laughing, ad libbing, ridiculing everything and everyone, he was the epitome of that reckless, happy, and dangerous kid your parents always warned you to stay away from. He ended his speech, if it can be called that, with a reference to a series of radical bombings the day before "Did you read the weather report in the newspapers today? New Year -- BOOM! Puerto Rico -- BOOM! Berkeley -- BOOM! Paris -- BOOM! What about Columbia?" And the crowd screamed "BOOM!" And suddenly they exploded in all directions, smashing windows, overturning cars, burning and looting everything in sight. I was both petrified and ecstatic at the mass destruction surrounding me. Then I saw the speaker, the cause, walking away, surrounded by reporters. It looked like the only safe place to be, so I joined them. After all, I was supposed to be a reporter.

When the questions died down, I yelled, "Excuse me, sir? Excuse me, sir?" about ten times.

He finally turned and said, "I never respond to anyone who calls me 'sir'."

Chastised but persistent, I said, "Well, how about a quote?" It seemed like a newspaper reporter thing to say.

He stopped walking, turned to me and said, "Sure." And he proceeded to suggest that I perform an unnatural, as well as physically impossible act upon myself.

I must have looked like I was about to cry, which I was, because one of the reporters said to him, "Oh, come on, he's just a kid."

"O.K., I've got a quote for you," the speaker said. Again he stopped. "Choose your heroes wisely, for they will always let you down." I scribbled frantically.

One of the real reporters piped up "Hey, that's good, where's it from?" "Quotations of Chairman Mao, page 77," the speaker replied.

As the reporters copied down this possible proof of his widely alleged Communism, he turned to me, half-smiling, and said quietly, "Actually, I read it in Dear Abby this morning."

A moment later, he was in the back of a car and gone.

I vaguely followed his strange career for the next twenty years. With his premature death last month, we lost one of the most colorful figures in recent American history, a true media superstar. And so, a dedication to that most impertinent American of all -- Abbie Hoffman.

For many years, one of the most troubling aspects of Shimer College was the fact that nobody famous or even near-famous ever went here. This first concerned me when I was employed by the College to work on alumni fundraising. As I'm sure most of you are aware, colleges generally seek out those alumni who have become famous and, hopefully, wealthy, and attempt to interest them in their alma mater. Since (presumably) the college was instrumental in putting them on the path to glory, it is hoped they will give something back, preferably large amounts of cash. While Shimer's alumni included numerous lawyers, teachers, housewives, househusbands, doctors, librarians, community organizers, stockbrokers, and just about everything else you can think of, none -- not a single one! -- could reasonably be considered famous; and almost none could be considered wealthy, even by the low standards of a twenty-one year old college student as I was at the time.

For a while I was convinced there was something inherently wrong with Shimer. After all, if the education was so great, why weren't any of the graduates famous or rich?

Every major university seemed to turn out dozens of celebrities. Athletes, of course; but also politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, actors, you name it. At first I assumed it was just a matter of numbers -- if one out of ten thousand people becomes famous, then a big university, with five or ten thousand graduates a year, was bound to have a famous alum every year or two. But two problems bothered me about this rationale. First, if the distribution of fame is random, then the argument that one owes their college support because the institution was instrumental to their future success was clearly bogus, and I would have to find another job. Second, small liberal arts colleges do turn out famous alumni. Right here in Illinois, Eureka College, a small liberal arts school, is the alma mater of that well know actor from the 50's and 80's, Ronald Reagan. Well, maybe that's not such a good example. But you understand the idea.

For a time, I toyed with the notion that Shimer alumni were too busy changing the world to be famous. To some extent, this was true. While many Shimer graduates became lawyers, for instance, they often ended up as public service lawyers. When I sent them requests for contributions, the address was usually something like Ms. Nancy Dugan, Esquire, C/O Alliance of Hungry, Homeless and Destitute Minority Unwed Mothers, Joliet, Illinois. I often felt we should be sending them money. But at least it made me feel good about Shimer. Sure, we were all poor. But ultimately, we would change the world.

But something was wrong with this picture. While Shimer was turning out ten or twelve graduates, most of them determined to make the world a better place to live, other colleges and universities were turning out several million graduates a year, most determined to get a high-paying job, preferably one with stock options and a good 403-B plan. Gradually, I noticed that the wild-eyed zealots in my graduating class were doing things I had only recently considered disgusting and perverted -- wearing suits, getting married, and working normal jobs. A normal job, for those unclear on the concept, is one where, at regularly scheduled intervals, you are handed an envelope. Inside the envelope is something called a paycheck. If you take your paycheck to the bank and it doesn't bounce, you know you have a normal job. Working at Shimer is prima facie evidence that you are still in the wild-eyed zealot stage. And thank God for all of you!

When the majority of my classmates edged into the mainstream of working America, my theory that they were too busy trying to change the world to become famous lost its validity. Needing a new theory, I chose the cosmological cynics' route. Of course no Shimer graduates were famous. When you break a leg and are being rushed to the hospital, all the traffic lights are red. If you get mugged, it will always be when you're on your way to your drug dealer's house loaded with cash -- or worse, after you make the deal and are on your way home. There is no reason, no answer. That's just the way the world is.

While this answer satisfied me for a time, it did not make me particularly happy. Worse, I didn't really believe it. So a few years ago I came back to the question, "Why are no Shimer graduates famous?"

I happened to be eating breakfast while thinking about this one day. The answer, as it turned out, was as close as the cereal box in front of me. For on that box was a picture of a cherubic teenager known as "America's Sweetheart" -- Mary Lou Retton.

Mary Lou Retton, for those of you who moved to this country in the last year or two, was the heroine of the 1984 Olympics. She was a gymnast in the classic tradition -- very young, very small, all muscle, and a cute smile. For two or three years, she was one of the most famous names and faces in the country. Interestingly, at the time I saw her face on the cereal box, she was falling out of the public view. I would not be surprised to see her face at breakfast again one of these days, this time on a milk carton.

But at the time, she gave me insight into the nature of fame. Mary Lou Retton began taking gymnastics classes at the age of three. By the time she was six, she was practicing four hours a day, but it was never enough. At twelve, she left home to study gymnastics. Finally, years later: Bingo! 1984 Olympics.

I'm not sure how much money Mary Lou Retton earned for having her face on that cereal box or all her other endorsements. But I don't think all of it put together could buy back the childhood she sold in pursuit of fame.

We all talk about selling out. "He really sold out, going to work for IBM." "She sold out her co-workers, taking that management position." But the real sellout happens when you hop that train to fame. Because it only goes on one track, and you have to stay on it a long, long time, and worst of all, you have to give up everything to get there. Multi-faceted, multi-dimensional people -- interesting people -- fun people -- they don't stay on that train. In some way, perhaps not even consciously, they know the price is too high. And what is the ultimate price for those who choose fame? If they are lucky, like Mary Lou Retton, they slip into obscurity, knowing forever that their life peaked at the age of sixteen. If they are not lucky, like Abbie Hoffman, they end up, barely halfway through their normal lifespan, in a motel room, committing suicide.

If Shimer does nothing else, it opens up the world of possibilities. Having examined themselves and their world, past and present, no Shimer graduate can sell themselves out, can throw away their conscience, in return for a trip on that train to fame. Ultimately, Shimer teaches that we are all incredibly complex and interesting human beings. Fame requires the opposite. And that is why no Shimer graduates are famous.

At least, I think that's the reason. Since I'm a Shimer graduate, I'll probably keep thinking about it. The time I spend on this may keep me from becoming famous. But that's fine with me.

Thank you, and may you all have wonderful lives in obscurity.

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