Graduation speech by Adrian Nelson (2011)
Good afternoon, everyone.
After wondering what kind of point or message this speech might have, I settled for a simple expectation – that everybody might hear me. Because that’s often been a frustration of mine, and so I’d like to spare you that, and my desire for you is no more than that you are able to hear me.
Oddly enough, I think my hearing disability has made me a better listener. In a school centered on spoken dialogue, I’ve had to work to hear and focus just a little harder than most, and this has made me pay more attention than I might have otherwise. I was never quite certain why they elected a hard-of-hearing person to take the notes of everything that is said at a Shimer Assembly, but my hearing loss has challenged me to listen. And that’s how I’ve experienced Shimer classes, and dialogue on a larger level – we need to listen as much as we need to speak.
So what have I heard here at Shimer? I can’t presume to speak for the experience of others. I can only speak fully to my own experience. But perhaps some part of my experience here will touch on your own Shimer experience. So much of what I’ve learned, and what’s changed me, has come from the mouths – or the words – of others. My first year at Shimer, someone told me that they couldn’t understand who I was. I don’t think I replied to them then, because I didn’t have an answer. It was the beginning of a process of ruthless self-examination throughout my time at Shimer. It left the question: “And who am I?” the one I asked myself after every text, or class, or conversation. And while Shimer is very good at getting you to ask questions, it usually remains silent on any definitive answer. I’ve only temporarily replied to myself: I change.
Change has, perhaps ironically enough, been the one consistency throughout my time here. Not just myself: the people I know change, Shimer changes, the world changes. And yet who I am now doesn’t seem too different from the person who went to bed last night. It’s only looking back throughout my time at Shimer, and especially at Shimer’s curriculum, that I can begin to have an idea of the changes that occurred. In a tutorial on Plato’s Republic I came across the concept of paideia, which, to take Heidegger’s translation of Plato, means “that which leads to turning the whole [person] around in [her or his] nature or essence.” What I took it to mean was a way of learning and examining oneself, turning around to look at one’s former position and, by comparison, see how one has changed, how one was, and what one has become. I take the books in the Shimer curriculum as anchors for my own paideia. When I look back at the books I have read, I can recall how I was, and how I am now. I can attach some of my changes to the ideas that they provided me, and the ways in which I drew them into my life.
The first book that arrested me was the Nagel and Newman book on Gödel’s Proof. We read this in Integrative Studies 2 as part of our study of the fundamentals of math and logic. Not to spoil it too much for those of you who haven’t read this thriller, but Gödel ends up proving that a mathematical system will remain fundamentally incomplete – it cannot prove itself with its own terms. From this comes the conclusion that all systems need axioms – unproven statements taken as true. I extended this into the realm of Shimer dialogue: all arguments have assumptions. Part of my task in discussion and reading became to search for the assumptions, my own as well as others’. From knowing the assumptions, I hoped, I could know what common ground – or not – that we, in dialogue, stood on.
Searching for that common ground of understanding led me through the logical realm and out again, emerging into fiction with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This came up in Humanities 2 during our study of fiction and drama, and again in a tutorial of American women writers. Hurston’s is a beautiful novel that follows the journey of Janie Crawford’s self-discovery through her marriages, her homes and the joys and disasters which befall her. This was the book that started my thinking about fiction as a vehicle for meaning; as much philosophy could be contained in a narrative as in a treatise or essay. There were so many layers to Hurston’s book: the story itself and the beauty of the prose first and foremost; then the themes and ideas, the metaphors that broke on me with astonishing clarity because they seemed so right. In the middle of the book Janie likens human beings’ search for love with mud-balls tumbling into one other, deaf and dumb mud-covered shards that were broken by jealous angels from the original shining human being. I could understand that. I could understand the fumbling way in which we try to reach out to each other, so many times missing or colliding too hard, but sometimes seeing the spark in each other. With Hurston I could find meaning in story, life revealed without carefully reasoned systems or logic. I began to see how much the search for meaning in the world played a role in each text that we read. No matter the subject or the author, it seemed to me that each writer tried to fill the world with meaning, to have it make a little more sense than it did before. Perhaps this, I thought, was part of human nature. Perhaps I could understand others this way.
Up until this point, I’d had a fairly strong – if perhaps naïve – faith in the general goodness of human nature. This was abruptly shattered as I entered my third year and took an elective in Feminist Theories. I was shaken out of ignorance and complacency to the realities of sexism, racism, and so many other -isms of hatred in the world. That these systems existed and were continued by human beings seemed unfathomable, and yet I could not deny their reality. While I was picking up the pieces of my former worldview, I came across Judith Butler, whose essays in Undoing Gender offered me a new place to start. In one essay, she talks about grief and desire, and how we as human beings can never be fully autonomous of one another. She says: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.” It hit me then that no matter how I begin to define myself, there is a part of me that is defined by others, just as I also shape other people by my reactions or interactions with them. When we love or we grieve for another, we lose control, we are beside ourselves; it is a fundamental dispossession of self, but also the beginnings of change. We might hurt each other terribly, or we might know and feel each other on the deepest level, and work to create a world that all of us can live in. I began to see, stemming from the earlier search for meaning, the possibility of human creative power. My fundamental assumptions began to shift; a faith in general goodness turned into a faith in human creativity and meaning. I had to acknowledge our terrible capacity for evil action, but also our drive to transform the world into one more meaningful and livable for all of us.
The necessity of balancing the light and dark sides of human nature was driven home when I came to study Carl Jung for an Oxford tutorial during my last year. Jung’s psychology focuses on acknowledging the shadow sides of our nature, the parts we’d rather deny and leave buried in our closets, and bringing it into balance with the rest of our consciousness. That brought new perspectives on the forces I’d been struggling with the past year. Jung, too, is a great believer in human creative power, acknowledging in his autobiography that, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Human consciousness takes us beyond simply existing and imbues the world with meaning – through dreams and symbols, through myths and stories, through being able to turn around and look at oneself and ask: “Who am I?” Jung is able to take a great deal of different cultures and traditions and synthesize them into his overall psychological theories and practice. While some might argue – fairly – that this takes cultural symbols out of their context, that act of synthesis is one I have practiced at Shimer. We read so many different, and often disparate, texts and authors that it is up to us to draw them (or not) into a unity for ourselves. For me, the unifying thread tying everything I’ve read together has been a human search for meaning, or, as Wallace Stevens puts it, a “blessed rage for order… the maker’s rage to order the words of the sea.” While I don’t wish to take authors and their texts out of their contexts, part of their meaning for me does come from how I am able to integrate them into my own being and life.
Without Shimer, none of this process would have happened. Without a doubt, I am who I am right now thanks to Shimer, and the thousands of opportunities it has given me and opened up for me. Through the books that we read, the dialogue with which we learn, and the governance in which we participate, Shimer has given me a sense of my own potential, my own ability to know and understand, and my place in the world. My journey until now has been largely one of ideas and words, and now comes the time to attach them to reality. This year a great multitude of paths rolled themselves out at my feet, and I stand at a crossroads; what remains is my choice.
In the end, I think my goal has been to be able to connect with people – to listen and hear them, to understand them, maybe even understand them as they understand themselves, as much as this is possible. At Shimer I have had the medium of a shared curriculum to facilitate this. Now out in the world I will work with other mediums and other understandings, whether that is religion or food or politics. But what Shimer has given me is the understanding that such connections are possible.