Tag Archives: commencement

Amie Wilkinson’s commencement speech

You want a good commencement speech?  This is a good commencement speech.  From Amie Wilkinson, at the Berkeley math department graduation ceremony.

The only way to begin is to start.

So let’s start with death. From today onward you will die a little death every time you bother to notice it. By this I mean a death of possibilities. Imagine a tree with many branches, directed into the future. Each is a potential future, a life path. Up until now, you’ve probably been climbing the large trunk of this tree, following what seems the natural path, ignoring some smaller branches along the way. Looking up, the tree has always been lush, dense and even impenetrable, rich with potential.

Click here to read the whole thing (pdf)

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Franzen blows a joke

Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself.  (Not without reason.  And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.)

Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake in one place:

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical:  “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.”  Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy.  That would have been a good nod to Wallace.  And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.

Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude.  This part didn’t sway me.  Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it.  Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.

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Why do commencement speakers lie so much?

So asks Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, a blog I like reading because it presents a smart, well-thought-out, likeable account of a style of thinking and valuation so utterly alien to my own that I can hardly believe human beings manage it.

Hanson objects to the speaker at his son’s graduation saying things like “Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do,” and “You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.”  He remarks:

I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority.  What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?

Surely this is one of those questions only an economist could be puzzled about.  Lots of posters and commenters on Overcoming Bias seem to live in a weird Gricean dystopia in which every utterance is a mechanism for, and only for, modifying our degrees of belief about the truth-values of various propositions.  Which means, I guess, that every utterance that fails to do this is a “lie.”

Of course, lots of utterances — especially utterances produced in public, and directed at a heterogeneous audience — aren’t like this.  Love, for instance, is not “all you need” — oxygen, protein, and sunlight are at least as essential to life.  But the Beatles aren’t liars.  For each person in the commencement audience, there is indeed something they cannot do.  And that doesn’t make the commencement speaker a liar, either.  Commencement speeches, like songs, are mainly intended to produce feelings.  This is not worthless.  But now I’m puzzled, because Hanson obviously knows all this.  He is not — I assume — the kind of person who, when asked “Would you mind passing the salt?” answers “No, I wouldn’t,” and keeps the salt.

Anyway, comment if you too find Overcoming Bias interesting and alien, or if you find it interesting and mainstream and think I’m the alien.  That would be good to know.

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