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Commencement Addresses


A Happiness Worth Pursuing (2013 Fall Commencement Ceremony Saturday Afternoon)

  • Date: 12/16/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • We all know that life is a struggle, indeed a constant struggle. Yet, one of the most difficult lessons for us to learn is that to gain something better in life, you must first strive for it; you must struggle to gain it; to achieve it.

    It is even embedded in our Declaration of Independence in the well-known words: "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

    Notice that the word happiness is prefaced by pursuit. In other words, we are not given a guaranteed or inalienable right to be happy - only to its pursuit.

    Indeed, some of us seem to think that we should not need to struggle, or that our cherished principle of "equal opportunity" somehow entitles each of us to an unrealistic social equality or "cosmic justice," to use Thomas Sowell's term. [i]

    This is understandable, given our innate idealism.  An ideal is a wonderful thing, as long as you understand and accept its nature.

    Problems occur, however, when we ignore or disregard the inherent conflict between ideals and reality.

    By definition, ideals represent conditions that we wish for, not conditions that we live with.

    Ideals are useful if they inspire us to improve ourselves, but too often they become illusions of what we think the world should be, and thus blind us from the necessary hard work that actually advances our common good.

    As the English playwright John Galsworthy once wrote, “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.”[ii]

    Here is a simple illustration of what I mean: the concept that “everyone should have a college degree” is an ideal.  But reality is that not everyone is capable of earning a college degree.  I am sure each graduate can recall someone who should have been here this afternoon, but whose efforts fell short or were derailed for other reasons. That is regrettable, but it is reality.

    The best we can hope to achieve is to give everyone an opportunity to earn a degree.

    Passion for unrealistic and unobtainable ideals often leads to two common and serious pitfalls: acting in ignorance, and using the end to justify unethical means.

    Let’s consider the first. As the old saying goes, "the devil is in the details," and things that sound good are often the very antithesis of what we seek when espousing an ideal.

    Ignorance is not bliss, yet many seek bliss out of sheer ignorance.

    The degrees you have earned indicate that you have acquired a number of skills and have a breadth of knowledge, as well as the capacity for critical thinking.

    If you wish to be a good citizen, if you truly desire to advance the common good, exercise that capacity for critical thinking often, and especially when a discussion of ideals concerns societal good.

    For as Joseph Schumpeter, the famed economist and political scientist, once observed, “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie.”[iii]

    Turn on your television and before long you’ll encounter one or more self-appointed prophets of "social salvation" shouting from their soapboxes that this or that is what we need to save America!  It is a clamoring of voices all proclaiming that they are the experts.

    Reflection, rationality and evidence are displaced by predigested or even spurious "facts" with a focus on bad news, aberrations, predilections and failure, all giving the impression of substance where none exists.

    Social criticisms turn to warnings as ideologues make themselves politically self-important. The dangers lurk; the transgressions mount.

    In his great book, The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper traces a line of critical thought from the classical period through Hegel and Marx that is applicable to the situation that we face today.

    Allow me to place it in context by a bit of rhetorical license.  If Popper were asked why so many of us revolt against the structures of our society and want for something more, he might have said that it is because of a deep-felt dissatisfaction with a community that does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection.

    An unrealistic ideal makes reasoned discourse difficult, if not impossible, because ultimately ideology is made to serve a political, rather than a social, function.

    So much of our human relations are ripe for misunderstanding, irony, and conflict.

    Let me give you an example.

    Much of our language guarantees that we think of ourselves as separate from other groups.

    We distinguish ourselves as Americans and that sets us apart from other nations, or from other civilizations.

    What is more, although all of us are first, and always will remain, members of a community, our varied roles in that community are artificially contrasted as if they were somehow "against" each other. . . we say, for example, management vs. labor, republican vs. democrat, the 1% vs. the 99%.

    It is so easy to slide into the mode of thinking that gave rise to the ancient Bedouin proverb, “I against my brothers; my brothers and I against my cousins; my cousins and I against the stranger.”[iv] That, after all, is the essence of human partiality.

    We seldom acknowledge that in small and large measures, all of us are engaged in enabling this enterprise of community. And, that we all are united by our humanity.

    And to me, there is nothing more powerful than a statement made in 1867 by the first president of Mexico, Benito Juarez:

    “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz – Respect for the rights of others is peace.”[v]

    Note that Juarez’s statement is not a directive, nor is it a prediction, nor is it even a promise. It is simply and so powerfully an observation: When we respect the rights of others, there is peace.  And any economist will tell you that while peace does not always guarantee prosperity, without it, prosperity is not possible.

    I do not mean to suggest that ideals are bad: only that we must not be misled by those ideals that are unrealistic, and particularly those derived from self-serving, opportunistic, political agendas.

    One way of doing that is to always remember that the word "pursuit" precedes happiness, and that the pursuit of happiness is itself an inherent struggle.

    It requires hard work, but if we are truly wise, if we apply critical thinking and perhaps a dash of healthy skepticism, we will not only avoid the pitfalls of misguided idealism, but we also will build a sustained environment of trust, mutual respect, and shared responsibility.

    And that is a form of happiness well worth pursuing.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the Fall 2013 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

  • Topic Category: Commencement Address
  • Tags: Idealism, cosmic justice, pursuit of happiness, respect for rights of others,
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