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Commencement Addresses

Ideals and Realities

  • Date: 08/10/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Summer Commencement, The University of Georgia
  • Thank you for that much too kind introduction. It is good to be back in Athens.

    Having begun and spent the first 17 years of my academic career here at The University of Georgia, I am sure you can understand that this is a form of homecoming for me.

    Before I address the graduates, I first want to acknowledge a reporter for the Red and Black campus newspaper, Daniel McDonald, whose call to me a few weeks ago, and his diligence in researching my Akron commencement addresses, prompted me to choose this timely topic.

    And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I also want to acknowledge my indebtedness to my colleague, David Padwa, on whose original text, "Lysenko and Others" portions of this address are drawn from.

    As I now hail from Ohio, let me take this opportunity to congratulate your Provost, Dr. Karen Holbrook, on being named President of The Ohio State University.

    Dr. Holbrook and I have been professional colleagues for many years and we have worked together on many issues.

    What is more, she has been most supportive of my career and traveled to Akron to attend my inauguration as President of The University of Akron four years ago - just as I will soon journey to Columbus to attend her inauguration at Ohio State.

    I bring you greetings from Governor Bob Taft and from my fellow OSU alumni. All of us look forward to welcoming you to the Buckeye State, and we know that your leadership will lift Ohio State to new levels of excellence.

    Congratulations, Karen!


    Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the Class of 2002, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we have gathered for this commencement with these graduates who have learned to apply creativity and critical thought, along with no small measure of effort and self discipline.

    Surely, by now you have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process. But little did you know that today you would get one more lesson - this one from me.

    As we all know, life is a struggle - 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: "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it says.

    But 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.

    Recently, that great American humorist of our time, Garrison Keillor, spoke at The University of Akron.

    He, too, talked about the constant struggle that is life, and to drive home his point, he had this to say:

    "If someone offers to show you how to be happy, what they really mean is that they want to teach you how to be stupid."

    That is not an idle observation.

    No doubt you are familiar with Joseph Heller's book, the fictional novel "Catch 22" and with its protagonist, Yossarian.

    It is a "must" read, and it is obviously the basis for our now all-too-common expression, "that's a Catch 22."

    The basis for the success of the book, as Christopher Hitchens has noted, lies in the fact that ". . . Heller knew how the need to belong, and the need for security, can make people accept lethal and stupid conditions, and then act as if they had imposed them on themselves."
    (Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books, 2001, p. 104)

    And perhaps that is why we so readily think that we can avoid the striving.

    Indeed, we are inclined to think that we should not have to struggle, and that the concept of "equal opportunity" should somehow entitle us to certain things in some unrealistic sense of social equality or "cosmic justice" to use Thomas Sowell's term.

    I think that this is so, because we, as human beings, create our own ironies out of the conflict between ideals and reality.

    By definition, ideals represent conditions that we wish for, not conditions that we live with; and they are often illusions that blind us from the needed hard work to accomplish those things needed to advance our common good.

    Such, it seems to me, is the situation that we face today as a country, as communities, and as institutions, public or private.

    Because, you see, all aspects of human relations are ripe for misunderstanding, irony, and conflict.

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

    Ironically, we somehow find it easier to think the worse of one another and to suggest poor intentions, or even evil intent, although all of us remain engaged in the same endeavor.

    In the face of all these ironies and conflicts, misunderstandings abound, and it is easy to become emotional, particularly when tough times exist, as they have for America since September 11.

    Various and sundry self-appointed prophets of "social salvation" have risen to their soapboxes proclaiming that this or that is what we need.

    The usual false polarizations are being highlighted and the fallacy of the excluded middle is once more being used to frighten the innocent bystander.

    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 here.

    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.

    Indeed, such was also the conclusion by Richard E. Miller in his 1998 book, As if Learning Mattered.

    "One need only point to the long and venerable tradition of declaring one ... crisis after another to see that willed ignorance about the bureaucratic intricacies of life ... is often understood to be both a virtue and a sign of elevated intelligence. But to stand apart from [life] like Yossarian in the trees in order to express shock and outrage at its manifest absurdities and injustices does little or nothing to change the day-to-day workings of . . . [our society]"
    (Richard E. Miller, As If Learning Mattered, Cornell, 1998, p 3)

    This is not to suggest that, as individuals, we may not disagree on matters of importance to the community. Hardly!

    It is only to observe that a false ideal makes reasoned discourse difficult, if not impossible, because ultimately the ideology serves a political and not a social function. Rather than being valued, reflection and judgment get replaced by predigested "facts" with a focus on bad news, aberrations and failure, 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. If only this or that . . .

    Is this how we wish to think?

    The important thing is not to be misled by ideological demagoguery derived from a self-serving, opportunistic, political agenda. Certainly, we cannot stop trying to do better for ourselves, but surely we need not surrender ourselves to critiques based on unfounded innuendos. To do so would only mean that we have failed to remember that the word "pursuit" precedes happiness, and that the pursuit of happiness is an inherent struggle.

    And failing to remember that struggle is unavoidable often does ". . . make people accept lethal and stupid conditions, and then act as if they had imposed them on themselves."

    In the classical literature, the old City States had their temples up on the hill overlooking the hurly-burly of commerce down below. The low market place was called the agora, the high porch of the temple was called the stoa, and there was always a contest between these two poles. Free citizens used "colloquia" to harmonize that polarity between the ideal and the actual.

    When they succeeded, through experiment and imagination, they forged something called the polity, which we remember as the Golden Age.

    I don't know if we will be wise or creative enough to make a mature polity between the various nations of the world, or between ourselves here in America.

    Certainly, there are no rules for doing so or we would have done it by now.

    That is why I think that we must be committed to muddling through. Why I think that struggling towards an ideal must be . . . "a process that learns from mistakes and welcomes change as the challenge of opportunity . . . and is disciplined by ambitious goals and aspirations . . ."
    (Luis M. Proenza, Letter to The University of Akron Campus Community, May 10, 1999)

    Clearly, the ideals of our civilization have not been fully realized. On that we can agree.

    This should not surprise us, as we are attempting to do our work and lead our nation in a whole new way that is only a little more than 200 years in the running - one that requires not only hard work, but also a sustained environment of trust, mutual respect, and shared responsibility.

    That is the pursuit of happiness.

    On behalf of the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Georgia family everywhere I salute you, the Summer 2002 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.


    *I am indebted to David Padwa on whose original text, "Lysenko and Others," portions of this address draw from and are modeled after.

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