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Commencement Addresses

Dr. Seuss

  • Date: 05/13/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Most of you know of the writer Theodor Geisel, but only by his middle name: Seuss...Dr. Seuss. As a writer and cartoonist, he forged successful careers in literature and filmmaking, winning a Pulitzer Prize, two Emmy awards and three Oscars. His many books are as popular among adults as they are among children.

    In fact, just last week, business humorist Stanley Bing listed the Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat as among his five favorites in offering advice on business etiquette.
    (Bing, Stanley, "Five Best," The Wall Street Journal, May 6-7, 2006, p. P8)

    Theodor Geisel appreciated the power of education and fashioned unique and creative ways to stimulate intellectual growth. As a writer, he prospered because he was willing to take risks. His careful selection of prose would drift from the unconventional to the non-existent - describing three-nozzled bloozers, the Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz or the celebrated school holiday Diffendoofer Day, which apparently most universities don't recognize.

    One of his most widely read stories is Green Eggs and Ham. You probably know the storyline. There are two characters: Sam-I-Am and an unidentified grumpy grownup. Using his high-energy salesmanship, Sam-I-Am tries to persuade this individual to eat green eggs and ham.

    Green Eggs and Ham - the story - remains the fourth best-selling children's hardcover book ever. What's most interesting about the story is that it consists of only 50 different words. Bennett Cerf, who was Dr. Seuss' publisher, bet the author $50 that he couldn't write a book using just 50 words. Seuss won the bet.

    In a recent newspaper column, writer Tunku Varadarajan touts Green Eggs and Ham as something that embodies the American Way. So much so, that he refers to the main character as Uncle Sam-I-Am.

    Varadarajan, who currently is writing a book on American literature, interprets Green Eggs and Ham as "a celebration, albeit a mischievous one, of two particularly American traits: salesmanship and open-mindedness."
    (Varadarajan, Tunku, "Uncle Sam-I-Am," The Wall Street Journal, January 14-15, 2006, p. P14)

    He describes the main character as "...the consummate entrepreneur (who) clearly...does not believe in soft sell. He is convinced of his product's attractiveness, and the evangelism of his pitch is evident."
    (Varadarajan, Ibid)

    Part of the exchange goes like this:

    "Do you like green eggs and ham?

    "I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
    I do not like green eggs and ham.

    "Would you like them here or there?

    "I would not like them here or there.
    I would not like them anywhere.

    "Would you like them in a house?
    Would you like them with a mouse?"
    (Geisel, Theodor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham, Random House Books, August 1960)


    What is distinctive about Green Eggs and Ham and other Seuss classics is Geisel's use of language.

    According to Varadarajan, Seuss invented "...a brand new, American argot for children. Outlandish coinage and neologisms of every stripe abound in his texts. And yet, he is always perfectly, perfectly clear."
    (Varadarajan, Ibid)

    Consider these lines from the Seuss classic, The Places You'll Go, which is popular among graduates:

    "You have brains in your head.
    You have feet in your shoes.
    You can steer yourself
    Any direction you choose.
    You're on your own. And you know what you know.
    And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go."
    (Geisel, Theodor Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, Random House Trade, January 1990) 

    Or, let us think about the lines from The Lorax, in which Dr. Seuss delivers his message on environmentalism:

    "‘I am the Lorax,' he coughed and he whiffed.
    He sneezed and he snuffled. He snarggled. He sniffed.

    "‘Once-ler!' he cried with a cruffulous croak.
    ‘Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke."
    (Geisel, Theodor Seuss, The Lorax, Random House Books, August 1971)

    As many have observed, to appreciate Seuss' works is to read them aloud. They create an auditory stimulus that is alluring and willing to capture our imagination.

    According to Mr. Varadarajan, "The alliteration, the linguistic subversiveness, the stretching of the dictionary like bubble gum...are Seussian traits that give our children an early taste for language, for flair, for the advantages of sounding smart - and even, I daresay, for the advantages of being smart. There is a narrative frontiersman's quality to Seuss that echoes the frontiersman's quality of American culture."
    (Varadarajan, Ibid)

    Certainly, a good book leaves "an aftertaste." For children, he writes, Seuss "...may either be a lesson that is left in the young mind, or a deposit of fuel for the imagination, in the form of a character, or a twist in the tale, or a rhyme that, like a good tune, insinuates itself into a child's brain."
    (Varadarajan, Ibid)

    Dr. Seuss clearly demonstrates that learning never starts too young and never stops too old.

    As University of Akron graduates, you have learned how to learn, and you have learned how to reason. You have gained the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions and, thereby, to take calculated risks, knowing that the biggest risk in life is not taking one.

    Being a risk-taker myself, let me leave you with a conventional thought wrapped in the unconventional style of Dr. Seuss. With all due respect to Theodor Geisel, here it goes:

    Dream big of big things
    You will dream,
    To dare and to do,
    Both seen and unseen,
    The things that will change
    The world that will be,
    A better place for you
    And one also for me.

    Dare to do this,
    And I know you do know
    That you know what you know
    And you'll be what you dream.
    Ask the big questions
    At the places you'll go,
    Because if you don't,
    The Answer is NO!


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