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Commencement Addresses

Manifest Absurdities

  • Date: 08/24/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Two weeks ago, almost at this exact time of the morning, I had the privilege of addressing the summer graduating class at the University of Georgia, a university where I spent the first 17 years of my professional career.

    I was pleased to be invited back to Athens, and it was an unexpected honor.

    Being there gave me the opportunity to offer my congratulations, and to extend greetings from Ohio Governor Bob Taft, to their Provost, Dr. Karen Holbrook - the newly selected president of The Ohio State University and a long-time colleague and friend.

    Indeed, I look forward to welcoming Dr. Holbrook to the Buckeye State.

    Because many of you have asked me to share the address I delivered at the University of Georgia, I will make an exception to the rule of never repeating a commencement speech.

    Still, to be true to myself, I must tell you that I have made some changes so that this address is somewhat enhanced from that which I gave in Georgia.

    Again, I need to acknowledge my colleague, David Padwa, the former Chairman and CEO of Agrigenetics, on whose original text, "Lysenko and Others" portions of my remarks are based on.
    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.

    Last spring, that great American humorist of our time, Garrison Keillor, spoke here 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 that advance our common good.

    And if that were not enough, it is all too easy to become passionate and blindly driven by a concept or idea that sounds good, but about which all of us are profoundly ignorant.

    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, but many seek bliss out of sheer ignorance.

    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 say, for example, management vs. labor, faculty vs. administration and make many other such contrasts.

    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 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.

    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 our 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, 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.

    If only this or that . . . Is this how we wish to think?

    The important thing is not to be misled by false ideals or other concepts 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."

    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 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 making - 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 Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron 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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