Commencement speeches should be wise, entertaining, or short. I am tempted to stop right here and at least accomplish one of the three. The dilemma, my dilemma, is thatyou are students of political science, and the word “science” suggests objective, predictable results, verifiable facts, experiments that can be replicated—principles, equations, and outcomes upon which experts agree. None of those are present in today’s nasty and scrambled political world. It is best summed up by a bumper sticker that says, “Horn broken, watch for finger.”
I am not even going to mention the sorry state of general education in the United States, present company excluded. For example, according to “Harper’s Index,” 12 percent of Americans believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
So I have for you, instead, 17 propositions, and they will go by pretty fast.
- America the fearful is America the failed state. Justice Brandeis said in Whitney v. California in 1927, “Those who won our independence were not cowards . . . they did not exalt order at the cost of liberty . . . Fear breeds repression; repression breeds hate; hate menaces stable government.” What has always united us as a nation is hope—American optimism—and that optimism stems directly from the understanding that the pursuit of happiness is a collective, not an individual, goal.
- Money is the root of all evil. That Biblical aphorism as applied to politics is doubly true: money is a cancer that has invaded democracy. Harvard law professor Paul Freund said, after the Supreme Court blessed money as speech, “They say money talks. I thought that was the problem, not the solution.” The solution is public financing of elections.
- With freedom comes responsibility. You and you and each of us own this country and we are responsible for its care and feeding. It is an abuse of our freedom to use our unfettered speech to vilify each other. When insults and half-truths, personal attacks, and outright lies are the order of the day, then we have lost the elemental spirit of freedom. You may think I am being partisan, but this lack of decency is a disease of longstanding, and it is our obligation to call it out. The greatest protection to our right of free speech is to use it judiciously, politely, and truthfully.
- Now (drum roll), the phrase that must be included in every commencement speech: “Know thyself.” Good luck. I am not here to discourage your trying, but we as humans are very good at fooling ourselves, and we are in constant flux. You are not the same person today that you will be next year, and God help you if you are the same person you were when you arrived here at the University of Oregon four years ago. Self-knowledge is a moving target, and like the pursuit of happiness, it is a lifelong endeavor. In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus 2,500 years ago: We cannot step into the same river twice.
- This will sound really macabre, but write your own obituary. Then pull it out every couple of years and see if what you are doing with your life is how you want to be remembered at the last roundup.
- You will make a lot of mistakes and they will be embarrassing. Here is an example from my fun-filled years in Washington, DC, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. About two weeks after I got there, I suspended a grant to a New York City outfit called Artist’s Space. The show was about AIDS and the work was inflammatory. But when I suspended it, all hell broke loose, and I destroyed my credibility with the arts world. Then I went to see the show, restored the grant, and destroyed my credibility with practically everyone else. The lessons are too numerous to list, but one that I would share is that it is a good idea to gather the facts before acting.
- If you are keeping score, there is no number seven. I decided it was too stupid to mention.
- This is a corollary to mistakes: regrets are overrated. In my life, my few regrets are things I did not do, not those I did.
- Set for yourself small goals. Yes, you might discover the cure for cancer or govern wisely and well as president, but most accomplishments are incremental and we should do what we can do. Giacomo Puccini said, “The only music I can compose is that of little things.” Of course, he did manage to write Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and La Boheme. But if your only goal is greatness, you will miss a lot along the way.
- Imagination is more important than knowledge. Einstein said it, so it must be true. Architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller put it slightly differently: “If you know what you are doing, you are wasting your time.”
- Read a poem every day. Last month, Pennsylvania lawmaker Brad Roae proposed eliminating grants for students who study “poetry or some other pre-Walmart major.” This is just more proof that we must continue the search for intelligent life on Earth. Poetry gives a name to the nameless so it can be thought. Poets are philosophers with economy. Poets help us reflect on our lives through the use of the metaphor: the lie that is true. Here is part of a poem by William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
- Volunteer, bear witness, be passionate. I sing with my guitar at retirement homes. One day a lady was wheeled in and placed right next to me as I was singing. She had a blanket over her head, but after a while I noticed her foot moving in time, and then the blanket came off, and her visage turned from vacant to alive. I screwed up the next song and she said, “After you have been doing this for a few years, you will get better.” You may think that by volunteering you are doing something for others, but believe me, you will always be the primary beneficiary.
- Not every issue in our society requires a law. If I were king, the legislature could meet every year to repeal laws but only every three years to pass new ones.
- Define your own success. Titles, whether elected, appointed, or otherwise gained mean nothing. It is what you do when you get there that matters. And the truth is that most important work is done by people without either title or recognition.
- Humans are a flawed species. Don’t let the self-serving, self-important, me-firsters dissuade you from giving your talents and energy to the good of us all. There is a mnemonic for the seven deadly sins: lust, envy, covetousness, anger, gluttony, pride, and sloth. It is “List Enumerates Character Attributes Guaranteeing Political Success.”
- Make a vow to listen.
- And finally: Most advice is bad advice. I left this for last for obvious reasons. Here is a fragment of a poem by Mary Oliver: “One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began / though the voices around you / kept shouting / their bad advice / . . . and there was a new voice / which you slowly / recognized as your own / that kept you company / as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do— / determined to save / the only life you could save.”
And now, in the words of Henry VIII to his many wives, “I shan’t keep you long.” I leave you with yet another poem, this one by Sam Hazo: “I wish you what I wish myself / Hard questions and the nights to answer them / and grace of disappointment / and the right to seem the fool for justice / that’s enough. Cowards might ask for more / heroes have died for less.”
—By John Frohnmayer
John Frohnmayer served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the brother of the late UO president Dave Frohnmayer.