#6 Commencement speech archive 1963 -1988

  • William Zinsser, Wesleyan University, 1988
  • Meg Greenfield, Williams College, 1987
  • Gloria Steinem, Tufts University , 1987
  • Margaret Atwood, University of Toronto, 1983
  • William Gross, Washington University, 1979
  • John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963

“Living Is The Trick”

William Zinsser

Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut USA

MAY 12, 1988

William Zinsser (1922-2015) was a writer best known for his classic invitation “On Writing Well”, which has sold over a million and a half copies. 


The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well. 

One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something “serious.” Red Smith found in sportswriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects–so seriously that nobody could read them.

Another story. 

When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: “was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?” And Ginsberg said: ‘It’s wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, “why not?” And I said, “Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?” And he said, “There’s no party line.” So I did. We’ll never know how bit a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry. 

There’s no party line. 

Good advice. 

You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else.

My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that slopes down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago–a 125 years. It’s very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate. 

Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principle of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don’t want to do we won’t do well–and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman. 

Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I’d join him in the business. (In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could run a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off). 

It was a ready-made career for me–lifelong security–and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start. 

Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father–and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value–partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me. 

The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America. The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I’ve tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn’t only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft. 

But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn’t get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on that day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, “what are you going to do now?” which I thought was a fair question.

And I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.” And that’s what I was, for the next eleven years. It’s a life full of risk: the checks don’t arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge. 

Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didnt’ want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for. 

Near the end of the ’60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there’s life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, “you know, change is a tonic.” 

I didn’t know that. 

I was afraid of change; I think most people are. 

But I seized on the phrase “change is a tonic” and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country–big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges tha I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida–asking if they had some kind of place for me.

And they didn’t, because I was not an academic–I only had a BA degree, like the one you’ll have in about five minutes–and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck.

Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life. 

Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere–a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. So those were rich years for me–years of both teaching and learning–because they were unlike anything I had done before. 

Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I’m telling you the story. I didn’t fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don’t assume that people you’d like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have–that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit. 

America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else’s precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking–who just won’t buy somebody saying, “we’ve always done it this way. This way is good enough.” 

Well, obviously it’s not good enough or the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. I don’t have to tell you all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There’s no corner of American life that doesn’t need radically fresh thinking. 

Don’t shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I’ve told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by… If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it’s because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did–or continued to do–what was expected

I didn’t go into the family business; I didn’t stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn’t stay in New York. And I didn’t stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it–how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don’t become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams

Don’t assume that if you don’t do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen–a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace. 

And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not….For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you’ve done well and the beginning of something you’ll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that’s not up to your highest standards of what’s right for you–and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children’s schools, your state, your country, your world. 

If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t work. Men and women, women and men, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988: 

There’s no party line. 

You make your own luck. 

Change is a tonic. 

One thing leads to another. 

Living is the trick. 

Thank you.

“A Better Truth”

Meg Greenfield

Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts USA

JUNE 14, 1987

For twenty years, Mary Ellen Greenfield was the highly-respected editor of the Washington Post opinion page and a columnist for Newsweek. On the day of her death in 1999, Roger Rosenblatt said, “All Washington gathered to her, not for her influence as an opinion-maker, but for her wit, her common sense and her heart.”


President Oakley, trustees, faculty, friends and most especially members of the graduating class. One always says it, but this time it is true: I am honored to be here. Williams is one of the few truly great colleges in this country, known consistently over the years for both its academic excellence and its civility.

To those of us who were once young and spent some time here, it is, of course, also known for other things. These I will not dwell on except to say that from my years as an undergraduate at Smith, I still retain many happy memories of utterly dissolute weekends at Williams. In my wildest imaginings at the time I could not have supposed that one day, doddering and infirm, I would be standing up here with the forces of law and order.

I want to talk to you today about journalism, not just because it is pretty much the only thing I know, but also because what journalists try to do is really little more than what everyone tries to do, one way and another, in daily life.“How can you yourself protect against interpreting the world around you in a similarly fatuous way? Precisely by avoiding the pitfalls of bad journalism and bad general analysis that lead to it.” You might not judge this to be the case from the turbulence that attends much of our activity and the self-dramatizing way in which we sometimes describe our calling. But it is true. What we do for a living is merely what you are going to have to do every day of your life: try to figure out what is going on and how to think about it. So the process is worth a few minutes of your thought.

The first thing to be said about that process, of course, at least as it is carried out by working journalists, is that nobody, or practically nobody, is ever pleased with the result. Nobody ever has been. There have been trouble making pundits in our midst, after all, since the days of the Hebrew prophets and Greek seers, folks who really know how to rain on a politician’s parade. Agamemnon spoke for more than himself I think and more than he knew – including perhaps a whole succession of American presidents – when he said to the seer Kalkhas, the first syndicated columnist, as I see it:

“You visionary of hell, never have I had fair play in your forecasts. Calamity is all you care about, or see, no happy portents, and you bring to pass nothing agreeable.”

Or, as it is regularly put these days: Why don’t you people ever report the good news?

But, importantly, it is not just politicians and other objects of journalistic attention who are inclined to resist discomfiting news. It is just as often the general public too, and again, always has been. No one in history summed up the sentiment more concisely than the 19th century bishop’s wife, whose words, upon learning of Charles Darwin’s thesis that all humankind was descended from apes, speak to the ages:

“Let us hope it is not true, and if it is, let us pray it does not become generally known.”

Let me quickly say that I am not endorsing here the idea, beloved of some in our business, that the very resentment we stir must be proof of both our accuracy and our virtue. On the contrary, it demonstrates neither. The amount of hostility and discomfort we generate, is no more reliable an index of the quality of our reporting and analysis than is the presence of the sunnier, chirpier view of things, the view so devoutly preferred by Agamemnon, the bishop’s wife and whatever rogue politician or preacher we may be scrutinizing that day.

It is lazy, defective journalism and, by extension, lazy defective thinking on the reader’s part, to assume otherwise. Saying things are terrible does not automatically establish the reliability of your account.

You need to understand this not just if your are going to be a good professional journalist, but equally if you are going to be an intelligent lay journalist in life; you need to understand it if you are going to be able to read your newspaper critically or react reasonably to the Babel of high-powered analysis that comes your way so relentlessly these days.

Consider the moment – June of 1987. It is, according to the fashionable consensus, the most immoral of times. And included in the impressionistic evidence that this is so, I am sorry to say, is a recurrent, blanket condemnation of the class of ‘87, culminating in the preposterous assertion that there is just no intellectual energy or even public service heartbeat to be found in your generation, nothing but a lust for possessions.

Obviously there are some who fit the description. But anyone who knows more than a handful of people of your age, and anyone, I may add, who has read into the literature of Williams College as I have recently done and followed the tremendous individual volunteer efforts going on, will know that this is not true. Yet somehow, despite the evidence, the crazy all-devouring generalization lives on.

How can you yourself protect against interpreting the world around you in a similarly fatuous way? Precisely by avoiding the pitfalls of bad journalism and bad general analysis that lead to it. I will identify just a couple of these. They are habits of mind which have not only helped to create the present overwrought sense of universal moral collapse, but also, ironically, worked to keep us from seeing what may be truly distinctive and repugnant in the age. Two stand out.

First, if, God willing, you have studied some history while you were here, you will have helped guard against the most empty-headed of these: the disposition to suppose that everything is happening for the first time – that every human foible and ethical lapse you see is not just the first, but also the worst. This is uneducated and ahistorical. In the great preacher wars and revelations now going on, for instance, some of us may be meeting Jim and Tammy Baker for the first time. But history isn’t. They and many of the other principals in the drama are well known. Will Rogers and H. L. Mencken knew them. So did Mark Twain. So did Edward Gibbon and Geoffrey Chaucer and Lucretius, all of whom had plenty to say about what they regarded as religious flummery.

And so, in a curious fashion, did Harriet Beecher Stowe, not because she was a satirist or a skeptic like the others, but because her younger brother, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, was the central figure in an absolutely volcanic church-sex scandal in the 1870’s, a news event, by the way, that historians tell us generated more press coverage and comment than anything had since the civil war.

I don’t mean to suggest that we as a society or as individuals should become complacent about serious wrongdoing. What I mean to suggest is that only when you have some feeling for our unremittingly accident-prone past as a species are you able to put present conduct in some perspective. Only then are you able to see, as Chaucer did, say, what is familiar and funny and poignant about the Wife of Bath, as distinct from trying to book her on a felony.

History helps guard against moral smugness too, or it should, anyway. For you are obliged, if you are honest, to acknowledge at least some reflection or resonance of the fallen ones in your own nature. Such humility is a conspicuously missing aspect of our contemporary culture, however. What might be a becoming spell of moral introspection, tends instead to become an orgy of bashing and blaming. I observe that now, as always in this country, when people speak of a terrible, all embracing decline in ethical standards, they are invariably speaking of the decline in their next door neighbor’s standards, not their own.

Such are the ultimate wages of ignoring human history, which is to say, ignoring who we are. But look out: for the flip side of this failure has some dangers of its own. I am thinking of those analysts who know a little history but misuse it. These are the half-baked determinists, fatalists and dead-enders of our society who, knowing that there are historical precedents for certain broad categories of current behavior, cite this fact as proof that there is not further purpose in thinking about the present at all. They create a kind of quasi-historical rationale for the dismissive, “everybody does it” argument. I mean, “Hell, Agamemnon did it, what’s the big deal about Nixon?”

This tendency also comes in a cyclical variation. It is worth pondering here that while the day, the month and the year all exist in nature and were there all along for us to discern, the week is essentially a human invention. There are no Wednesdays in nature. It was we who created life as a vista of endlessly recurring Wednesdays – Wednesdays without end. This being one of the fundamental human methods of bringing order, or at least an illusion of order, out of chaos.

Just so, there is much temptation in journalism to yield to a kind of convenient here-it-comes-again, Ferris wheel principle of organizing and interpreting experience. It is thanks to this custom, of course, that your much-maligned generation is seen as an all-points-perfect recreation of my own much-maligned generation, one full turn of the Ferris wheel.

Do not be tempted by the cycle trap. It results in blurring exactly those distinctions you should be looking for. I can show you, for example, an article I wrote more than 25 years ago about a then current wallow in talk of an American moral collapse; the great moral collapse of the late 1950s. It was about three great moral collapses ago, but it was a doozy. Just as now, it had money-mad athletes, crooked businessmen, worldly churchmen, corrupt professionals, a middle-class that loved its household goods too well, lying, cheating, and all around abysmal behavior. All this was ceaselessly talked about and condemned, and some of it was even true.

But what we are observing today is in key respects different from all that. Such a past is worth study as an aid to discovering those differences and thus understanding our own condition better, but not as quest for reassurance that we may be no better than most, but are no worse, either.

This, in large measure, is what respectable – and, yes, honorable – journalism requires. First finding out, and then working as fairly and unflaggingly as you can to isolate and understand the precedents, the relationships and the distinctiveness, the individually, of the figures and events in the landscape you are putting before your readers.

I could tell you a dozen ways in which the public leaders currently in hot water are different from those who were in hot water about a quarter of a century ago, and an equal number of ways in which the moral atmosphere is different – in some but not all of them insidiously worse. I could also show you a dozen ways in which, based on my own observation, this generation of young people is doing good, not just doing well, in ways that bespeak an intelligence and generosity of spirit that their predecessors, including those of the much romanticized sixties, ought to envy. But it is the discipline for discerning these things, not the endless example, that concerns me here.

And now having pronounced you all honorary journalists, let me offer one final guiding phrase for your career. Some years back the critic John Malcolm Brinnin wrote a book about Dylan Thomas which embodied a faithful but very particular perception of the poet, one that stressed his sad, last, drunken, coming apart days in New York. It was an affront to Thomas’s widow and she engaged in heated exchange with the critic. I have always remembered her phrasing because I found it so arresting and right, and I always commend it to would-be journalists. Caitlin Thomas did not say that Brinnin had told lies, or that what he had reported had not occurred. She did not say he was in any narrow or measurable sense “wrong,” because he was not. She said, and this is the phrase: I know a better truth than Brinnin’s.

As the dispute over Dylan Thomas’s life and his last days still goes on, and as his widow herself I fear has made her own contribution to the confusion, it would be foolish to assume that her “better truth” is the right one. But the phrase, the conception is the right one for us.

A better truth, not necessarily a more positive or friendly or comfortable one, or even a contradictory truth, but one that is larger, roomier, more complex and more authentic than any one-shot version can be. That is what journalism, yours and mine, ideally will be about. Keep the faith. Do the profession proud. We need all the help we can get.

“What I Know Now That I Wish I’d Known Then”

Ms Steinem is a ground-busting American journalist and feminist leader.


Ms Gloria Steinem

Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts USA

MAY 17, 1987

Mr. President – at last I can say that with pleasure  – and administrators of the university and all its schools – their family, friends and significant others – Faculty with tenure. Faculty without tenure – Parents and families of graduates. Step parents and chosen family of graduates – and anyone else who helped pay the bills – Friends and lovers of graduates (you know who you are) – Also students who someday will graduate, returning graduates, and people who just stopped by to watch because, like me, you are commencement junkies – Staff members who house, feed and maintain all of the above, as well as preparing this ceremony – 

And most of all, graduates, co-conspirators and subversives – Those who were born before June 1, 1965, and those born after – Those who lived uphill, or downhill, or met in the Pagoda – Fletcher graduates, who have the revolutionary idea that law might have a relationship to justice, and diplomacy to the truth – Graduates who will build buildings that last longer than we do, or teeth that last as long as we do–a new event in human history – Those who will cure illness, promote wellness, and save our environment, and who will extend a helping hand to the other living creatures on this Spaceship Earth –

In short, to everyone who shares this day as the celebration of one journey and the beginning of another, I say thank you for letting me share it with you. Because I confess that I am terminally sentimental about graduations. They are more individual than weddings, more conscious than christenings, or bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs. They are almost as much a step into the unknown as funerals – though I assure you, there is life after graduation.

In fact, ceremonies like these get to me every time.

And today is all the more momentous for the extraordinary group with whom I share honorary degrees. Please read about their work and lives and be as instructed as I have been.

As someone who tried (unsuccessfully) to dance her way out of Toledo, Ohio, and into the hearts of Americans, I have always wanted to meet Katherine Dunham. She brought dance out of its artsy ghetto, just as Natalie Davis had the revolutionary idea that ordinary people should be part of history – and vice versa.

I thank David McCord for being a rare man who loves both children and poetry. And I thank the spirit of the late Danny Kaye, who made us laugh with, never at, each other.

Dr. Callow has helped our bodies through his craft and our minds through his aid to this university.

Claude Shannon seems to me a kind of Zeus from whose forehead springs technology fullblown, communicative and user-friendly.

Winston Lord bridges worlds through diplomacy, just as C. S. Ioh combines art with commerce and business with conscience.

I thank Dr. Ames for managing to rescue both people from cancer and animals from pain.

It is an extraordinary group.

But I especially want to thank Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, who extended a U.S. Constitution written for, by and about white males to protect the reproductive freedom of women of all races. Because a fervent minority of Americans still disagree with women’s rights and ability to make a conscientious decision about abortion, Justice Blackmun continues to live under hurtful attacks.

So I would like to publicly thank him on behalf of the more than 70 percent of Americans who agree with the decision he authored, who believe that a woman’s life is also a human life, and who know that the majority decision he wrote may have saved the lives and health of more women in this country than any other single act in history.

One day soon, reproductive freedom – that is, the freedom to have or not have children, without government interference – will be recognized as a basic human right, like freedom of speech or assembly. Then, history will also thank Justice Blackmun.

But just in case the honor of this company and this occasion might endanger my humility, here is a note of reality: I don’t remember one single thing my own commencement speaker said. I was consumed with concern about how my friends would get on with my family, and vice versa; about how I was going to pack four years of possessions into one car; and about how I was not going to get married to the very tempting man I was then engaged to – (In the ’50s, everybody got married or engaged before or right after graduation – but I wanted to go off to India instead).

Furthermore, I conducted a small survey in preparation for today. Half of my sample couldn’t remember who their commencement speaker was.

So instead of pursuing one theme that might exclude many people, I’m going to be diverse in the hope of leaving a sentence or two that might be useful to more people. All these thoughts come under the general heading of “what I know now that I wish I’d known then.” One other organizing principle I will leave to the end–and I defy you to guess what it is. I’ve also tried to follow Henny Youngman’s wisdom – he always told one-liners because longer jokes weren’t, as he put it, “worth the trip” – by keeping each thought short.

For instance:

Thought 1: A person who has experienced something is almost always far more expert on it than are the experts. A corollary is that any process including only experts, with no contribution from those with personal experience, will probably go wrong. An extension is that our educational system is long on book learning, but short on apprenticeship. A further extension is that our social policy is long on theorists, and short on organizers.

A national example: The poverty programs of the Johnson Administration were less successful than the Depression projects of the Roosevelt Administration in part because the first were mostly designed by Washington poverticians, while the second were mostly local initiatives that were given government support.

For a personal example: I wish someone had warned me that book learning, as valuable and irreplaceable as it may be, can also make you self-critical, reverential and otherwise fearful of acting. (Of course, this is especially true if you are female, or a different race or ethnicity, and nobody in the books looks like you – but I hope you have had more inclusive textbooks than I did).

So whatever you want to do, just do it. Don’t worry about making a damn fool of yourself. Making a damn fool of yourself is absolutely essential. And you will have a great time.

Thought 2: When I was a student, we used to sit around discussing whether a particular end justified a particular means. On the assumption of everyone from Marx or Machiavelli, I thought that was the question.

It took me twenty years to figure out that the means are the ends – and vice versa. Whatever means you use become an organic part of the ends you achieve.

For example: Groups rarely benefit from revolutions if they haven’t been an organic part of that revolution. Even if they are given certain paper rights at the end of the process, they may remain too weak to use them. Strength comes from process. Process is all.

Thought 3: If you have to choose character or intelligence – in a friend or in a candidate – choose character. Intelligence without character is dangerous, but character without intelligence only slows down a good result.

Thought 4: Politics is not just what goes on in the electoral system, or in Washington. Politics is any power relationship in our daily lives. Anytime one human being is habitually powerful over another, or one group over another, not because of talent or experience, but just because of race, or sex or class, that’s politics. So when we look at the fields of your state and mind, and see that one color of human beings owns them, and another color works on them as migrant labor, that’s politics. When we find a hundred of one kind of human being in the typing pool, and a few of another in the boardroom, that’s politics. When children have only their father’s name,that’s politics. When most men have only one job, while most women have two – one inside the home and one outside it – that’s politics, too. And when students of color are still in smaller proportion than are people of color in the population, or women are a lesser percentage of dentists and engineers, or men a lesser proportion of physical therapists and nutritionists, that’s politics.

Forget old definitions. They were based on the idea that what happened to men was politics, and what happened to women was culture. That division was just a way of keeping certain parts of life immune to change. In fact, the personal is very often political. And revolutions, like houses, get built from the bottom up, not the top down.

Thought 5: As Margaret Mead once said, “Marriage worked well in the 19th Century because people only lived to be fifty.”

Because life expectancy has increased about thirty years since 1900, there are bound to be different ways of living. Some people will marry and raise children young, then go off amicably for another life of a different accomplishment. Some will marry late – after their work lives are well under way – and have children later or not at all. Some will not marry, or will love and live with a partner of the same gender. Others will raise their children among a chosen family of friends, or find colleagues in work and shared ideals who are their spiritual family.

As the prison of form diminishes, we can pay more attention to content. That means equal power between partners and thus the possibility of free choice. That means commitment out of decision, not desperation or pressure. That means kindness, empathy and nurturing – because those of us who are not parents can help those who are. We can have children as friends.

If that sounds Pollyanna-ish, consider that the foreshadowings of such a change are with us now. Women in the paid workforce – and hopefully men who are real parents, too – are finally beginning to bring the reality of children’s lives into the public sphere. This is long overdue: The United States is the only industrialized democracy in the world that behaves as if children didn’t exist until the age of six.

Furthermore, the divorce rate has begun to decline, an event that feminists have always predicted. When people used to say to me, “Feminism is the cause of divorce,” I always said, “No, marriage is the cause of divorce.” Forcing all people to believe they had to live one way was the cause of many bad marriages, just as forcing all people to believe they had to be parents was the cause of many bad parents and unhappy children. No one way of living can be right for all people.

So the message is: Don’t worry if your life doesn’t look like a Dick-and-Jane primer. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like the Yuppie opposite of a Dick-and-Jane primer. The point is less what we choose, than that we have the power to make a choice.

Thought 6: Remember the ’50s and ’60s? Then, women were supposed to marry what we wanted to become–as in, “Marry a doctor, don’t be one.” In the ’70s and ’80s, some women started to say, “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” But in the ’90s, more men must become the womenthey wanted to marry.

I’ll know we’re getting someplace when as many young men as young women ask, “How can I combine career and family?”

And men will be getting someplace, too. They won’t be strangers to their children anymore. They won’t be suppressing qualities in themselves that are human but not stereotypically masculine. They will even be living longer, since the pressures of having to win, or even be aggressive or violent, all lead to the clear conclusion that the prison of the so-called masculine role is the killer of many men.

This isn’t a role exchange – it’s a humanization of both roles. For both women and men, progress probably lies in the direction we haven’t been. For women, it may lie in becoming more active in public life. For men, it may lie in playing a real part of private life. But for both, the pleasure and reward is becoming a whole human being.

I wish I had realized this earlier. It means progress is not always a straight line, in which we must defeat or outstrip others and there is only one winner. Progress is a circle in which we strive to use all our talents and complete ourselves. Potentially, we are all winners.

Thought 7: Don’t forget to give at least ten percent of everything you earn to social change. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make. Possessions can be lost, broken or begin to possess you. Indeed, if you’re really happy in your life and work, you won’t have that much time to shop and buy and re-buy and repair anyway. The money you save may not be worth that much tomorrow. Insurance companies may cancel your policies. Tithing is the pioneer example and the religious example. Helping others is the only way to be sure there will be someone there to help you.

Finally, the last thought and an organizing principle of this list of I-wish-I-had-knowns: the reason why acting on such thoughts is timely and vital right now.

Economists are warning, and politicians are fearing, that this nation is at the end of its economic expansionist period. There are now other countries that can compete or even outstrip us in productivity. For the first time, 80 percent of Americans have not increased their real buying power in the last ten years, and many young people will not do as well in conventional economic terms as their parents.

Most authorities see this as a time of danger–and that is true. Energies deflected from earning more and buying more could cause us to fly apart politically.

But this is also an opportunity to make real changes in our lives and in our country.

It is time for America to become known for the quality of life as well as the quantity of goods.

It is time to carry out the greatest mission and legacy of our culture: that we are the world’s biggest experiment in multi-cultural and multi-racial living. Our fragile planet needs to learn exactly this lesson of cherishing each other’s differences. This campus is imperfect, but it is far better than the world outside it, and the world could be much more like it–with politicians as open to visitors as are the deans in the hall I face; women heading newspapers and governments as they do here, and commitment to mutual support and non-violence.

Bigger is not better. America’s military might is not our best legacy.

Equality is the best insurance against the political upheaval that authorities fear. More than 70 percent of Americans say they are willing to change their standard of living in conventional economic terms–providing this so-called “sacrifice” is evenly spread.

This is a turning point in history – and your challenge. Our hearts go with you. Our heads and hands are here to help you. The brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of women – the humanity of people – is “not so wild a dream as those who profit by delaying it would have us believe.”

One more point. This is the last period of time that will seem lengthy to you at only 3 or 4 years. From now on, time will pass without artificial academic measure. It will go by like the wind.

Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.


Margaret Atwood

The University Of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

JUNE 14TH, 1983 

Ms Atwood (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history.


I am of course overjoyed to be here today in the role of ceremonial object. There is more than the usual amount of satisfaction in receiving an honorary degree from the university that helped to form one’s erstwhile callow and ignorant mind into the thing of dubious splendor that it is today; whose professors put up with so many overdue term papers, and struggled to read one’s handwriting, of which ‘interesting’ is the best that has been said; at which one failed to learn Anglo-Saxon and somehow missed Bibliography entirely, a severe error which I trust no one present here today has committed; and at which one underwent excruciating agonies not only of soul but of body, later traced to having drunk too much coffee in the bowels of Wymilwood.

It is to Victoria College that I can attribute the fact that Bell Canada, Oxford University Press and McClelland and Stewart all failed to hire me in the summer of ‘63, on the grounds that I was a) overqualified and b) couldn’t type, thus producing in me that state of joblessness, angst and cosmic depression which everyone knows is indispensable for novelists and poets, although nobody has ever claimed the same for geologists, dentists or chartered accountants. It is also due to Victoria College, incarnated in the person of Northrop Frye, that I didn’t run away to England to become a waitress, live in a garret, write masterpieces and get tuberculosis. He thought I might have more spare time for creation if I ran away to Boston, lived in a stupor, wrote footnotes and got anxiety attacks, that is, if I went to Graduate School, and he was right. So, for all the benefits conferred upon me by my Alma Mater, where they taught me that the truth would make me free but failed to warn me of the kind of trouble I’d get into by trying to tell it – I remain duly grateful.

But everything has its price. No sooner had I tossed off a graceful reply to the letter inviting me to be present today than I began to realize the exorbitance of what was expected of me. I was going to have to come up with something to say,“You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.”to a graduating class in 1983, year of the Ph.D. taxi driver, when young people have unemployment the way they used to have ugly blackheads; something presumably useful, wise, filled with resonance and overview, helpful, encouraging and optimistic. After all, you are being launched – though ever since I experienced the process, I’ve wondered why “convocation” is the name for it. “Ejection” would be better. Even in the best of times, it’s more or less like being pushed over a cliff, and these are not the best of times. In case you haven’t figured it out already, I’m here to tell you that it’s an armpit out there. As for your university degree, there are definitely going to be days when you will feel that you’ve been given a refrigerator and sent to the middle of a jungle, where there are no three-pronged grounded plugholes.

Not only that, the year will come when you will wake up in the middle of the night and realize that the people you went to school with are in positions of power, and may soon actually be running things. If there’s anything more calculated to thick men’s blood with cold, it’s that. After all, you know how much they didn’t know then, and, given yourself as an example, you can’t assume they know a great deal more now. “We’re all doomed,” you will think. (For example: Brian Mulroney is only a year older than I am.) You may feel that the only thing to do when you’ve reached this stage is to take up nail-biting, mantras, or jogging, all of which would be recognized by animal behavior specialists as substitution activities, like scratching, which are resorted to in moments of unresolved conflict. But we’ll get around to some positive thinking in a moment.

“What shall I tell them!” I thought, breaking out into a cold sweat, as I tossed and turned night after night. (Lest you leap to indulge in Calvinistic guilt at the idea of having been the proximate cause of my discomfort, let me hasten to add that I was on a boat. The tossing and turning was par for the course, and the cold sweat can be cured by Gravol). For a while I toyed with the idea of paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut, who told one graduating class, “Everything is going to become unbelievably worse and will never get better again,” and walked off the stage. But that’s the American style: boom or bust. A Canadian would be more apt to say, “things may be pretty mediocre but let’s at least try to hold the line.”

Then I thought that maybe I could say a few words on the subject of a liberal arts education, and how it prepares you for life. But sober reflection led me to the conclusion that this topic too was a washout; for, as you will soon discover, a liberal arts education doesn’t exactly prepare you for life. A preparation-for-life curriculum would not consist of courses on Victorian Thought and French Romanticism, but of things like How to Cope With Marital Breakdown, Getting More for your Footwear Dollar, Dealing With Stress, and How To Keep Your Fingernails from Breaking Off by Always Filing Them Towards the Center; in other words, it would read like the contents page of Homemakers Magazine, which is why Homemakers Magazine is so widely read, even by me. Or, for boys, Forbes or The Economist , and Improving Your Place in the Power Hierarchy by Choosing the Right Suit. (Dark blue with a faint white pinstripe, not too far apart, in case you’re interested.)

Or maybe, I thought, I should expose glaring errors in the educational system, or compile a list of things I was taught which are palpably not true. For instance, in high school I made the mistake of taking Home Economics instead of Typing – we thought, in those days, that if you took the commercial course most of your eyebrows would come off and would have to be drawn on with a pencil for the rest of your life – where I was told that every meal should consist of a brown thing, a white thing, a yellow thing and a green thing; that it was not right to lick the spoon while cooking; and that the inside of a dress seam was as important as the outside. All three of these ideas are false and should be discarded immediately by anyone who still holds them.

Nor did anyone have the foresight to inform me that the best thing I could do for myself as a writer would be back and wrist exercises. No one has yet done a study of this, but they will, and when they start excavating and measuring the spines and arm bones of the skeletons of famous writers of the past I am sure they will find that those who wrote the longest novels, such as Dickens and Melville, also had the thickest wrists. The real reason that Emily Dickinson stuck to lyric poems with relatively few stanzas is that she had spindly fingers. You may scoff, but future research will prove me right.

But I then thought, I shouldn’t talk about writing. Few of this graduating class will wish to be writers, and those that do should by no means be encouraged. Weave a circle round them thrice, and close your eyes holy dread, because who needs the competition? What with the proliferation of Creative Writing courses, a mushroom of recent growth all but unknown in my youth, we will soon have a state of affairs in which everybody writes and nobody reads, the exact reverse of the way things were when I was composing dolorous verses in a rented cupboard on Charles Street in the early sixties.

Or maybe, I thought, I should relate to them a little known fact of shocking import, which they will remember vividly when they have all but forgotten the rest of this speech. For example: nobody ever tells you, but did you know that when you have a baby your hair falls out? Not all of it, and not all at once, but it does fall out. It has something to do with a zinc imbalance. The good news is that it does grow back in. This only applies to girls. With boys, it falls out whether you have a baby or not, and it never grows back in; but even then there is hope. In a pinch, you can resort to quotation, a commodity which a liberal arts education teaches you to treat with respect, and I offer the following: “God only made a few perfect heads, and the rest lie covered with hair.”

Which illustrates the following point: when faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it. As I learned during my liberal arts education, any symbol can have, in the imaginative context, two versions, a positive and a negative. Blood can either be the gift of life or what comes out of you when you cut your wrists in the bathtub. Or, somewhat less drastically, if you spill your milk you’re left with a glass which is either half empty or half full.

Which brings us to the hidden agenda of this speech. What you are being ejected into today is a world that is both half empty and half full. On the one hand, the biosphere is rotting away. The raindrops that keep falling on your head are also killing the fish, the trees, the animals, and, if they keep being as acid as they are now, they’ll eventually do away with things a lot closer to home, such as crops, front lawns and your digestive tract. Nature is no longer what surrounds us, we surround it, and the switch has not been for the better. On the other hand, unlike the ancient Egyptians, we as a civilization know what mistakes we are making and we also have the technology to stop making them; all that is lacking is the will.

Another example: on the one hand, we ourselves live daily with the threat of annihilation. We’re just a computer button and a few minutes away from it, and the gap between us and it is narrowing every day. We secretly think in terms not of “If the Bomb Drops” but of “When the Bomb Drops”, and it’s understandable if we sometimes let ourselves slide into a mental state of powerlessness and consequent apathy. On the other hand, the catastrophe that threatens us as a species, and most other species as well, is not unpredictable and uncontrollable, like the eruption of the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. If it occurs, we can die with the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the death of the world was a man-made and therefore preventable event, and that the failure to prevent it was a failure of human will.

This is the kind of world we find ourselves in, and it’s not pleasant. Faced with facts this depressing, the question of the economy – or how many of us in this country can afford two cars doesn’t really loom too large, but you’d never know it from reading the papers. Things are in fact a lot worse elsewhere, where expectations center not on cars and houses and jobs but on the next elusive meal. That’s part of the down side. The up side, here and now, is that this is still more or less a democracy; you don’t get shot or tortured yet for expressing an opinion, and politicians, motivated as they may be by greed and the lust for power, are nevertheless or because of this, still swayed by public opinion. The issues raised in any election are issues perceived by those who want power to be of importance to those in a position to confer it upon them. In other words, if enough people show by the issues they raise and by the way they’re willing to vote that they want changes made, then change becomes possible. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality.

Try it and see.

“A Left-handed Commencement Address”

Ms Le Guin (1929 – 2018) was an astonishingly perceptive and original literary voice. In the recent words of The Guardian, she was “sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent.” She lived in Oregon.


Ursula K. Le Guin

Mills College, Oakland, California USA

MAY 19, 1983

I want to thank the Mills College Class of ‘83 for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women.

I know there are men graduating, and I don’t mean to exclude them, far from it. There is a Greek tragedy where the Greek says to the foreigner, “If you don’t understand Greek, please signify by nodding.” Anyhow, commencements are usually operated under the unspoken agreement that everybody graduating is either male or ought to be. That’s why we are all wearing these twelfth-century dresses that look so great on men and make women look either like a mushroom or a pregnant stork. Intellectual tradition is male.

“Why did we look up for blessing – instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.”

Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.

Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything – instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if – only if – you want kids, I hope you have them. Not hordes of them. A couple, enough. I hope they’re beautiful. I hope you and they have enough to eat, and a place to be warm and clean in, and friends, and work you like doing. Well, is that what you went to college for? Is that all? What about success?

Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.

Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself – as I know you already have – in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

Well, we’re already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy – that’s their game. Not against men, either – that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Macho-man or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?

Macho-man is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean – the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well, so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Macho-man. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.

So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing – instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

“The Head Bone and the Heart Bone”

Commencement addresses at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons are usually delivered by well-known physicians. But in 1979, the graduating seniors broke with tradition and surprised the University by inviting Alan Alda, the actor and writer (who played a doctor on the hugely successful TV show M*A*S*H), to be the speaker and an honorary member of the Class of ‘79. The result was a resounding success. 


Alan Alda

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City USA

JUNE 1979

Ever since it was announced that a non-doctor, in fact an actor, had been invited to give the commencement address at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country people have been wondering: “Why get someone who only pretends to be a doctor when you could get a real one?” Some people have suggested that this school had done everything it could to show you how to be doctors and in a moment of desperation had brought in someone who could show you how to act like one.

It’s certainly true that I’m not a doctor. I have a long list of non-qualifications. In the first place I’m not a great fan of blood. I don’t mind people’s having it, I just don’t enjoy seeing them wear it. I have yet to see a real operation because the mere smell of a hospital reminds me of a previous appointment. And my knowledge of anatomy resides in the clear understanding that the hip bone is connected to the leg bone. I am not a doctor. But you have asked me, and all in all, I think you made a wonderful choice.

I say that because I probably first came to the attention of this graduating class through a character on television that I’ve played and helped write for the past seven years: a surgeon called Hawkeye Pierce. He’s a remarkable person, this Hawkeye, and if you have chosen somehow to associate his character with your own graduation from medical school, then I find that very heartening because I think it means that you are reaching out toward a very human kind of doctoring. And a very real kind of doctor.

We didn’t make him up. He really lived as several doctors who struggled to preserve life 25 years ago during the Korean War. In fact, it’s because he’s based on real doctors that there is something especially engaging about him. He has a sense of humor and yet he’s serious…he’s impertinent and yet he has feeling…he’s human enough to make mistakes, and yet he hates death enough to push himself past his own limits to save lives. In many ways, he’s the doctor patients want to have and doctors want to be.

But he’s not an idealization. Finding himself in a war, he’s sometimes angry, sometimes cynical, sometimes a little nuts. He’s not a magician who can come up with an instant cure for a rare disease without sweating and ruining his makeup. He knows he might fail. Not a god, he walks gingerly on the edge of disaster – alive to his own mortality.

If this image of that very human, very caring doctor is attractive to you – if it’s ever touched you for a moment as something to reach for in your own life – then I’m here to cheer you on: Do it. Go for it. Be skilled, be learned, be aware of the dignity of your calling…but please don’t ever lose sight of your own simple humanity. Unfortunately, that may not be so easy.

You’re entering a special place in our society. People will be awed by your expertise. You’ll be placed in a position of privilege. You’ll live well, people will defer to you, call you by your title – and it may be hard to remember that the word “doctor” is not actually your first name.

I know what this is like to some extent because in some ways you and I are alike. We both study the human being. And we both try to offer relief you through medicine, and I through laughter – but we both try to reduce suffering. We’ve both learned difficult disciplines that have taken years to master, and we’ve both dedicated ourselves to years of hard work. And we both charge a lot.

We live in a society that has decided to reward my profession and yours, when we succeed in them, very highly. It can sometimes be easy to forget that the cab driver also works 14 or 15 hours a day and is also drained of energy when he’s through. It’s easy to think that because our society grants us privilege that we’re entitled to it. Privilege feels good, but it can be intoxicating. As good doctors, I hope you’ll be able to keep yourselves free of toxins.

It’s no wonder, though, that people will hold you in awe. I know I do. You’ve spent years in a grueling effort to know the structure and process of human life. I can’t imagine a more difficult task. It has required the understanding of complexities within complexities, and there has been more pressure placed on you in four years than most people would be willing to take in a lifetime. I stand here in utter amazement at what you’ve accomplished. And I congratulate you.

I only ask one thing of you: Possess your skills, but don’t be possessed by them. Certainly your training has encouraged you to see the human side of your work, and you’ve examined the doctor-patient relationship. But still, the enormity of your task has required you to focus to such an extent on technique and data that you may not have had time enough to face your feelings along the way.

You’ve had to toughen yourself to death. From your first autopsy when you may have been sick, or cried or just been numb, you’ve had to inure yourself to death in order to be useful to the living. But I hope in the process you haven’t done too good a job of burying that part of you that hurts and is afraid.

I know what it’s like to be absorbed in technique. When I write for M*A*S*H, I’m always writing about people in crisis with what I hope is compassion and feeling. And yet one day I found myself talking to someone who was in a real crisis and real pain – and I remember thinking, “This would make a great story.” Both of these things – becoming set apart and becoming your skill – can make it tough to be a compassionate person.

All right, that’s my diagnosis of the problem. Here’s my prescription: I’d like to suggest to you, just in case you haven’t done it lately, that this would be a very good time to give some thought to just exactly what your values are, and then to figure out how you’re going to live by them. Knowing what you care about and then devoting yourself to it is just about the only way you can pick your way through the minefield of existence and come out in one piece.

It can be a startling experience when you try to rank your values, though. Just ask yourself what’s the most important thing in the world to you. Your work? Your family? Your money? Your country? Getting to heaven? Sex? Dope? Alcohol? What? (I don’t need a show of hands on this.) Then when you get the answer to that, ask yourself how much time you actually spend on your number one value – and how much time you spend on what you thought was number five, or number ten. What, in fact, is the thing you value most? It may not be easy to decide. We live in a time that seems to be split about its values. In fact it seems to be schizophrenic. For instance, if you pick up a magazine like “Psychology Today,” you’re liable to see an article like: “White Collar Crime: It’s More Widespread Than You Think.” Then in the back of the magazine they’ll print an advertisement that says, “We’ll write your doctoral thesis for 25 bucks.” You see how values are eroding? I mean, a doctoral thesis ought to go for at least a C-note.

The question is where are their values? What do they value? Unfortunately, the people we look to for leadership seem to be providing it by negative example. All across the country this month commencement speakers are saying to graduating classes, “We look to you for tomorrow’s leaders.” That’s because today’s leaders are all in jail.

Maybe we can afford to let politicians operate in a moral vacuum, but we can’t afford to let doctors operate under those conditions. You know how we’re feeling these days as the power and fuel monopoly has its way with us. Well, you people graduating today are entering a very select group. You have a monopoly on medical care. Please be careful not to abuse this power that you have over the rest of us.

You need to know what you care about most and what you care about least. And you need to know now. You will be making life and death decisions and you will often be making them under stress and with great speed. The time to make your tender choices is not in the heat of the moment.

When you’re making your list, let me urge you to put people first. And I include in that not just people, but that which exists between people. I suggest to you that what makes people know they’re alive – and in some cases keeps them alive – is not merely the interaction of the parts of their bodies, but the interaction of their selves with other selves.

Let me challenge you. With all your study, you can name all the bones in my body. You can read my X-rays like a telegram. But can you read my involuntary muscles? Can you see the fear and uncertainty in my face? If I tell you where it hurts, can you hear in my voice where I ache? I show you my body but I bring you my person. Can you see me through your reading glasses? Will you tell me what you’re doing, and in words I can understand?  Will you tell me when you don’t know what to do? Can you face your own fear, your own uncertainty? When in doubt, can you call in help?

These are things to consider even if you don’t deal directly with patients. If you’re in research, administration, if you write – no matter what you do – eventually there is always going to be a patient at the other end of your decisions.

Now, of course, everyone is for this in principle. Who’s against people? But it gets harder when you get specific. Will you be the kind of doctor who cares more about the case than the person?  (“Nurse, call the gastric ulcer and have him come in at three.”… “How’s the fractured femur in Room 208?”) You’ll know you’re in trouble if you find yourself wishing they would mail you their liver in a plain brown envelope.

Where does money come on your list? Will it be the sole standard against which you reckon your success? How much will it guide you in relating to your patients? Do patients in a clinic need less of your attention than private patients? Are they, for instance, less in need of having things explained to them?

Where will your family come on your list? How many days and nights, weeks and months, will you separate yourself from them, buried in your work, before you realize that you’ve removed yourself from an important part of your life?

And if you’re a male doctor how will you relate to women? Women as patients, as nurses, as fellow doctors – and later as students. Will you be able to respect your patient’s right to know and make decisions about her own body? Will you see nurses as colleagues – or as handmaidens? And if the day comes when you are teaching, what can young women medical students expect from you? Questionnaires filled out by women at 41 medical schools around the country have revealed a distressing pattern. The women were often either ignored in class or simply not taken seriously as students. They were told that they were only there to find a husband and that they were taking the places of men who would then have to go out and become chiropractors. (Logic is not the strong point of sexism.) They were often told that women just didn’t belong in medicine. And at times they were told this by the very professors who were grading them. They would be shown slides of Playboy nudes during anatomy lectures – to the accompaniment of catcalls and wisecracks from male students. And in place of discussions about their work, they would often hear a discussion of their appearance.

These are reports from 41 different medical schools. I’m dwelling on this because it seems to me that the male­female relationship is still the most personal and intense test of humane behavior. It is a crucible for decency. I hope you men will work to grant the same dignity to your female colleagues that you yourselves enjoy.

And if you’re a female doctor, I hope you’ll be aware that you didn’t get where you are all by yourself. You’ve had to work hard, of course. But you’re sitting where you are right now in part because way back in 1848 in Seneca Falls women you never knew began insisting you had a right to sit there. Just as they helped a generation they would never see, I urge you to work for the day when your daughters and their daughters will be called not “a woman doctor,” or “my doctor, who’s a woman…” but simply, “my doctor.”

It may seem strange to rank the things you care about, but when you think about it, there isn’t an area of your work that won’t be affected by what you decide to place a high value on and what you decide doesn’t count. Decide now.

Well, that’s my prescription. I’ve given you kind of a big pill to swallow, but I think it’ll make you feel better. And if not – well, look, I’m only human.

I congratulate you, and please let me thank you for taking on the enormous responsibility that you have – and for having the strength to have made it to this day. I don’t know how you’ve managed to learn it all. But there is one more thing you can learn about the body that only a non­doctor would tell you – and I hope you’ll always remember this: The head bone is connected to the heart bone – and don’t let them come apart.

“On Learning To Talk”

William H. Gass

Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

JUNE 4, 1979

William Howard Gass (born 1924) is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor at Washington University. A consummate author, Dr Gass called his fiction works “experimental constructions”. A revised version of this speech was included in the book of essays entitled “Habitations of the Word”, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985.


Dinner, let us imagine, has reached its second wine. We are exchanging pleasantries: gossip, tittle-tattle, perilously keen remarks. Like a fine sauce, they pique the mind. They pass the time. A thought is peeled and placed upon a plate. A nearby lady lends us a small smile, and there are glances brilliant as the silver. Patiently we listen while another talks, because everyone, our etiquette instructs, must have his chance to speak. We wait. We draw upon the cloth with unused knives. Our goblets turn as slowly as the world.

And on this beautiful ceremonial morning I want to talk to you about talking, that commonest of all our intended activities, for talking is our public link with one another; it is a need; it is an art; it is the chief instrument of all instruction; it is the most personal aspect of our private life. To those who have sponsored our appearance in the world, the first memorable moment to follow our inaugural bawl is the birth of our first word. It is that noise, a sound that is no longer a simple signal, like the greedy squalling of a gull, but a declaration of the incipient presence of mind, that delivers us into the human realm. Before, there was only an organ of energy, intake, and excretion, but now a person has begun. And in no idle, ordinary, or jesting sense, words are what that being will become. It is language which most shows a man, Ben Jonson said: “Speake that I may see thee.” And Emerson certainly supports him: “Man is only half himself,” he said, “the other half is his expression.” Truths like this have been the long companions of our life, and so we often overlook them, as we miss the familiar mole upon our chin, even while powdering the blemish, or running over it with a razor.

Silence is the soul’s invisibility. We can, of course, conceal ourselves behind lies and sophistries, but when we speak, we are present, however careful our disguise. The monster we choose to be on Halloween says something about the monster we are. I have often gone to masquerades as myself, and in that guise no one knew I was there.

Plato thought of the soul as an ardent debating society in which our various interests pled their causes; and there were honest speeches and dishonest ones; there was reason, lucid and open and lovely like the nakedness of the gods,

Everywhere here in this quad, everywhere along the long lines of listening chairs – like a choir before bursting into song – there is the silent murmor of us all, our glad, our scrappy, rude, grand, small talk to ourselves, the unheard hum of our humanity”where truth found its youngest friend and nobility its ancient eloquence; and there was also pin-eyed fanaticism, deceit and meanness, a coarseness like sand in cold grease; there was bribery and seduction, flattery, brow-beating and bombast. Little has changed, in that regard, either in our souls or in society since; for the great Greeks were correct: life must be lived according to the right word–the logos they loved–and so the search for it, the mastery of it, the fullest and finest and truest expression of it, the defense of it, became the heart of the educational enterprise.

To an almost measureless degree, to know is to possess words, and all of us know how much words concern us here, at the university, in this context of texts. Adam created the animals and birds by naming them, and we name incessantly, conserving achievements and customs, and countries that no longer exist, in the museum of human memory. But it is not only the books which we pile about us like a building, or the papers we painfully compose, the exams we write, the calculations we come to by means of mystic diagrams, mathematical symbols, astrological charts or other ill- or well-drawn maps of the mind; it is not alone the languages we learn to mispronounce, the lists, the arguments and rhymes, we get by heart; it is not even our tendency to turn what is unwritten into writing with a mere look, so that rocks will suddenly say their age and origin and activity, or what is numb flesh and exposed bone will cry out that cotton candy killed it, or cancer, or canoodling, the letter C like a cut across an artery, the flow of meaning like blood; no, it is not the undeniable importance of these things which leads me to lay such weight upon the word; it is rather our interior self I’m concerned with, and therefore with the language which springs out of the most retiring and inmost parts of us, and is the image of its parent like a child: the words we use to convey our love to another, or to cope with anxiety, for instance; the words which will convince, persuade, which will show us clearly, or make the many one; the words I listen to when I wait out a speech at a dinner party; words which can comfort and assuage, damage and delight, amuse and dismay; but above all, the words which one burns like beacons against the darkness, and which together comprise the society of the silently speaking self; because all these words are but humble echoes of the words the poet uses when she speaks of passion, or the historian when he drives his nails through time, or when the psychoanalyst divines our desires as through tea leaves left at the bottom of our dreams.

Even if the world becomes so visual that words must grow faces to save themselves, and put on smiles made of fragrant paste, and even if we all hunker down in front of films like savages before a divinity, have experience explained to us in terms of experiences which need to be explained, still, we shall not trade portraits of our love affairs, only of ourselves; there is no Polaroid that will develop in moments the state of our soul, or cassette to record our pangs of conscience; so we shall never talk in doodles over dinner, or call up our spirit to its struggle with a little private sit-com or a dreary soap. Even if the world falls silent and we shrink in fear within ourselves; even if words are banished to the Balkans or otherwise driven altogether out of hearing, as though every syllable were subversive (as indeed each is); all the same, when we have withdrawn from any companionship with things and people, when we have collapsed in terror behind our talcumed skins, and we peer suspiciously through the keyholes of our eyes, when we have reached the limit of our dwindle – the last dry seed of the self – then we shall see how greatly correct is the work of Samuel Beckett, because we shall find there, inside that seed, nothing but his featureless cell, nothing but voice, nothing but darkness and talk.

How desperately, then, we need to learn it – to talk to ourselves – because we are babies about it. Oh, we have excellent languages for the secrets of nature. Wave packets, black holes, and skeins of genes: we can write precisely and consequentially of these, as well as other extraordinary phenomena; but can we talk even of trifles: for instance, of the way a look sometimes crosses a face like the leap of a frog, so little does it live there, or how the habit of anger raisins the heart, or wet leaves paper a street? Our anatomy texts can skin us without our pain, the cellular urges of trees are no surprise, the skies are driven by winds we cannot see; yet science has passed daily life by like the last bus, and left it to poetry.

It is terribly important to know how a breast is made: how to touch it to make a tingle, or discover a hidden cyst (we find these things written of in books); but isn’t it just as important to be able to put the beauty of a body in words, words we give like a gift to its bearer; to communicate the self to another, and in that way form a community of feeling, of thought about feeling, of belief about thought: an exchange of warmth like breathing, of simple tastes and the touch of the eye, and other sensations shortly to be sought, since there is no place for the utopia of the flesh outside the utopia of talk.

It can’t be helped. We are made of layers of language like a Viennese torte. We are a Freudian dessert. My dinner companion, the lady who lent me her smile, has raised her goblet in a quiet toast. It is as though its rim had touched me, and I try to find words for the feeling, and for the wine which glows like molten rubies in her glass; because if I can do that, I can take away more than a memory which will fade faster than a winter footprint; I can take away an intense and interpreted description, a record as tough to erase as a relief, since without words what can be well and richly remembered? Yesterdays are gone like drying mist. Without our histories, without the conservation which concepts nearly alone make possible, we could not preserve our lives as were the bodies of the pharaohs, the present would soon be as clear of the past as a bright day, and we would be innocent arboreals again.

Of course we could redream the occasion, or pretend to film our feeling, but we’ll need words to label and index our images anyway, and can the photograph contain the rush of color to my face, the warmth which reminds me I also am a glass and have become wine?

I remember because I talk. I talk from morning to night, and then I talk on in my sleep. Our talk is so precious to us, we think we punish others when we stop. So I stay at peace because I talk. Tete-a-tetes are talk. Shop is talk. Parties are parades of anecdotes, gossip, opinion, raillery, and reportage. There is sometimes a band and we have to shout. Out of an incredibly complex gabble, how wonderfully clever of me to hear so immediately my own name; yet at my quiet breakfast table, I may be unwilling, and thus unable, to hear a thing my wife says. When wives complain that romance has fled from their marriage, they mean their husbands have grown quiet and unresponsive as moss. Taciturnity – long, lovely word – it is a famous tactic. As soon as two people decide they have nothing more to talk about, everything should be talked out. Silence shields no passion. Only the mechanical flame is sputterless and silent.

Like a good husband, then, I tell my wife what went on through the day – in the car, on the courts, at the office. Well, perhaps I do not tell her allthat went on, perhaps I give her a slightly sanitized account. I tell my friends how I fared in New York, and of the impatient taxi which honked me through the streets. I tell my students the substance of what they should have read. I tell my children how it used to be (it was better), and how I was a hero (of a modest sort, of course) in the Great War, moving from fact to fiction within the space of a single word. I tell my neighbors pleasant lies about the beauty of their lawns and dogs and vandalizing tykes, and in my head I tell the whole world where to get off.

Those who have reputations as great conversationalists are careful never to let anyone else open a mouth. Like Napoleons, they first conquer, then rule, the entire space of speech around them. Jesus preached. Samuel Johnson bullied. Carlyle fulminated. Bucky Fuller drones. Wittgenstein thought painfully aloud. But Socrates talked … hazardously, gayly, amorously, eloquently, religiously … he talked with wit, with passion, with honesty; he asked; he answered; he considered; he debated; he entertained; he made of his mind a boulevard before there was even a France.

I remember – I contain a past – partly because my friends and family allow me to repeat and polish my tales, tall as they sometimes are, like the stalk Jack climbed to encounter the giant. Shouldn’t I be able to learn from history how to chronicle my self? “Every man should be so much an artist,” again Emerson said, “that he could report in conversation what had befallen him.” Words befell Emerson often. He made speeches on occasions like this one, and until his mind changed, he always meant what he said. Frequently his mind changed before he reached any conclusion. In his head his heart turned to look about and saw the other side.

Talk, of course, is not always communication. It is often just a buzz, the hum the husband makes when he’s still lit, but the station’s gone off. We can be bores as catastrophic as quakes, causing even the earth to yawn. Talk can be cruel and injurious to a degree which is frightening; the right word wrongly used can strike a man down like a club, turn a heart dark forever, freeze the feelings; nevertheless, while the thief is threatening to take our money or our life, he has yet to do either; and while Sadat and Carter and Begin talk, while talk mediates a strike, or weighs an allegation in the press or in committee, or considers a law in congress or argues a crime in court; while a spouse gripes, or the con man cons, while ideas are explained to a point beyond opacity by the prof; then it’s not yet the dreadful day of the exam, no one has lost their nest egg or filed for divorce, sentence has not been passed, the crime has not yet occurred, the walkout, or the war. It may sound like a balk, a hitch in the motion, a failure to follow through, but many things recommend talk, not least its rich and wandering rhymes.

Our thoughts tend to travel like our shadow in the morning walking west, casting their outline just ahead of us so that we can see and approve, or amend and cancel, what we are about to say. It is the only rehearsal our conversation usually gets; but that is one reason we fall upon cliche as if it were a sofa and not a sword; for we have rehearsed “good morning,” and “how are you?” and “have a nice day,” to the place where the tongue is like a stale bun in the mouth; and we have talked of Tommy’s teeth and our cold car’s stalling treachery, of our slobby dog’s affection and Alice’s asthma and Hazel’s latest honeybunny, who, thank god, is only black and not gay like her last one; we have emptied our empty jars over one another like slapstick comics through so many baggy-panted performances we can now dream of Cannes and complain of Canada with the same breath we use to spit an olive in a napkin, since one can easily do several thoughtless things at once – in fact, one ought; and indeed it is true that prefab conversation frees the mind, yet rarely does the mind have a mind left after these interconnected cliches have conquered it; better to rent rooms to hooligans who will only draw on the walls and break the furniture; for our Gerberized phrases touch nothing; they keep the head hollow by crowding out thought; they fill all the chairs with buttocks like balloons; they are neither fed nor feed; they drift like dust; they refuse to breathe.

We forget sometimes that we do live with ourselves – worse luck most likely – as well as within. The head we inhabit is a haunted house. Nevertheless, we often ignore our own voice when it speaks to us: “Remember me,” the spirit says, “I am your holy ghost.” But we are bored by our own baloney. Why otherwise would we fall in love if not to hear that same sweet hokum from another? Still, we should remember that we comprise true Siamese twins, fastened by language and feeling, wed better than any bed; because when we talk to ourselves we divide into the self which is all ear and the self which is all mouth. Yet which one of us is which? Does the same self do most of the talking while a second self soaks it up, or is there a real conversation?

Frequently we put on plays like a producer: one voice belongs to sister, shrill and intrepidly stupid; a nephew has another (he wants a cookie); the boss is next – we’ve cast him as a barnyard bully; and then there is a servant or a spouse, crabby and recalcitrant. All speak as they are spoken through; each runs around in its role like a caged squirrel, while an audience we also invent (patient, visible, too easily pleased) applauds the heroine or the hero because of the way they’ve righted wrongs like an avenging angel, answered every challenge like a Lancelot, every question like Ann Landers, and met every opportunity like a perfect Romeo, every romance like a living doll. If we really love the little comedy we’ve constructed, it’s likely to have a long run.

Does it really matter how richly and honestly and well we speak? What is our attitude toward ourselves; what tone do we tend to take? Consider Hamlet, a character who escapes his circumstances and achieves greatness despite the fact his will wavers or he can’t remember his father’s ghost. He certainly doesn’t bring it off because he has an Oedipus complex (we are all supposed to have that); but because he talks to himself more beautifully than anyone else ever has. Consider his passion, his eloquence, his style, his range: “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” he exclaims; “now could I drink hot blood,” he brags; “to be or not to be,” he wonders; “O,” he hopes, “that this too too solid flesh would melt,” and he complains that all occasions do inform against him. For our part, what do we do? do we lick our own hand and play the spaniel? do we whine and wheedle or natter like a ninny? Can we formulate our anger in a righteous phrase, or will we be reduced to swearing like a soldier? All of us are dramatists, but how will we receive our training? Where can we improve upon the puerile theatricals of our parents, if not here among the plays and perils of Pirandello and the dialogues of Plato (among the many glories of the letter “P” – “peachtree” and “pulchritude,” “philosophy” and “friendship”), the operas of Puccini and the follies of the faculty?

If we think awareness is like water purling gaily in its stream, we have been listening to the wrong James, for our consciousness is largely composed of slogans and signs, of language of one kind or other: we wake to an alarm; we read the weather by the brightness of a streak on the ceiling, the mood of our lover by the night’s cramp still clenched in her morning body; our trembling tells us we’re hung over; we wipe ourselves with a symbol of softness, push an ad around over our face; the scale rolls up a number which means “overweight,” and the innersoles of our shoes say “hush!” Thus, even if we haven’t uttered a word, we’ve so far spent the morning reading. Signs don’t stream. They may straggle, but they mostly march. Language allies itself with order. Even its fragments suggest syntax, wholeness, regularity, though many of us are ashamed to address ourselves in complete sentences. Rhetorically structured paragraphs seem pretentious to us, as if, to gaze at our image in a mirror, we had first to put on a tux; and this means that everything of real importance, every decision which requires care, thoughtful analysis, emotional distance, and mature judgment, must be talked out with someone else – a consequence we can’t always face, with its attendant arguments, embarrassments, counterclaims, and lies. To think for yourself – not narrowly, but rather as a mind – you must be able to talk to yourself: well, openly, and at length. You must come in from the rain of requests and responses. You must take and employ your time as if it were your life. And that side of you which speaks must be prepared to say anything so long as it is so – is seen so, felt so, thought so – and that side of you which listens must be ready to hear horrors, for much of what is so is horrible – horrible to see, horrible to feel, horrible to consider. But at length, and honestly – that is not enough. To speak well to oneself … to speak well we must go down as far as the bucket can be lowered. Every thought must be thought through from its ultimate cost back to its cheap beginnings; every perception, however profound and distant, must be as clear and easy as the moon; every desire must be recognized as a relative and named as fearlessly as Satan named his angels; finally, every feeling must be felt to its bottom where the bucket rests in the silt and water rises like a tower around it. To talk to ourselves well requires, then, endless rehearsals – rehearsals in which we revise, and the revision of the inner life strikes many people as hypocritical; but to think how to express some passion properly is the only way to be possessed by it, for unformed feelings lack impact, just as unfelt ideas lose weight. So walk around unrewritten, if you like. Live on broken phrases and syllable gristle, telegraphese and film reviews. No one will suspect … until you speak.

There are kinds and forms of this inner speech. Many years ago, when my eldest son was about fourteen, I was gardening alongside the house one midday in mid-May, hidden as it happened between two bushes I was pruning, when Richard came out of the house in a hurry to return to school following lunch, and like a character in a French farce, skulking there, I overheard him talking to himself. “Well, racing fans, it looks … it looks like the question we’ve all been asking is about to be answered, because HERE COMES RICHARD GASS OUT OF THE PITS NOW! He doesn’t appear to be limping from that bad crash he had at the raceway yesterday – what a crash that was! – and he is certainly going straight for his car … what courage! … yes, he is getting into his car … not a hesitation … yes, he is going to be off in a moment for the track … yes –” and then he went, peddling out of my hearing, busily broadcasting his life. 

My son’s consciousness, in that moment, was not only thoroughly verbal (although its subject was the Indy 500, then not too many days away, and although he could still see the street he would ride on), it had a form: that given to his language and its referents by the radio sportscaster. Richard’s body was, in effect, on the air; his mind was in the booth “upstairs,” while his feelings were doubtless mixed in with his audience, both at home and in the stands. He was being seen, and heard, and spoken of, atthe same time.

Later this led me to wonder whether we all didn’t have fashions and forms in which we talked to ourselves; whether some of these might be habits of the most indelible sort, the spelling out of our secret personality; and, finally, whether they might not vitally influence the way we spoke to others, especially in our less formal moments – in bed, at breakfast, at the thirteenth tee. I recognized at once that this was certainly true of me; that although I employed many modes, there was one verbal form which had me completely in its grip the way Baron Munchhausen was held in his own tall tales, or the Piers Plowman poet in his lovely alliteration. If Richard’s was that of the radio broadcast, mine was that of the lecture. I realized that when I woke in the morning, I rose from bed only to ask the world if it had any questions. I was, almost from birth, and so I suppose by “bottom nature,” what Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound – a village explainer – which, she said, was all right if you were a village, but if not, not; and sooner than sunrise I would be launched on an unvoiced speechification on the art of internal discourse, a lecture I have given many times, though rarely aloud.

I have since asked a number of people, some from very different backgrounds, what shape their internal talk took, and found, first of all, that they agreed to the important presence of these forms, and that one type did tend to dominate the others: it was often broadcasting – never the lecture – though I once encountered a sermon and several prayers; it frequently took place in the courtroom where one was conducting a fearless prosecution or a triumphant defense; it was regularly the repetition of some pattern of parental exchange, a rut full of relatives and preconditioned response; the drama appeared to be popular, as well as works of pornography, though, in this regard, there were more movies shown than words said – a pity, both modes need such improvement; monologues such as Browning might have penned: the vaunt, the threat, the keen, the kvetch, the eulogy for yourself when dead; there was even the bedtime story, the diary, the chronicle, and, of course, the novel, gothic in character, or at least full of intrigue and suspense: Little did William Gass realize when he rose that gentle May morning to thump his chest and touch his toes that he would soon be embarked on an adventure whose endless ramifications would utterly alter his life; otherwise he might not have set out for the supermarket without a list; otherwise he might not have done that extra push-up; he might better have stayed in bed with the bedclothes pulled thickly over his stupidly chattering head.

Yet I should like to suggest (despite the undeniable sappiness of it) that the center of the self, itself, is this secret, obsessive, often silly, nearly continuous voice – the voice that is the surest sign we are alive; and that one fundamental function of language is the communication with this self which it makes feasible; and that, if the university has done its work, you are a bit nearer than you were before to being one of the few fortunates who have made rich and beautiful the great conversation which constitutes our life.

Everywhere here in this Quad, everywhere along the long lines of listening chairs – like a choir before bursting into song – there is the silent murmur of us all, our glad, our scrappy, rude, grand, small talk to ourselves, the unheard hum of our humanity; without which – think of it! – we might not be awake; without which – imagine it! – we might not be alive; since while we speak we live up there above our bodies in the mind, and there is hope as long as we continue to talk; so long as we continue to speak, to search for eloquence even over happiness or sympathy in sorrow, even if all that is left to us is the omitted outcry, Christ’s query, the silent shout: “My God, my God, why have you left me alone?”

© 1979, 1984, and 1985 by William Gass

“We All Breathe The Same Air”

John F. Kennedy

American University, Washington, D.C. USA

JUNE 10, 1963

John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960. After less than three years in office he was assassinated as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas. Kennedy wished to resume the mission of Woodrow Wilson to encourage a revolution in human rights, not just within the United States but for the entire planet. Further, growing up in the shadow of the 2nd World War and the Cold War, he intensely aspired to “a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion.” 


President Anderson, members of the faculty, board of trustees, distinguished guests, my old colleague, Senator Bob Byrd, who has earned his degree through many years of attending night law school, while I am earning mine in the next 30 minutes, ladies and gentlemen.

It is with great pride that I participate in this ceremony of the American University, sponsored by the Methodist Church, founded by Bishop John Fletcher Hurst, and first opened by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. This is a young and growing university, but it has already fulfilled Bishop Hurst’s enlightened hope for the study of history and public affairs in a city devoted to the making of history and the conduct of the public’s business. By sponsoring this institution of higher learning for all who wish to learn, whatever their color or their creed, the Methodists of this area and the nation deserve the nation’s thanks, and I commend all those who are today graduating.

Professor Woodrow Wilson once said that every man sent out from a university should be a man of this nation as well as a man of his time, and I am confident that the men and women who carry the honor of graduating from this institution will continue to give from their lives, from their talents, a high measure of pubic service and public support.

“There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university,” wrote John Masefield in his tribute to English universities – and his words are equally true today. He did not refer to spires and towers, to campus greens and ivied walls. He admired the splendid beauty of the university, he said, because it was “a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see.”

For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

I have therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived – yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.

What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children  –  not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.

Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles – which can only destroy and never create – is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace.

I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war – and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.

Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament – and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude  –  as individuals and as a nation  –  for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward – by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.

First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams, but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace, no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems.

With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor; it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.

So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.

Second: Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union. It is discouraging to think that their leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write. It is discouraging to read a recent authoritative Soviet text on military strategy and find, on page after page, wholly baseless and incredible claims, such as the allegation that “American imperialist circles are preparing to unleash different types of wars…that there is a very real threat of a preventive war being unleashed by American imperialists against the Soviet Union…[and that] the political aims of the American imperialists are to enslave economically and politically the European and other capitalist countries..[and]to achieve world domination…by means of aggressive wars.”

Truly, as it was written long ago: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” Yet it is sad to read these Soviet statements, to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning, a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements, in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.

Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland, a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.

Today, should total war ever break out again, no matter how, our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. And even in the cold war, which brings burdens and dangers to so many nations, including this nation’s closest allies, our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counter weapons.

In short, both the United Sates and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours; and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.

So, let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

Third: Let us reexamine our attitude toward the cold war, remembering that we are not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points. We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last 18 years been different.

We must, therefore, persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us. We must conduct our affairs in such a way that it becomes in the Communists’ interest to agree on a genuine peace. Above all, while defending our own vital interest, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy, or of a collective death-wish for the world.

To secure these ends, America’s weapons are non provocative, carefully controlled, designed to deter, and capable of selective use. Our military forces are committed to peace and disciplined in self-restraint. Our diplomats are instructed to avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility.

For we can seek a relaxation of tension without relaxing our guard. And, for our part, we do not need to use threats to prove that we are resolute. We do not need to jam foreign broadcasts out of fear our faith will be eroded. We are unwilling to impose our system on any unwilling people, but we are willing and able to engage in peaceful competition with any people on earth.

Meanwhile, we seek to strengthen the United Nations, to help solve its financial problems, to make it a more effective instrument for peace, to develop it into a genuine world security system, a system capable of resolving disputes on the basis of law, of insuring the security of the large and the small, and of creating conditions under which arms can finally be abolished.

At the same time we seek to keep peace inside the non-Communist world, where many nations, all of them our friends, are divided over issues which weaken Western unity, which invite Communist intervention or which threaten to erupt into war. Our efforts in West New Guinea, in the Congo, in the Middle East, and in the Indian subcontinent, have been persistent and patient despite criticism from both sides. We have also tried to set an example for others, by seeking to adjust small but significant differences with our own closest neighbors in Mexico and Canada.

Speaking of other nations, I wish to make one point clear. We are bound to many nations by alliances. Those alliances exist because our concern and theirs substantially overlap. Our commitment to defend Western Europe and West Berlin, for example, stands undiminished because of the identity of our vital interests. The United States will make no deal with the Soviet Union at the expense of other nations and other peoples, not merely because they are our partners, but also because their interests and ours converge.

Our interests converge, however, not only in defending the frontiers of freedom, but in pursuing the paths of peace. It is our hope  –  and the purpose of allied policy  –  to convince the Soviet Union that she, too, should let each nation choose its own future, so long as that choice does not interfere with the choices of others. The Communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today. For there can be no doubt that, if all nations could refrain from interfering in the self-determination of others, the peace would be much more assured.

This will require a new effort to achieve world law, a new context for world discussions. It will require increased understanding between the Soviets and ourselves. And increased understanding will require increased contact and communication. One step in this direction is the proposed arrangement for a direct line between Moscow and Washington, to avoid on each side the dangerous delays, misunderstandings, and misreadings of the other’s actions which might occur at a time of crisis.

We have also been talking in Geneva about other first-step measures of arms control designed to limit the intensity of the arms race and reduce the risks of accidental war. Our primary long range interest in Geneva, however, is general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages, permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms. The pursuit of disarmament has been an effort of this government since the 1920’s. It has been urgently sought by the past three administrations. And however dim the prospects are today, we intend to continue this effort, to continue it in order that all countries, including our own, can better grasp what the problems and possibilities of disarmament are.

The only major area of these negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security. It would decrease the prospects of war. Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort or the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards.

I am taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions in this regard.

First: Chairman Khrushchev, Prime Minister Macmillan, and I have agreed that high-level discussions will shortly begin in Moscow looking toward early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Our hope must be tempered with the caution of history, but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind.

Second: To make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on the matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not be the first to resume. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament, but I hope it will help us achieve it.

Finally, my fellow Americans let us examine our attitude toward peace and freedom here at home. The quality and spirit of our own society must justify and support our efforts abroad. We must show it in the dedication of our own lives, as many of you who are graduating today will have an opportunity to do, by serving without pay in the Peace Corps abroad or in the proposed National Service Corps here at home.

But wherever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together. In too many of our cities today, the peace is not secure because freedom is incomplete.

It is the responsibility of the executive branch at all levels of government  –  local, state, and national  –  to provide and protect that freedom for all of our citizens by all means within our authority. It is the responsibility of the legislative branch at all levels, wherever the authority is not now adequate, to make it adequate. And it is the responsibility of all citizens in all sections of this country to respect the rights of others and respect the law of the land.

All this is not unrelated to world peace. “When a man’s way pleases the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights  –  the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation, the right to breathe air as nature provided it, the right of future generations to a healthy existence.

While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both. No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion. But it can  –  if it is sufficiently effective in its enforcement and if it is sufficiently in the interests of its signers  –  offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race.

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough, more than enough, of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we must labor on, not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace. 

“The thing is, the measure”

Frost, the most famous of American poets, once described himself as “half-poet, half-farmer, half teacher.”


Robert Frost

Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York USA


To the graduating class I address myself to, I want to say first how much I admire you  –  from here. And I admire you for more than I see. I admire you for having completed a four-year plan, and I admire anybody or any nation that can complete one. I never could do that. I am too impatient. If I could complete a four-year plan, I would write an epic for you. I never succeeded in writing an epic. I lose my interest.

And I want to say, after praising you that way, I want to say what I expect of you. From what I know this college, what I have learned through the years and what I learned last night and this morning about you, I expect a good deal. I was relieved to hear it said in so many words that you weren’t expected to go on thinking that learning was all. Piling up knowledge is as bad as piling up money, indefinitely. You were expected at some point, or earlier  –  had been expected here earlier  –  to begin to kick around what you know.

The word “freedom” is on everybody’s lips. I never have valued any liberty conferred on me particularly. I value myself on the liberties I take, and I have learned to appreciate the word “unscrupulous”. I am not a sticker at trifles. If I wrote the history of the world in jail like Nehru 20 years ago, I would expect to take many liberties with the story. I should expect to bend the story the way I wanted it to go somewhat. There’s a certain measure of unscrupulousness in it. I find the same thing in good scientists. An unscrupulous person for me in science, history or literature is a person doesn’t stick at trifles.

Now the freedom that I am asked to think about sometimes is the freedom to speak, to speak out  –  academic and in the press, newspapers, from the platform like this. I say I have the right to tell anything, to talk about anything I am smart enough to find out about. Second, I am free to talk about anything I am deep enough to understand, and third, I am free to talk about anything I have the ability to talk about.  The limitations on my freedom, you see, are more in myself than anywhere else.

The ability to find out, the ability to understand, the ability to express. But now that you have had more of that freedom here  –  and I complement you on that  –  then you get in most colleges, you have reached the point of sweeping thoughts, sweeping thoughts like Toynbee’s when he writes about the history of the world  –  you know, he leaves Vermont out  –  unscrupulous! But he has his points to make, and the point is the great thing, and there is the courage. There is no time when I talk or when you talk when we ought not to introduce ourselves with the expression, “I make bold to say.” And making bold to say means leaving out what you don’t want  –  no lies; that is corruption. But leave out what you don’t want to say.

From now on what I expect of you is more than this. Freedom has already been inculcated to help you understand freedom. But I expect more than this. I expect that you have picked up in these years of your growth and here at college  –  not only here at college but in the world  –  some interests, say four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten  –  I don’t know  –  main ones, chief ones. For instance you are probably interested in the immortality of the soul, and you are interested in this subject of corruption in our affairs, the corruption that comes a good deal from the vastness of our population. You are interested in education. Now those interests lead you not to uncertainty. I want you to treat them  –  I am coming to the chief one  –  I want you to treat them as knitting you keep to pick up at odd moments in the rest of your lives. Not just to pick up with uncertainty, but to pick up to knit, to have ideas about. Not to opinionate about, but to have ideas about. That’s something more.

Let me tell you about what I mean. Opinion is just pro and con, having your nose counted. I don’t believe that women can write philosophy, and somebody says to me, “why do you believe that?” Well, I believe that if I have an idea about it; it isn’t just an opinion. I can’t leave it that way. I believe it because no woman in the whole world’s history has ever made a name for herself in philosophy. It just occurred to me the other day. I pick up the question of feminism and anti-feminism as one piece of knitting that I do something with every little while. I did a little knitting about that the other day.

Now the immortality of the soul, for instance. I pick up that one every so often. Is there a hereafter? Am I thinking about a hereafter? Is a hereafter more to me than the present? And so on. Am I so interested in the hereafter that I have no interest in any reform that is going on education?

You, of course, would first prefer to think, to have the idea yourselves. I judge that from the kind of education you had. I myself would. I am very selfish that way. I would rather think, have an idea myself, than have an idea given to me. Second to my selfishness there is an unselfishness I sometimes have, so I’ll pay attention to what somebody else says to me, as you are asked to listen to me now. But the main thing is to think of it first myself.

Now there is a word we’ve had that goes wrong. I don’t know whether you have encountered it or not. The word is, “the dream”. I wonder how much you have encountered it? I have it thrown in my face every little while, and always by somebody who thinks the dream has not yet come true. And then the next time I pick it up to knit, I wonder what the dream is, or why. And the next time I pick it up, I wonder who dreamed it. Did Tom Paine dream it, did Thomas Jefferson dream it, did George Washington dream it? Gouverneur Morris? And lately I’ve decided the best dreamer of it was Madison. I have been reading the Federalist papers.

But anyway I’m always concerned with the question, it is a dream that’s gone by?  Each age is a dream that is dying they say, or one that is coming to birth. It depends on what you mean by an age. Is the age over in which that dream had its existence  –  has it gone by? Can we treat the Constitution as if it were something gone by? Can we interpret it out of existence? By calling it a living document, it means something different every day, something new every day, until it doesn’t mean anything that it meant to Madison. And this thought occurred to me the other day when I picked it up. Has the dream, instead of having come true, has it done something that the witches talk about? Has it simply materialized?

Young writers that I know, novelists that I know, began as poets, most of them. They began more ethereal than substantial, and have ended up more substantial than ethereal. And is that what has happened to our country  –  has the ethereal idealism of the founders materialized into something too material? In South America this last year at a convention I heard everybody regretting, or fearing or worrying about our materialism. Not for our own sake, but for their sake, because we were misleading them into a material future for the whole world, and anxiety for us. I told him we were anxious about that too. We have scales in our bathrooms to see how material we are getting.

Now I think what I want to say to you is  –  the first thing is that women have not been philosophers. They have been too wise to be philosophers. They have the wisdom of all such sayings as, “misery loves company” or “we all must eat our peck of dirt.” That is just a figurative way of saying we must all be a little  –  but I won’t say that. Or else, in California I learned to say we all must eat our pack of gold. That means we all must get a little rich…the country must get rich, and we must not fear that.

Now I know  –  I think I know, as of today  –  what Madison’s dream was. It was just a dream of a new land to fulfill with people in self-control. In self-control. That is all through his thinking. And let me say that again to you. To fulfill this land  –  a new land  –  with people in self-control. And do I think that dream has failed? Has come to nothing, or has materialized too much? It is always the fear. We live in constant fear, of course. To cross the road, we live in fear of cars. But we can live in fear if we want to of too much education, too little education, too much of this, too little of that. But the thing is, the measure.

I am always relieved when I am introduced, when something has happened before me when I see someone making motions like this [gesture of conducting a chorus] like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness, measure in unselfishness. Measure in selfishness. My selfishness is in being the one to think of it first, and is only just a little ahead of my unselfishness in listening to someone else who thinks of it ahead of me. But first comes the selfishness of being the one to think of it, and to take the liberty.

Now I thought I would say a poem to you, a poem about what Madison may have thought. This is called, “The Gift Outright” and it is my story of the Revolutionary war. My story of the Revolutionary war might be about two little battles. One little battle called King’s Mountain and another little battle called Bennington  –  but I’ll leave battles out and give you the abstract. 

                The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

…the dream was to occupy the land with character  –  that’s another way to put it  –  to occupy a new land with characte

You must have these interests that you keep to knit. And you must not live in uncertainly about anything like that  –  just with no ideas at all about them. That’s what I call to be a Dover beach-comber  –  to wish the long uncertainty would end. It isn’t that uncertainty; it’s getting forward. Every time you have a fresh idea in the knitting, that knits; it’s strengthening. It is life. It is courage.

And just to get away from all that, I am going to say a poem called “Birches”  –  for whatever it means. I interpreted the other one, but this goes uninterpreted. 


When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows—

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

…and that is not an escape poem, that is a retreat poem.


“What Must Be Done?”

George C. Marshall

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

JUNE 5, 1947


This is the speech in which the former Secretary of State outlined a program of economic assistance to war-torn Europe. Mr Marshall is the only professional soldier ever to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Read the story of the speech “Harvard Hears of the Marshall Plan” published in the May 4, 1962, The Crimson Review and letters from Marshall’s escort, Harvard Law Professor E. M. Morgan, and Laird Bell, President of the Alumni Association, who selected Marshall as the speaker. Or read a rhetorical analysis of the speech that reveals how the carefully crafted Marshall Plan Speech appealed to different audiences – “George C. Marshall at Harvard: A study of the Origins and Construction of the “Marshall Plan” Speech,” by Ferald J. Bryan (With permission: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)


Mr. President, Dr. Conant, members of the Board of Overseers, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I’m profoundly grateful and touched by the great distinction and honor and great compliment accorded me by the authorities of Harvard this morning. I’m overwhelmed, as a matter of fact, and I’m rather fearful of my inability to maintain such a high rating as you’ve been generous enough to accord to me. In these historic and lovely surroundings, this perfect day, and this very wonderful assembly, it is a tremendously impressive thing to an individual in my position.

But to speak more seriously, I need not tell you the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people. I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation. Furthermore, the people of this country are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend the plight and consequent reactions of the long-suffering peoples of Europe, and the effect of those reactions on their governments in connection with our efforts to promote peace in the world.

In considering the requirements for the rehabilitation of Europe, the physical loss of life, the visible destruction of cities, factories, mines and railroads was correctly estimated, but it has become obvious during recent months that this visible destruction was probably less serious than the dislocation of the entire fabric of European economy. For the past ten years conditions have been abnormal. The feverish preparation for war and the more feverish maintenance of the war effort engulfed all aspects of national economies. Machinery has fallen into disrepair or is entirely obsolete. Under the arbitrary and destructive Nazi rule, virtually every possible enterprise was geared into the German war machine. Long-standing commercial ties, private institutions, banks, insurance companies, and shipping companies disappeared through loss of capital, absorption through nationalization, or by simple destruction.

In many countries, confidence in the local currency has been severely shaken. The breakdown of the business structure of Europe during the war was complete. Recovery has been seriously retarded by the fact that two years after the close of hostilities a peace settlement with Germany and Austria has not been agreed upon. But even given a more prompt solution of these difficult problems, the rehabilitation of the economic structure of Europe quite evidently will require a much longer time and greater effort than had been foreseen.

There is a phase of this matter which is both interesting and serious. The farmer has always produced the foodstuffs to exchange with the city dweller for the other necessities of life. This division of labor is the basis of modern civilization. At the present time it is threatened with breakdown. The town and city industries are not producing adequate goods to exchange with the food-producing farmer. Raw materials and fuel are in short supply. Machinery is lacking or worn out. The farmer or the peasant cannot find the goods for sale which he desires to purchase. So the sale of his farm produce for money, which he cannot use, seems to him an unprofitable transaction. He, therefore, has withdrawn many fields from crop cultivation and is using them for grazing. He feeds more grain to stock and finds for himself and his family an ample supply of food, however short he may be on clothing and the other ordinary gadgets of civilization. Meanwhile, people in the cities are short of food and fuel, and in some places approaching the starvation levels.

So the governments are forced to use their foreign money and credits to procure these necessities abroad. This process exhausts funds which are urgently needed for reconstruction. Thus a very serious situation is rapidly developing which bodes no good for the world. The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down.

The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products – principally from America – are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character.

The remedy seems to lie in breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole. The manufacturer and the farmer throughout wide areas must be able and willing to exchange their product for currencies, the continuing value of which is not open to question.

Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.

Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation, I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us (applause). Furthermore, governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the oppositions of the United States (applause).

It is already evident that, before the United States government can proceed much further in its efforts to alleviate the situation and help start the European world on its way to recovery, there must be some agreement among the countries of Europe as to the requirements of the situation and the part those countries themselves will take in order to give proper effect to whatever action might be undertaken by this government. It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for our government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans. The initiative, I think, must come from Europe. The role of this country should consist of friendly aid in the drafting of the European program and of later support of such a program so far as it may be practical for us to do so. The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all, European nations.

An essential part of any successful action on the part of the United States is an understanding on the part of the people of America of the character of the problem and the remedies to be applied. Political passion and prejudice should have no part. With foresight, and a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country, the difficulties I have outlined can and will be overcome (applause).

I am sorry that on each occasion I have said something publicly in regard to our international situation, I’ve been forced by the necessities of the case to enter into rather technical discussions. But to my mind, it is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment. As I said more formally a moment ago, we are remote from the scene of these troubles. It is virtually impossible at this distance merely by reading, or listening, or even seeing photographs and motion pictures, to grasp at all the real significance of the situation. And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment. It hangs, I think, to a large extent on the realization of the American people, of just what are the various dominant factors. What are the reactions of the people? What are the justifications of those reactions? What are the sufferings? What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done?

Thank you very much.

“Eternal Resilience”

William Allen White 

Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois USA

JUNE 20 (?), 1936

For half a century, William Allen White had something to say on virtually every topic that had anything to do with Kansas or the United States. He grew up in Kansas and bought the Emporia Gazette in 1895. Thereafter until his death in 1944 he wrote countless editorials as well as articles and books that earned him the title of the “Sage of Emporia.” Yet one of his most lasting pieces dealt not with politics or business but was written as a eulogy to his daughter, Mary, who died in 1921 at the age of seventeen after she was knocked from a horse by an overhanging tree branch. Telling of her zest for life, her interests, her friends, Mr. White created an unforgettable portrait of a young girl, forever vibrant and forever young.


About all that a commencement orator can do for his auditors is to turn their faces around. He looks back upon the world as he thinks it was. Then he considers the world as he thinks it is. Finally in his receding perspective he discloses the pictured phantasm which he hopes will be the future. Thereupon his young listeners may see mirrored in the gloss of his picture the world which they think they will make. It is a pleasant exercise.

This commencement oratory which floods our land every June may be an effective anesthetic which youth may take at its second birth, out of the solid, unyielding, factual environment of childhood and of books, out of the substantial fabric of the curriculum with its sure reward of grade, class standing, and satisfying compensation into the bewildering, hazy, and altogether ironic mockeries that we call, in humorous euphony, real life.

I stand here tiptoeing near the end of my three score years and ten. There you sit across an abysm scarcely fifty feet wide but deeper than the distance to the moon. I come out of one dream world that is memory. You go into a visionary world that is hope. I tell you of the things that I imagine are true in my world. You hold in your hearts the picture of your world that shall be. We dwell on these two different planets. How can I hope to get across the chasm of time and space any hint, even a flickering shadow of my truth that will reach your hearts? For my world seemed to be a static world when I stood fifty years ago where you stand now. My forebears since Caesar’s day had not greatly changed the tools with which they made their clothes, got their goods, built their houses; nor had they changed greatly in those twenty centuries the philosophy upon which they erected their future. Today you look back upon a world that has moved so far in one hundred years that nothing you see and feel, touch and taste, hope, believe, and love is as it was when your grandfathers learned from their grandfathers how to live in another day. So what may have some bearing, though heaven only knows what, upon you lives. Perhaps I can tell you something, and being called here, I shall try…

We know we have not done God’s work perfectly. The world we have made out of the inheritance of our grandfathers is a pretty sad botch. It is full of gross injustices. Obviously a couple of centuries of hard work needs to be done on it before America is turned out, finished in its millennial beauty. But with all these inequities, the old thing does hold together. We turn our country over to you in one piece – which is something. Even if it isn’t a pretty piece, it is yours, with its spiritual hereditaments. And may I be pardoned the vanity of one who worked on the job if I try to give you some idea of what has held this nation in unity during a century and a half when in many other parts of the globe races and tongues and economic units have been breaking into small states, magnifying nationalism into a vice.

Today, as never before, nationalism in small geographical areas is pulling men into bitter disunion and controversy. Some flame of envy and rancor is abroad in the world. We see it moving across the face of Europe in various tyrannies, each exalting its own nationalism, each challenging liberty in its own way – Italy under fascism, Germany under the Nazis, Russia under communism, Spain boiling with confusion, while the two principles of dictatorship, that of the plutocracy and that of the proletariat, struggle for possession of that brave land. These isms are types of one pestilence which is threatening civilization. That this spiritual pestilence will attack America, no one can doubt.

How can we Americans immunize ourselves? The class of ‘37 must find out why small geographical, social racial units are erupting into a virulent nationalism that threatens western civilization. It’s your problem, esteemed descendants, but here’s a hint that might help you to solve it.

I am satisfied that the disease has its root in a lack of social faith. The thing that has bound America into one nation is tolerance – tolerance and patience; indeed, tolerance and patience upheld by a sense of duty.

At this point, dearly beloved members of the class of ‘37, I propose to reveal the screw loose in my mental processes, also to show you something of the aberration of your forebears. You have this dementia in you blood, and you might as well know it. Your fathers, mothers, and remote ancestors for several thousand years believed in the reality of duty. Upon that madness they built the world. Not that I wish to brag about it – this sense of duty – but I still hug the delirium of my generation to my heart and believe there is something in those old-fashioned eccentricities known as the Christian virtues.

Don’t get excited. I am not preaching piety. I have no plan of salvation to offer you, no theology to defend. But I feel, and my generation has believed in a general way, that democracy with its freedom, with its patience, with its tolerance, with its altruism, is a sort of rough attempt to institutionalize the Christian philosophy. And when I say rough, I mean rough, something like a 20 percent realization of a noble ideal.

Our American Constitution, for instance, is a national compact of our individual and of our social duties. It has worked in this country after a fashion. Yet the same Constitution, or nearly the same, has been adopted in a dozen other lands and has failed. Why has it held us to an essential unity? I am satisfied that our Constitution has stood up because Americans actually have established here a sort of code of duties. That has been the crystallizing principle that has held us together – duty of man to man, of region to region, of class to class, of race to race, of faith to faith. That duty has bred something more than neighborly tolerance. It has engendered a profound desire in very American’s heart to make life as pleasant as it may be made – not merely for himself, indeed not chiefly for himself, but for others. Thus we have found and cherished true liberty.

Liberty if it shall cement man into political unity, must be something more than a man’s conception of his rights, much more than his desire to fight for his own rights. True liberty is founded upon a lively sense of the rights of others and a fighting conviction that the rights of others must be maintained. Only when a people have this love of liberty, this militant belief in the sacredness of another man’s self respect, do races and nations posses the catalyzer in their political and social organism which produces the chemical miracle of crystallized national unity and strength.

We Americans have had it for three hundred years on this continent. It was in the blood of our fathers. It was the basis of our faith in humanity when we wrote our Constitution. It has been with us a long time on this continent – this capacity for compromise, this practical passion for social justice and for altruistic equity in settling the genuine differences of men. This high quality of mutual respect is no slight gift. It is a heroic spiritual endowment, this knack of getting along together on a continental scale.

We have set as a national custom the habit of majority rule. This custom is maintained not by arms but by a saving sense in the heart of every minority that any majority will not be puffed up, will not infringe upon the rights of the minority. Matching this duty of the majority to be fair, we have set up the component duty of the minority to be patient, but to agitate until the justice of a losing cause has convinced the winning majority. This American tradition of political adjustment cuts through every line of cleavage and all difference in our social organization – regions, classes, races, creed. Here is the way it has worked.

As our country has expanded geographically, this political genius for unity has tapped our store of certain basic virtues: neighborly forbearance, meekness, unselfishness, and that belief in the essential decency of don’ts, neighbors which, for want of a better word, we have called love. Now, in our land abideth these three: faith in our fellows, hope in the triumph of reason, and love for humanity. With all the grievous faults and glaring weaknesses of our federal union, these things are the centripetal spiritual forces which have solidified America.

These commonsense qualities which have grown out of the Beatitudes have helped to preserve the American Union for the last century and a half. Now what are you going to do about it, you who stand here at the threshold of the reality of your past, looking into the evanescent horizon of your future?

We who shall soon be petrified into pedestaled ghosts as your ancestors have a notion that you, our descendants, don’t have much use for duty, for patience, and for tolerance. We get the general idea that you have no sort of faith in the strength of the humble. Yet it is out of this lack of faith that a new challenge has appeared in the world, a challenge aimed at democracy, a challenge which scorns these lowly neighborly virtues that have held our world together. This challenge is finding its way into our American life. We are being told that the majority sometimes has emergency mandates to ignore the rights of the minorities. We have set up rulers all over earth who preach against the virtue of patience. It is a new thing in our America to hear men defending the tyrannies of Europe – communism, fascism, and the Nazis – declaring that the minority is right. It is even a stranger doctrine in America, which holds that a passing majority, by reason of its being a ballot box majority at one or two elections, has an inherent right immediately to suppress and ruthlessly destroy an honest minority.

Now, as an ancestor, let me caution you, my heirs and assigns, that these new political attitudes are symptoms of greed for power. They will fool you if you channel your thinking into narrow dialectics. Don’t take your logical premise from your class self-interest. Don’t build your logic upon a purely selfish structure. Don’t think as plutocrats. Don’t reason as members of the middle class or as proletarians. Such thinking is too sure of its own syllogisms ever to be just. Such thinking rejects the possibility that there is truth and that there may be reason in the contention of another class of society. This same discord that has torn as under so many peoples in Europe, where fifty years ago democracy seemed to be taking root, today is seeding in our land.

Capitalists are scoring labor leaders. Labor leaders are preaching distrust and hatred for capitalists. The revelations of the La Follette committee in the United States Senate now investigating the infringement of civil liberties certainly lay bare the cancer of hatred in our economic body that is poisoning our national blood. The class-conscious arrogance of wealth is creating its own class morals. Proletarian logic is justifying the use of force in class conflict and condoning cunning. The industrial enterpriser shuts his eyes to the tragedy of the farmer’s economic plight. Then the farmer envies the financier.

But I feel sure the tide will turn. You who stand here, chisel in hand, about to hew out the future, have something in you; humanity’s most precious mental gift – the eternal resilience, the everlasting bounce in man. You may love for the moment the indolent sense of futility that comes with the grand cynicism of youth. But life, experience, the hazards of your day, and time will bring out of you the courage bred into you. You will find that you have the urge that we had. You will want to believe in something in spite of yourselves. You will want to construct something. For you are the sons and daughters of a creative people, inventive, resourceful, daring. And above all, in spite of the many unpleasant things you have learned in this cloister, in spite of the hard realties that have molded your youth, you are mystics, you are crusaders, you are incorrigible visionaries in the noblest sense of these words. The eternal verities of your inheritance, the organizing brains, the industry, the noble purpose that during the nineteenth century made America a kindlier and more beautiful land than ever before was brought forth on this planet, will be beckoning you, urging you, indeed, sternly commanding you to follow whatever is fine and just in the achievement of your country.

The residuum of what I am trying to say is this: You must reorganize life in your America and point your achievement toward a fairer distributive system. Abundance is here for the taking. don’t bemoan your lost frontier. It is even now flashing on our horizon. A gorgeous land lies before you fair and more beautiful than man before has ever known. Out of the laboratory will come new processes to multiply material things for your America, to multiply them almost infinitely; but only if you will hold open the channels of free science, unfettered thought, and the right of a man to use his talents to the utmost provided he gives honest social returns for the rewards he takes.

Don’t delude yourselves about your new frontier. For on that frontier which will rise over the laboratories you will find the same struggle, the same hardships, the same inequities that your forefathers have found on every frontier since the beginning of time. You will find rapacious men trying to grab more than their share of the common bounties of the new frontier. You will find human greeds and human perfidies there as we found them fifty years ago and as our fathers found them generations upon generations before. Energetic buccaneers always thrive wherever men are pioneering. In every one of the ten long generations during which your ancestors have been conquering this continent and building a proud civilization here, they have struggled as you will struggle against the injustices of life which are bred out of the lust for power in unsocial men. But don’t let that discourage you…

And now, in closing, on behalf of your fathers who are bequeathing to you their choicest gifts, let me say that your heritage is not in these great lovely cities, not this wide and fertile land, not the mountains full of undreamed of riches. These you may find in other continents. What we leave you that is precious are the few simple virtues which have stood us in good stead in the struggle of our generation. We will and bequeath to you our enthusiasm, our diligence, our zeal for a better world, that were the lode stars of our fathers. As our legatees we assign you our tolerance, our patience, our kindness, our faith, hope, and love, which make for the self-respect of man. These qualities of heart and mind grow out of a conviction that the democratic philosophy as mode of thinking will lead mankind into a nobler way of life.