Address by Pauline Yu
An unedited transcript of Commencement 2008 remarks by Pauline Yu, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Letters.
Thank you very much, Sarah, for that lovely introduction, and thank you President Hansen, students, faculty, staff, family, friends — everyone who is here today to join this celebration. I am thrilled to be part of it.
Graduates: As you prepare to leave Bates College on this glorious Sunday morning, I have but one word of advice for you. Remember. Remember the values and habits of mind that your liberal arts education has instilled in you. I think there’s nothing more important to us and to our collective futures.
A friend of mine once observed that one purpose of a liberal arts education is to make your head a more interesting place to live inside of for the rest of your life [laughter]. Remember that you learned how to do this. You’ve seen how humans have grapple with the fundamental questions about existence, whose solutions still elude us. You’ve engaged in conversations with the intellectual and cultural traditions that have shaped the world we live in today. You have the capacity to imagine the experience of others, past and present, here and elsewhere. Cherish that ability; it’s what makes life inside your head interesting, and it is also what will make you want to do something about the world outside it.
Never forget the skeptical discontent with the world as you found it that’s fostered here at Bates. This college’s commitment to service and social change is in its DNA; and now it’s in yours. As Churchill said, “We make a living with what we get. We make a life with what we give.” Never forget that ethic of responsibility to others. This world and this planet, will not survive without it. And remember you responsibility to yourself. You’ll be faced throughout your lives with difficult decisions and moral choices, some large, some small. We define ourselves by how we respond to those moments. What are we, after all, but the sum total of those choices. As you confront the decisions that will surely assail you, remember that your liberal arts education has provided you with the capacity for inquiry, reflection, judgment and informed action that will help you to get it right.
Remember, too, what I trust you’ve also learned how to do: to take pleasure where it can be found, in the challenges and delights of analyzing an argument, a compound, a statistic, a sonnet, in the world-renowned cuisine of Commons, or in the fact that spring does eventually come to Maine. The Chinese philosopher Confucius reminds us that liking something is better than merely knowing it. And finding joy in it is better than merely liking it.
Finding joy, of course, is often as difficult as asking the tough questions or making the right choices. Whether by design or indifference, the universe often doesn’t seem to have given much thought to human happiness. But humans have nonetheless have been able to find it, and so will you.
This Commencement is the beginning, of learning what you should never forget about the past, about these years at Bates, and what they have taught you. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy has described a similar journey, the one taken by Odysseus home to his island kingdom at the end of the Trojan War. So I’ll send you off with just a few lines from his poem, “Ithaka”:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery….
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
So, bon voyage, thank you, and good luck.