Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Great Books for What? Continuities and Challenges to the Canon

Ronne Hartfield  
Shimer College Commencement Address
May 6, 2007

My warmest greetings and congratulations to you, the Shimer graduating class of 2007,
and to those parents, friends, and teachers who have supported and sustained youthrough the years with books, computers, IPods, endless cups of coffee, and advicesought and unsought, useful and less so, though mostly worth pondering at least.

My thanks to you, dear colleagues, for such a generous introduction. When I considerthe professional journey that you just summarized, I am sometimes left to ponder its many surprising and unanticipated digressions. Since that culminating moment over a half century ago (can it really have been that long?) when I, like you students before me this afternoon, was completing arguably the most significant chapter of my education, myyears in the College of the University of Chicago, I have never ceased to value andrespect that time of deep immersion in the great ideas of western civilization. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s wonderful phrase, the arc of my education has been long, but it bends toward rightness.

It is of that rightness that I want to speak this afternoon--not the rightness of my ownpath, but of the one which lies before you, in a time that seems infinitely more complex thanthe one I approached with such eagerness in 1955, in a world that seems more fraught with terror than with optimism, in an America that holds at once more possibility and more vulnerability than my classmates and I could ever have imagined.
With all of our nation's acknowledged and unacknowledged shortcomings and failures,our mid-twentieth century America still defined itself as the world's greatest nation and much of the world agreed. Our generation had an agenda, a set of plans to address what wasn't working, and at the threshold of unprecedented scientific and technological advances, we were perhaps insufferably confident about our ability to solve whatever challenges lay ahead.Our social scientists were developing new understandings of culture, and we were rewriting earlier histories to create newer, truer and more inclusive ones. Our artists,writers, and musicians, were creating radically new images, abstract expressionism replacing impressionism and realism, disjunct harmonies replacing the smooth sureties of the past.

By the time we matured in 1976, two hundred years after the founding of this country, after Vietnam, after terrifying and tragic political assassinations, our confidence was shakier, but we were still assured by visible successes. Though still woefullyinadequate, we saw gradual advances in Civil Rights, impelled by Black demands that America hold true to its earliest principles; we saw movements for women's rights that while some may only recall them humorously as the bra burning years, they were serious and committed protests leading to the radically increasing presence of women in graduate education and in the workplace. Withal, we still held, albeit tenuously, to the early assurance that America's Great Idea, this Grand Experiment for freedom and Democracy, could be a beacon for a more promising future for the rest of the world.

And then, one year into the new millennium, the world we knew came to an end, and an unanticipated era was harshly ushered in on September 11. 2001, by those life-changing events that we refer to with awe and in appropriately harsh and truncated language, as 9/11. And, students, the ineradicably horrifying images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center under attack, disintegrating before the eyes of the whole world, remain the most powerful symbols available to us that our America, indeed the world that we had thought futilely that we knew, would not, could not ever be the same again. Thetragedy of 9/11 and its timing as a defining event coincided oddly, even eerily, with the new millennium. At the very onset of the twentieth-first century, America as a nation has been faced with realities that, although simmering for decades before, have now come forcibly to the very front of our consciousness, demanding profound redefining, reshaping, reevaluating, replanning. And you, Shimer graduates, have the humbling task of taking your place among those whose minds and skills will be called upon to assume these awesome responsibilities.

The good news is that none of this is unimaginable. We need to remember that American history, in all of its bloodiness and arrogance, is nonetheless characterized by resilience and triumph over obstacles. Your histories and mine are honored in the title of Stephen Ambrose's great document of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition that openedAmerica's path to the northwest, limned in his accurate term "Undaunted Courage."Now let me talk for a moment about why Shimer College has provided you marvelouslywith the fundaments you will need in order take your places, if not as grandscale moversand shakers, if not as "deciders," certainly as definers and shapers, of what willinevitably be this new millennial world. My confidence in you is rooted in the fact that your Shimer education has given you at least three tools for the work you are poised to engage:

FIRST: In exploring the Great Ideas that reside in the great texts of the western world, you have learned the importance of serious inquiry. In studying the archive of what might be the most significant body of classical knowledge available to us, that collective of thought and experience that has withstood the test of time; you have lived closely with the minds of writers and thinkers who were about transformation as well as formation. You have also learned that all texts must be open to reexamination in new circumstances and reinterpretation with new and wider lens, that all canons are amenable to augmentation. It is gratifying to note that your curriculum here at Shimer now comprises works by Hannah Arendt and W.E.B. DuBois, among others whose ideashave contributed measurably to present dialogues. 

SECOND: Through serious struggle with serious thought, you have learned the value ofauthentic attention. Your knowledge and insights into a past which you did not inhabitenable a thoughtful informed set of responses to issues in the world where you will now reside. If you are familiar with the classical debates between Hamilton and Jefferson, between Woodrow Wilson and Robert LaFollette, you cannot approach complex predicaments superficially, nor can you be glibly contemptuous of alternative views. Within the complexities inherent in decisions for or against a war, or when or when notto call an end to military occupation, the insights of Thucydides or Euripides should notbe overlooked.  

THIRD: With a Shimer education, you have learned to approach current ethical and moral problems from a rich context of reflection, with a permanent resource for approaching timeless questions inherent in all human experience: How does a moral person make wise choices in the midst of a society that has no consensus on such issues? How and on what basis can anyone decide when human life begins and when it should end? How and with what information does one accept scientific advances that challenge former sureties, the artificial fertilization of embryos, the use of embryonic tissue forpharmacological purposes, or at the far end of contemporary challenges, whether or not to consider human cloning, for any purposes conceivable. The spiritual struggles of St. Augustine, or those to be found in philosophical inquiries from other traditions, such as the Tao te Ching, enrich the conversation with scientific questions posed by Galileo or Linnaeus.

So. Finally. As F. Champion Ward, then Dean of the Hutchins College, once confirmed, citizens are liberated not from but through a knowledge of history, noting that those whowould move the world must first be given a place to stand. What I want to leave youwith here is an abiding respect for the learnings provided in what you will come to look upon and speak of as your Shimer years, with a commitment to take your places as leaders in any disciplines or professional fields where you choose to invest your energies.You have been given a place to stand. 

The Great Books must not be misunderstood as the keepers and protectors of any outmoded status quo. Rather, they are the raw materials for reconsiderations of everything. They are a resource for leadership that is deeper and more useful than Forbes Magazine or the Wall Street Journal. Adam Smith may provide more understanding of the positive potentials of a humanistic capitalism than does the Director of the Federal Reserve. Shakespeare may provide military insight and moral direction not readily available in the televised reports from Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Nineteenth century novels may illuminate the nearly invisible but intractable structures of social class and caste that impede affirmative action in education and the workplace. Plato can elucidate society's vague but persistent distrust of artistic freedom, and the demands torearrange our thinking made by quantum physics are less onerous if one has read Newton and Einstein first. You will be grateful - and so will the world - that you have actually read Darwin and can respond intelligently to concepts of intelligent design that exclude his seminal research. Popular books or videos that purport to expose The SECRET, with their too-simple recipes for living, should be open to informed questioning, and you need to be able to respond seriously to hackneyed questions about What Might Jesus Say.

Of course, God willing, you will be living well into this bare-begun century. And as you are livingon a sadly ailing planet, you will need all of your creativity and will to changewhat has constituted pretty comfortable ways of life. You will need to read many Great Books that have been heretofore omitted from the canon---books by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Wole Soyinka, and books by writers from all over what used to be called the Third World. And you will read Great Books as yet unwritten, perhaps even one written by a Shimer graduate. You will need to open your minds and hearts toideas and experiences from what has been called the "Runaway World." And you will becalled upon to engage all of this with moral urgency and commitment---with not onlythe right stuff but with your best stuff, with grace and grit and gravitas. As one of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, demands, know all of this, and go down the street anyway. Go down the streets of the world as it is given, respect histories already lived, and change them; make the old worlds better, make them new. My faith is in the Great Books, and in you.

Ronne Hartfield is an author, essayist, international museum consultant, and former executive director at the Art Institute of Chicago and Urban Gateways: The Center for Arts in Education. In 2004, Ms. Hartfield published Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family to critical acclaim.

1 comment:

  1. Shimer has a way of having very intellectually intense graduation ceremonies. :-)

    Thanks for posting this excellent speech!