Graduate Commencement Remarks - May 18, 2007

It is truly an honor to be invited to speak to you at WCSU’s first-ever Graduate Commencement ceremony. For decades, our graduate programs have been an important part of educational contribution this university makes to the surrounding region. We’ve prepared leaders in education, business, nursing, and health administration. More recently, we’ve branched out to create outstanding programs in the arts, in painting and illustration and in professional writing.

Throughout these years, the vast majority of our students have, like most of you, pursued degrees while working full-time, often juggling family, work and school. I know what you’ve gone through — how many family gatherings, soccer games and romantic dinners you’ve had to miss. Thus I applaud your diligence, commitment and courage in achieving your goals today. You have made it!

But I think you’ll agree that it’s also a fact that you have not flown solo on this mission. You’ve had spouses, children, family and friends who’ve supported you all the way. So, graduates, join me in recognizing them.   

You also had skillful guides on your journey, mentors who helped and inspired you, individuals who were, in some cases, literally the reason you were here. Of course I’m referring to our faculty. Colleagues, please stand. Graduates, join me in formally thanking them for their part in making today possible.

I want to address you today not just as graduates of whom we’re very proud, but also as individuals who will go forward, degrees and learning in hand, to be leaders in your professions, in your organizations and in your communities — mostly right here in what’s called the Tri-State Area, especially in Fairfield, Litchfield and Westchester Counties. 

Let’s talk a little about that area:

  • It has one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation, but persistent pockets of poverty, as a visit to places like New Haven or Bridgeport demonstrates.
  • Danbury has the lowest unemployment rate in Connecticut, but we have trouble keeping young people here because of high living costs and a lack of affordable housing.
  • We enjoy an environment of rich human diversity, yet more often we question rather than celebrate that reality.
  • The natural beauty of the Litchfield Hills, the Hudson Valley, and the Long Island Sound shore are all close by, as are the cultural marvels of New York City, marvels which people from around the world come to visit. Yet often we are discouraged from taking advantage of these by an increasingly inadequate transportation infrastructure and by unending traffic jams.

In short, here on May 18th, 2007, in Danbury, Connecticut, we find ourselves in an environment —human, economic and natural — that is fraught with paradoxes. As leaders of organizations, you’ll have to manage these paradoxes; as educators, you’ll have to explain them; as artists, you’ll want to find ways to represent and express them.  

How can you do that? Let me suggest that one way is to become paradoxical yourselves.

And let me further suggest that the very hall in which you are seated tonight brings to mind a model for such self-paradoxification:  the composer Charles Ives.

Scholars point out the paradoxes of Ives’s life, career and music.

  • Born and reared in Danbury, Ives loved small-town Connecticut, but chose to spend most of his adult life in New York.
  • A social liberal and progressive, he was also a shrewd businessman who made a fortune in insurance. In fact, he is generally considered one of the creators of what we consider modern sales training.
  • His music was difficult to classify. No one had ever put deliberately off-key popular refrains from 4th of July parades into symphonies like he did. Was this popular or classical music? The critics, who were usually unkind, could never tell.
  • Indeed, Ives’ success and musical fame were also paradoxical, for they came largely after his death. Some of his most important works were performed by full orchestras only once during his lifetime. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Charles Ives was able to do that, and in the complex, paradoxical world of the 21st century, you will need to do so as well. In so doing, you might try to endeavor to be “Ivesian” (a term coined by Ives’s biographer Jan Swafford).

Swafford defines what that means:

“To be Ivesian means first of all to be yourself, to keep your own counsel.”

Certainly this is good advice for anyone in any setting. And this good advice echoes across the centuries. It’s what Shakespeare meant in Hamlet when he said:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Or, much later, it’s what another poet, Bruce Springsteen, meant when he observed:  “It’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin, and can’t stand the company.”

Swafford continues:

“To be Ivesian is to be an enthusiast and a humanist, to look for the social value in things, to recognize flaws and failures without letting them cloud what is good and true.” 

The paradoxes of our daily lives, the times in which we live, and a popular media that makes its living off “flaws and failures” often make it tempting to retreat into skeptical hesitancy, or even into cynicism. 

That’s an all too easy way out — and I implore you to resist the temptation. Rather, be Ivesian. Remember what social critic H. L. Mencken said about cynics:

“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” 

Charles Ives would have not have looked for the coffin, but rather would have reminded us to be inspired by the beautiful aroma of the flowers.

Finally, “To be Ivesian is not to play it safe; it is to look for the big picture and not submit to categories … such as ‘scholarly’ or ‘popular.’ To be Ivesian is to see music and life as one story.”

It’s easy in our professionalized and credentialized society to play it safe, to rely on the categories of our own personal histories, economic status or professional training. That has worked in times past, but it may not in the century ahead. 

You will manage, guide and counsel others who will undergo numerous job and career changes, and you will no doubt participate in such change yourself. The old, comfortable categories will probably not protect anyone in this turbulent future. Ignoring the challenges of this fluid environment and avoiding the opportunities for personal growth therein will not afford you a comparative advantage for success.

Neither will simple cookbook solutions, playing it safe and avoiding the big picture, provide satisfactory responses to the important, complex forces that will affect your world in the years ahead. Forces such as dramatic advances in technology, the increasing diversity of our population, the impacts of an interconnected global economy, the implications of global climate change.

These are real challenges. They will compose of the story of what lies ahead for you all, and you will have to embrace their complexity.

But here’s the good news. The creativity, character and dedication you’ve shown in earning your graduate degrees here, often in the face of conflicting commitments and irritating distractions, demonstrate that you can hold at least two (and probably more) opposed ideas in your mind and still function very effectively. You have, in short, been Ivesian all this time without even knowing it. 

The paradoxes of our time, and of the times ahead, do indeed pose challenges. But they also pose great opportunities. You are prepared for these. Seize them!

And as you do, all of us here at WestConn will wish you every success. We will look forward to hearing about your achievements and accomplishments in the years ahead. And we will look forward as well to welcoming you back to campus.

But, for now, I’ll close with the words of the old, traditional Irish prayer:

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields
And until we meet again, May God hold 
you in the hollow of his hand
And may you be in heaven for two hours before the
Devil knows you are dead.

Graduates, Congratulations!

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