All this news about commencement speakers being scared away or disinvited or staying the course despite adversity or giving students a tongue-lashing makes me want to return to a commencement address from an earlier time.
That time was 1956, nearly a full sixty years ago. The place was Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and the speaker was the poet Robert Frost. What he had to say to the students there may surprise you. If you want to read the whole speech, go here, but the part that I was most interested in is this portion, which I’ve condensed into short excerpts from the original:
Is our dream, our American dream—that I think Dreiser thought was “An American Tragedy”—is that dream over? Are we on a new dream?
Or is the Constitution something that isn’t performing—a sort of vanishing act, fading as we watch it, and turning into something else? When they call it “a living document,” that means they can have it any way they want it for this generation. That’s the danger…
Let me say what I’d do about it if I were you. I’d go back and read some of the “Federal Papers.” I’d go back and see whose dream it was. Plenty of time, you’ve got it all before you…
…for me the man that comes nearest what I think was the dream, that may be ours still, was Madison. In the “Federal Papers,” go to Madison and see what he thought it was going to be.
What was it going to be? Go along and think about that—using the “think” in the slang: “You’ve got another think coming.” You see? I’ve got another think coming…
I would think that Tom Paine was very little in it…I’ve read a good deal of Tom Paine, and I know a good deal of what he thought. He thought there was something started about the brotherhood of man that was going to set the whole world on fire, sweep the whole world.
So he rushed right off to France about it. And we see what came of it. They had a revolution there. And they had four republics—and not to mention three or four monarchies—since then. Their dream was a very confused dream, if they had a dream.
Another thing that I pick up…about freedom and equality. It occurred to me not so terribly long ago—rather recently—that the more equality I have, the less freedom I have. These two things balance each other.
If one party leans a little more towards the freedom—freedom of enterprise, freedom to assert yourself, freedom to achieve, freedom to win—the other comes in with the tone of mercy and says: “Let’s not let anybody get too far ahead. Let’s have a Sherman Act or something, to keep people from getting too rich.” That’s toward the equality, the fraternity of it.
I didn’t know that for years, didn’t know that the more freedom I had, the less equality I could expect—somebody’d beat me and get ahead of me if we had freedom. (I’m willing to let him get ahead of me, if he can.)…
Can you imagine any poet giving a similar commencement speech today? In fact, I can hardly imagine anyone giving a similar commencement speech today. Frost assumed a certain context for his graduating class listeners—for example, that they knew something about who Dreiser and Tom Paine and Madison might be, and he assumed that what these men said and thought might actually interest and inform them. I’m not at all sure that would be the case now.
I’ll close with one more quote from Frost, who was an educator for many years of his long long life—not just a poet, although he was certainly that, and not just a farmer, although he did that too when a young man. He was a teacher at all levels: grade school, high school, and college. He was a teacher in many places. He was a teacher when he was obscure and when he was very very famous.
Here’s what he had to say about his attraction to teaching, from a lecture he gave in 1961 at the University of Minnesota:
I’m almost as interested in education as I am in poetry…I’ve had so much to do with education that I say I’m like some monkeys that Darwin tells about.
He showed them a bagful of snakes. And they looked at ’em and and shrieked and threw up their arms and fled. But they couldn’t stay away. They kept coming back and and looking in the bag at the snakes and throwing up their arms and shrieking and running away again.
That’s the way I’ve done for education, about the last fifty, sixty years—sixty, sixty-five years. And here I am again.
Frost died a little over a year later, at the age of 88.