May 20th, 2014

1956: Robert Frost, commencement speaker

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.

17 Responses to “1956: Robert Frost, commencement speaker”

  1. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Enjoyed both the commencement address and the U-Minn lecture excerpts.

    And no, I can’t imagine Maya Angelou saying the same things that Frost said. Since she’s the only living poet it seems we ever hear from or about.

  2. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    When I was in college during the McGovern/Nixon campaign, in the midst of the Vietnam War, at a time when campuses were closing down for protests and professors were leading students in classroom walkouts and students were feeling their power to make their presence felt in the national debate, Edward Cox — then then-brand-new husband of Nixon’s daughter Tricia — came to the campus of my college for what must have been (though I can’t remember for sure) a campaign appearance for his father-in-law. We trooped into the auditorium, about as ready-to-rumble as a gang of very young women at an ordinarily-polite all-female school can be — to see on the stage, to our surprise, not the speaker but the august dean of students, looking even more severe and forbidding than she ordinarily did, which was saying a lot. She sat us down and shushed us and gave us what amounted to a manners lesson combined with an introductory lesson in Constitutional law, advising us that she realized most of us hated every word the man was about to say, and that we had a right to do so — but that he had just as significant a right to feel and think as he did, and to say so. She said the college was committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that wasn’t just posturing: it meant that this man was going to be permitted to speak. He was not going to be interrupted, he was not going to be shouted down, he was not going to be hissed, and while we were certainly free to question him as vigorously as we chose during the time period set aside for that, she expected that we would be respectful in choosing our words. What’s more, she strongly suggested that it would be wise not just to keep quiet while he spoke, but to listen to his actual words and to consider the possibility that they might be worth hearing and that we could learn from them — even if all we learned was new reasons to disagree. Anyone, she explained, who disregarded these instructions would be promptly and politely assisted in leaving the auditorium.

    So that’s what we did; we listened. I don’t remember a word the man said. I don’t think he was terribly impressive and I doubt that he changed any minds. But I have never forgotten the words of that dean, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one who took her lesson in the values of a true university in a free society with me through life long after the particular issues of that day had lost their relevance. She wasn’t young then and by now must be long gone from that campus; it appears that her whole species is as extinct from the modern academy as though she were a dinosaur.

  3. Cornflour Says:

    This is pretty close to veering way off topic, but I’m going to use Neo’s — and Frost’s — reference to Paine to recommend Yuval Levin’s new book “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.” The book is a great example of popular intellectual history.

    On his “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Peter Robinson interviewed Levin about the book. In case anybody’s curious, here’s a link

  4. Gringo Says:

    No doubt about it, these days the lefty storm troopers would have run off Robert Frost were he to attempt to speak on a college campus.

  5. Don Carlos Says:

    Some colleges have been unremittingly Leftist for a very long time, three generations now, since the birth of Progressivism at UWisconsin in the early 1900s. As metastatic as an aggressive cancer, with the same eventual end-result. The Progs were more mannerly until established in the various social vital organs. The host may now be pre-terminal unless a great new drug comes along. Probably a lead organometallic drug.

    I had occasion once to review the list of 20th century commencement speakers at Haverford College (never mind why). I recall they were all Progressives–pacifists, social worker types, socialists, enviros, academic humanists, liberal politicians, NGO people–except one, an alumnus who had made it in business, a recognizable CEO. He declined to appear, declined his honorary degree, and doubtless did not send any dollars.

  6. T Says:

    Frost’s critiques are as pertinent today as they were 60 years ago. Nothing new under the sun.

  7. Don Carlos Says:

    The only “poets” we hear about today are not poets. Unless poetry is crap. They are syncophantic leftists, usually feminists of color. How very odd.

  8. kaba Says:

    Very good story Mrs. Whatsit. Thank you for sharing. Your dean must have been a true lady in the finest meaning of the word.

  9. Tonawanda Says:

    Hard to know what is more astonishing. The post or the subject of the post.

  10. Beverly Says:

    You lot might be interested in what George Steiner has to say about “reforming the humanities.”

    Also, wade into his book On Difficulty, and Other Essays. (A humbling experience, at least for me — he actually gives your mind a workout, of the type that used to mark the highest truly intellectual endeavours.)

    I was first twigged to him by his appearance on the old PBS Dick Cavett Show. Fascinated, I then bought his book.

    I was interested to see him referred to in Ace’s place tonight, by a Yale law professor writing about the rash of commencement cancellations:

    “The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.”

  11. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The Kids who pull this stuff think they Know Things. They think they are important by virtue of knowing what others do not. They think what they know is correct and morally superior.
    They are easily, frighteningly easily, manipulated by leftists who know the Kids are illeducated, non-thinking, and full of—themselves.
    Which manipulators, of course, include professors, who are in a great position to know how such unthinkers’ so-called cognition operates and who amplify it.

  12. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Oh, yeah. It’s a funny thing for undergrads to think; that they know stuff. Sheesh.

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    The process of forming an identity and self requires that a person compare their own individual traits with other people, to determine a difference and then make a value evaluation. By feeding the new generation a false concept of superiority and ideas, the new generation thinks they have formed their own identity and thinking processes.

    All it did was to make the slaves think they were free.

  14. Minta Marie Morze Says:

    Frost in 1956. (I was 7.) We had books of the great poetry in ages past, including a lot of Frost’s poetry, and I memorized many of his poems by copying them out by hand and safety-pinning the page to the kitchen curtain (while doing dishes) or on my blouse, upside down, so I could lift the page often and read from it when doing household chores. I’ve memorized hundred of poems this way over time—I’m 65 now—and they have always given me joy. Most of the poems I valued had been written by 1956, although there was a little bit of good poetry written after that. (For instance, I think that Gerard Van der Leun at American Digest writes great poetry.)

    Even today, people use many clichés that few recognize came from Frost: “I have miles to go before I sleep”, “the road not traveled”, “good fences make good neighbors”, and so many others.

    But it’s a fact that most of the poetry written in the past, say, forty years is ugly-minded or stupid. It breaks my heart to read the kind of poetry with which students come into contact now. They will never know the human triumph of the kind of poetry that feeds your soul. Don Carlos was absolutely correct above when he wrote: ‘The only “poets” we hear about today are not poets. Unless poetry is crap.’

    Consider the Poet Laureate of England recently was Carol Ann Duffy. This is the special Christmas poem—deliberately written for Christmas—she wrote for 2012:

    (If you think this has to be an ugly joke, you can find it in all its very real reality at:

    The Mistletoe Bride
by Carol Ann Duffy

    The December bride who, bored with dancing, skipped from the castle hall to play hide-and-seek, a white bird flickering into the dark . . .

    The groom, who searched each room, calling her name; then the bridal guests, flame-lit, checking the grounds . . .

    The fifty Christmases till a carpenter jemmied an old oak chest; the skeleton with its unstrung pearls, loose emeralds, its rings of diamond, sapphire, gold . . .

    The running feet, the shouting for others to see what he’d seen; mistletoe in the loose bones of a hand . . .

    Like love, patiently green.

  15. Friday morning round-up and Open Thread Says:

    […] Commencement speeches weren’t always so awful (with Adm. McRaven being a striking exception to that modern rule). Neo-neocon went back to 1956 and looked at a lyrical, thoughtful, pro-American, and knowledgeable speech that poet and educator Robert Frost gave at Colby College. […]

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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