University Honors Program
The Final Lecture
The "Final Lecture" had its origin in the Honors Program at Mercy College of Detroit. Every year during the 1980s, Honors students at Mercy selected a speaker from the faculty, who was asked to imagine that "This is your last chance to speak to your students. What is the most important thing you have to say to them?" The "Final Lecture" was re-inaugurated in October 2002 by the University of Detroit Mercy Honors Program. The Final Lecturer is selected by a poll of the general membership every Winter term.
2004 2005 2006
Lecture" of Gerald F. Cavanagh, S. J.,
Professor of Management
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 7, 2007
Lecture" of Victoria Mantzopoulos,
Professor of Political Science
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 1, 2006
It’s a great pleasure to be here this evening and honored
by those that I honor so much. I truly thank you.
I want to start by telling you a story. It is one of those
fairytales where everyone lives happily ever after. Long ago
and far away, there was a large family growing up in a working-class
neighborhood. These were the days when the 8 kids could get
in the LTD, 4 across the front seat, and take road trips.
Some kids would even sleep on the floorboards. There were
no seat belts or car seats. They were not too different than
most working-class families except that both parents had finished
high school. And…now and then…there might be panic
on the face of restaurateurs as they approached their store
These were also the days of the “melting pot.”
It was never clear to anyone how one melted. But melt one
did. Everyone tried to look the same, never to draw attention
to one by speaking a foreign language in public. People were
not Greek American or Chaldean American, simply American.
African Americans were segregated, not by law but well, they
The eighth of nine children was a girl. She was just a bit
of a tom-boy growing up with three older brothers right before
her. Not too much though, just enough to race, jump, and throw
the baseball like a boy. She also had several older sisters.
Her first real memory of her oldest sister was visiting her
at college. Not sure what college was, it seemed really cool
to not have to share her room with someone. College wasn’t
really something that was discussed too much. She was just
a little young to really understand.
She remembers busing and some of the local school riots.
But she really didn’t understand why the issue was so
controversial. After all, they lived just a mile down the
road. She was just a little young to really understand.
Anyway, her world was figure skating. Her family owned skating
rinks and everyone competed. She was exceptionally good and
usually won. While she had to take a lot of dance classes
for the figure skating, she was often placed with the boys
for speed skating and hockey (even won there too!). Yes, they
even had skateboards then. She was even pretty good at jumping
barrels with the skateboard. She always thought she would
grow up and be a skating coach.
As an almost straight “A” student, she had been
placed in advance classes in Jr. High. After a few weeks into
the school year, one of those standardized tests was administered.
She did terribly badly. They even wondered if she was special-ed.
They removed her from the advanced program and placed her
back in to the general population. She still made straight
“As.” A few years later, someone told her about
an international college program. She had never thought about
college and surely didn’t think her parents could afford
it. Her oldest sister was now in graduate school and some
of the other siblings had gone to college. But it still wasn’t
something that was discussed much. Most people in town didn’t
go to college. Anyway, she filled out the application and
sent it in for early admission. Hurray, not only did she get
admitted; they gave her a full academic scholarship (not bad
for the special-ed student!). The only problem was, she hadn’t
finished high school yet, she was a junior. Word spread through
the high school. Soon she was talking with a counselor and
the school decided to promote her to allow her to graduate.
She had a whole month of her senior year.
Now she is off to college in a foreign country at the age
of 16. She returned to the states after a year to finished
college while living with her sister now doing doctoral work.
She still didn’t appreciate the true meaning of it all.
Her sister became her mentor, role-model and overall super
hero. These were still the days where few women were in academia.
Her sister was the “three-piece pin-striped suit generation”
Since the girl had always been a skater, she sought out most
physical education classes that the college offered. She often
ran from Judo class stripping off her “Gi” to
reveal her pink tights and black leotard for classical ballet
class. But what does this have to do with the feminist movement?
She had to fight the school to get into the all-male judo
class. Now she begins to understand the conversations she
had been overhearing around the dinner table.
She finished her B.A. in three years with double majors and
double minors. The girl finds her way to graduate school.
Not easily though. When she opened her GRE scores she was
elated that she had received slightly over the required score
of 600. The bubble was burst, however, when she found out
that the 600 requirement was per section, not combined. Wow,
those standardized tests! She managed to beg her way in to
the school. The school admitted her conditionally on taking
a statistics course and passing with at least a B. For a supposedly
bright girl, she had never heard of statistics. She got an
A, of course, and was soon teaching her own section of statistics.
One day, one of her professors approached her and offered
her a research assistantship. She was shocked. She was so
intimidated by this man. Next to her sister, he would become
the most influential person in her academic life. The catch
to the offer was that she had to be a doctoral student. She
didn’t think she was ready for that. Should she retreat
to the skating rink? What if the Jr. High people were right
and she was really special-ed? A doctorate? Maybe it was time
to really talk to her sister and find out exactly what it
meant and where would it lead. Indeed, she went on to finish
her Ph.D. in record time, of course.
She joined the faculty at a local university. It is here
where she experiences the second wave of her personal feminist
struggle. She was exceptionally young and looked even younger.
She often felt a lack of respect and confidence from faculty
and students. She was often brushed aside as insignificant.
But what hurt the most was the lack of support from female
faculty. Didn’t the movement progress any from the three-piece
suit era? Why can’t a woman have a career while wearing
a dress, marry, and have kids? Wasn’t it about letting
us do it all? At minimum, wasn’t about letting us do
what ever we wanted? Petty people judge before knowing anything
about another. Why were the feminists so mean? Why were they
so angry? Why were they obstacles to other women?
The girl vowed to not be like them. She vowed not to be an
obstacle. She vowed to not judge. She vowed to mentor anyone
who sought help.
If you haven’t already figured it out, the girl is
me. Many of you know me. While this all sounds like “it’s
about me,” it’s really about YOU.
How did you get here? There are probably many of you that
are the first generation to go to college. You may not have
known what to expect. You might have come here with expectations
that have been transformed by one particular professor, by
one particular class, or even one particular conversation.
You might have started out in pre-med and ended up in pre-law.
Someone must have touched you somewhere along the line. Who
was it? Do they even know? Do you?
Many of you have overcome obstacles to come here. There will
surely be many more obstacles yet to overcome. Petty people
will judge you. You need to decide if you will be petty.
Another obstacle often comes in the form of arrogance. I
recently had a conversation with an honor’s student
who just graduated. She was saddened by the arrogance of students
at law school. Arrogance is also petty. You do not win the
right to be arrogant simply because you have proven yourself
to be an honor’s student. You do win the right to be
responsible. You have responsibilities to better the world.
You must reach those that need help or guidance. This does
not mean to reach “down.” “Down” is
arrogance. You must choose. Will you become a mentor or an
obstacle? Being a mentor is a great honor.
I like the words of Dr. Oljar who spoke from this podium
a few years ago. She said that we have the greatest job in
the world. We do. We get to touch the lives of so many people.
We try our best to make your experience here as positive as
possible. So many of you have touched us. Many of you have
touched me. I thank you.
I am blessed. I thank you; I thank my sister, my parents,
and my professor. I have a wonderful family, husband and children.
I have a wonderful job that I love more each and every year.
I thank you for continuing to challenge me to learn. Oh yes,
hopefully, we will all live happily ever after.
Lecture" of Father R. Gerard Albright, Professor of Biology
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 9, 2005
Thank you very much, Dr. Koukal, for your most generous and flattering introduction. And my greetings to all of you: to Fr. Stockhausen, our President , to my other administration and faculty colleagues, to student and alumni members of the Honor Program of our University, and (in a very special way) to this evening’s new Honor inductees, families and friends.
It was for me a most pleasant surprise last February when I learned that the Honors Program students had selected me to be this evening’s speaker. I thought: What might I, a very long-time professor of biology, say on this occasion as I gave my “Last Lecture”? And, I strongly suspect, all of you are wondering the very same thing right now. Would I . . . should I . . . comment on the views of the New York Times and other popular media with regard to this past summer’s newest challenge to Organic Evolution in the guise of Intelligent Design? Or maybe analyze the latest twist of the Double Helix and similar molecular phenomena?
Fear not and relax, dear friends . . . my focus tonight is very much elsewhere. And that is as it should be.
For we are all gathered here this evening, not because of me and my professional interests, but because of the young men and women whom the University is about to welcome into one of the most prestigious organizations under its sponsorship.
And that is the reason, my dear New Honors Inductees, that I direct my Last Lecture remarks to you on this auspicious occasion. Words of congratulation . . . very much so! But even more so: words of challenge!
In fact, a Triple Challenge to each individual one of you! I do so fully aware that you are the type of individual who does not merely face up to challenges, but looks forward to meeting them head on.
In fact, it is for this very reason that you are what you are today. And that constitutes my Challenge Number One . . .
. . . that you recognize what you have in fact accomplished, and how it came about that you have done so. That you acknowledge that God has from the very beginning selected you to become something wonderfully special. And that you have already been working hard to achieve it.
Home and the earlier years of school differ in details for each of you, one from another, of course. And yet a common theme prevails. Parents and family and teachers pointed out the way, steered you in the right direction, provided you with examples of what could be done . . . ought to be done. Nurtured each tiny spark of receptivity on your part. Stood close to support you as needed when you took each first and faltering step. Helped you find once again the right path when you wandered off into the wasteland of anxiety and uncertainty and error.
And it was parents and family and teachers…each in his or her own way who quietly allowed you to develop your mind and heart, and to grow in knowledge and in the wisdom that life itself provides for those who move forward to meet it. Yes, each of you, tonight’s Honors Program Inductees, has already done this very thing, and done so with distinction.
And that is why my First Challenge to you is to recognize what is already embedded deep within the very being of each of you. To see and to admit that something very special has already taken deep root within the reality that is you personally. Pride is one thing . . . boastfulness something very different. Modesty and humility are virtues indeed, but they need not be coupled with shyness or a yearning to back away from accomplishments. So I urge you to recognize what you have already done, what you have already become, what has earned you a rightful place at tonight’s Honors celebration. To recognize this . . . and then to meet it head-on.
Challenge Number Two . . .
Yes, there is indeed something more . . . a great deal more . . . that lies ahead. For so much of what you have already accomplished, what you have become, is but a prelude to what is yet to appear over the horizon of life. You have already shown clearly the potential that is rightfully yours. Challenge Number Two is my calling each of you to still further actuate the potentials deep within you, and not to let them lie fallow or become dormant as the months and years slip by. To understand and appreciate that seeds once planted bear fruit only when preceded by further growth and development.
To appreciate more fully that what you have already been given calls for something more than simple grateful acceptance on your part. Whether they openly express it or not, parents and families, teachers and friends . . . yes, and the God of us all . . . rightly expect that you even now do more than merely clasp close the inheritance that has come to you. It is an inheritance not to be buried in some dark corner, but to be invested in the sunlight of growth and fruition.
Yes, a generous supply of talent and ability is already the possession of each of you. Make it grow taller into the sunlight of life! Look to where you can profitably find new strength, gain new knowledge, expand into the acquisition of new wisdom.
By now I am sure you have made at least a tentative choice of some sort of professional career. Keep it sharply in focus, of course. But round out your overall profile by dipping into other realms if learning.
If you are not majoring in architecture, has it ever occurred to you to at least find out what kinds of excitement keep Loranger Hall buzzing with activity month in and month out?
If engineering seems to be little more than harnessing and controlling and developing mechanical or chemical or electrical energy, have you ever asked yourself: why do so many of my fellow students energetically make it such an intimate part of their lives?
How about you Liberal Arts majors . . . are those Core Curriculum science and math and computer course requirements significantly more than simply areas of learning that you would just as soon avoid if you could?
To those of you venturing into the corporate world of business: Have you looked beyond a consideration of how profits are acquired, and sought to understand the effects on others that profit acquisition leaves behind for them to cope with as best they can?
And how about you students who are day in and day out being swept along by the gale-force winds of gaining and retaining all of the scientific factual material inherent in preparing for medicine or dentistry or nursing or one of the other health-related careers? To you I ask: are the Liberal Arts for you scarcely more than academic hoops to be jumped through as you lurch forward along the road of life?
Yes, we all have our own individual areas of academic focus that beckon us with an almost irresistible attraction. But as Honors Students you are called upon--you are expected!--to continually progress into the expansive and ever-deeper realms of learning and knowledge and life experiences that lead to the acquisition of true wisdom.
This implies not merely strengthening and further developing what you have already acquired! It means setting your sight on new vistas. Looking with an energetic curiosity towards areas deserving of further and deeper exploration on your part. Yes, and this includes as well realms of knowledge and understanding that you may have never even thought of as being something important in the development of the total personality that is uniquely yours.
Do you, my dear Honor Students, grasp what I’m driving at? Do you understand that the implications of all I have been saying is the very essence of Challenge Number Two? That you not simply rest on your laurels, but realize that you are urged and called upon by all the others of us here this evening to actuate those potentials, to bring to an even further reality those God-given talents that are yours.
“But, you say, I’m already swamped . . . when can I do all this?” My answer to this constitutes the very core of Challenge Number Three.
To face the reality that now is the time to take those talents and abilities that are rightfully yours, and nurture and make them grow ever upward toward a still fuller fruition. Now, these very Days, when the energies of Youth are still at your beck and call. Now, when the months and years of a professional career still lie ahead of you. Now, before all the distractions yet to come cloud life’s picture and make it almost impossible to penetrate the inexorable fog that will most certainly settle in with the passing years.
Yes, my Challenge Number Three is for each of you to convince yourself that now, during these Days of your Youth, is the time to take and shape and expand and nurture and develop the talents and abilities that make you what you have become, what you are this day! To postpone action, to say “there’s still time ahead for this in the decades to come ”, is tantamount to saying that it will in all likelihood never happen at all. To put aside this Challenge is simply to admit that your own Days of Youth are destined to become Lost Days of Youth . . . lost in the very real sense of missed opportunities to grow and develop . . . to strengthen and lift higher the hearts and spirits of those who have come to know and to love you. Lost in the sense of gone and never to be retrieved.
I’ll venture the guess that you are thinking: “Well, it’s easy for him to stand up there now during his Last Lecture and toss his three challenges our way. What in the way of challenges did he himself have thrown his way back in his own college days?”
Well, my dear Honorees, it has indeed been a very long time between this evening and my own days of youth! But I can still go back. No, I have not forgotten those days. The days when these same three challenges came my way . . . not as the core of somebody else’s last lecture, but in my own inner musings. The Three Challenges applied to me back then just as they do to each of you this evening.
And you’re thinking: “And what back then did you do to avoid having those Lost Days of Youth become a reality??” I’ll tell you: I thought. And I wondered: what would it be like to place myself a lifetime into the future . . . to turn then . . . and look back on those bygone days when I was young . . . when the days of youth were not yet lost in the distant past.
I thought. And I wondered . . .
. . . Wondered how to make the Days of Youth vibrantly alive and
. . . Wondered how to expand and develop them into something truly
. . . Wondered how to energetically strive to be sure that opportunities
not slip from sight…that those Days of Youth not fade away and
end up in realm of Lost Days of Youth.
I thought. And I wondered. And I mused.
It was November in the year nineteen hundred and forty-seven. I was twenty-one . . . about the very age of you, our Honorees, this evening. I mused for awhile . . . and I wondered . . . and I set forth my thoughts on paper.
And this is what I wrote . . .
Lost Days of Youth, entombed forever more
‘Neath swirling drifts, a never-melting snow;
Sweet spring of life, that age has covered o’er
And buried in the depths of long ago.
Lost Days, that slipped from view on wings of mist,
As do the shimmering stars at break of dawn,
Like sparkling beads of dew, by moonbeams kissed,
They glimmered in life’s morn, but now are gone.
Of joys that were, alas, none can partake;
For days gone by ‘tis useless now to weep,
Since neither tears nor longings can awake
Lost loves the winds of time have breathed to sleep.
--- Too young was I to understand it then . . .
And now too old to live it o’er again.
The "Final Lecture" of Elizabeth Oljar, Professor of Philosophy
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 3, 2004
For my remarks this evening, I was asked to imagine that “this is my last chance to speak to my students. What is the most important thing I have to say to them?” You’ll be relieved to know that the most important thing I have to say to all of you is not “go forth and read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason” – a suggestion that would make even Dr. Koukal shudder, and he is a professional philosopher.
It would be really easy for me to repeat some of the things you’ve been hearing throughout your time at UDM: never stop learning, education is a lifelong process, do your best to think carefully and critically, value the diversity in America that is the source of its unique strengths, fight against injustice wherever you find it, etc. And those are all important things that I believe you should do.
But the most important thing I have to say to you is both more mundane and more profound than the things I just mentioned. The last thing I have to say to you is “thank you.”
I have the best job in the world. I get to hang out all day with interesting people and talk about the greatest subject of all, and I even get paid for it (which strikes me as an incredible luxury in the working world). In fact, I’d continue doing it even if I won the lottery (but with even more office supplies than I currently have)! Together with my colleagues, you are the reason why I have the best job in the world, for you have challenged and inspired me in countless ways. From your questions and comments in my classroom to your requests and input into courses in the philosophy department, you have enriched my days.
I thank you for making me a far better teacher than I thought I could be.
Because of you, I am constantly on the prowl for better examples, clearer explanations, exciting lecture strategies, and new ways to spark your interest in philosophy. More handouts!
Because of you, we revised the requirements of the philosophy major.
Because of you, I’ve developed a fairly unique set of pre-law philosophy courses.
Because of you, I’ve gotten over my fear of teaching Symbolic Logic (and believe me, if my graduate school friends and professors were here, they could tell you how astonishing a feat that is for me).
Because of you, I’m now in the process of team teaching a wonderful course in political philosophy with Dr. Koukal; one of the courses that reminds both of us why we wanted to do this for a living.
Because of you, the philosophy department added the enormous talents of Dr. Koukal, Dr. Leever, and Dr. Presbey, enriching my intellectual and pedagogical life more than I would have thought possible. Without you, we would not have formed either our professional relationships or our friendships with each other.
Because of you, discussions of ethics and social justice issues in my classes are both pervasive and rewarding. I know someone at another university (names omitted to protect the innocent) who has told me that he has difficulty getting his students involved in discussions of social justice issues. Needless to say, that’s not a problem I have ever encountered with UDM students, who are immediately engaged in discussions of this kind; not very surprising, given that a number of students are attracted to UDM because of its diversity.
I’m thankful for your eagerness to consider racism, sexism, homophobia, affirmative action, abortion, and the death penalty in the way that philosophy requires: with rigorous impartial consideration of the other person’s point of view as well as your own, by setting aside where your emotions or personal background lead and following, however briefly, where your rational assessment of the evidence leads you instead. I’ve never tried to be anything but brutally honest about how difficult this is for all of us. So, I also have to thank you for the moral service you’ve done me in forcing me to confront my own race and class privileges; which has truly been one of the most valuable lessons of my life. In making me a better teacher, you’ve made me a better person. Because of you, I have been able to bring to life my views about education as a source of empowerment and so make a contribution to my society. Thank you for holding me to the same standards to which I hold all of you.
Because of your goals and interests, I’ve been able to pursue a passion for law that initially made me decide to major in philosophy even though I ultimately decided not to attend law school (though I confess I still want to).
Because of you, I was able to publish a paper on using judicial opinions to teach philosophy.
Because of you, I was able to ‘road test’ my analysis of an argument against abortion that resulted in another published paper. In making me a better teacher, you have made me a better and more careful philosopher.
It is because of our class discussions that I want to think more carefully about the relationship between the Constitution, gay marriage, religious freedom, and Mill’s ideas in On Liberty; that I want to work on the question of ‘battered women’s defense’ as a specific legal strategy, that I’m excited by investigating how the techniques of formal symbolic logic can more directly apply to exams like the GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc.
Because of you, the hero worship of Socrates that started when I was 18 and first read the Apology has been transformed into an ongoing opportunity for me to share his lessons on the care of the soul, having the courage of one’s convictions, and what really matters in life. The actor and musician Henry Rollins once described the experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live as like ‘being hit in the chest with a Buick.’ That’s how I felt when I read Plato, Descartes, and Hume. But it’s because of you that I have a daily opportunity to try and transmit that enthusiasm and passion to others.
Most of you know me because you’ve had classes with me. And since with me what you see is pretty much what you get, you also know that I’ve worried a lot about the challenges that philosophy is facing at the moment (more on that in a minute). But no matter how frustrated or worried I’ve been at times, you all make me forget that when I walk into class. For that 50 or 75 minutes, nothing matters but us, and this amazing subject that calls us to stretch our minds in ways we didn’t think possible. Everything else just kind of fades away. This has made my classroom a truly magical place for me.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try and meet the two challenges philosophy faces today: one is the demand that education be made more practically relevant by being able to prove its contributions to the economy; the other is the constant and seductive pull away from the critical examination of beliefs, ideologies, and dogmas – a critical examination that is the heart and soul of philosophy.
The first challenge comes from those who regard philosophy as useless because it produces neither food, housing, computers, SUV’s and consumer goods, nor does it produce engineers, computer technicians, accountants, or nurses. Universities themselves have not been immune to this pressure; if we had 50 philosophy majors – a larger number of repeat tuition paying customers - we’d have a bigger philosophy department than we currently have and such a thing is one kind of mark of success in the academic world. Fortunately, the faculty in the philosophy department feel pretty strongly that 10 majors are just as deserving of 110% from us as 50 would be, and we are super conscious of our responsibilities to all UDM students through the Core Curriculum.
But I’m grateful to all of you for accompanying me on the journey toward wisdom, in discussing with me the question of which things are valuable and why that is so, and for openly embracing a much richer view of human nature: a view according to which our unique (and uniquely developed) capacity for reason is the source of our distinctive human excellence, and that to do anything less than exercise this capacity to its fullest is to sell ourselves short as human beings (hard to get away from those ancient Greeks – and the rest of the Western philosophical tradition). I’m grateful that you’ve allowed me to participate in your journey toward moral integrity and intellectual autonomy by working through these questions about value with me. I’ve watched it change your lives, and I can’t imagine any greater honor.
I’m equally grateful for your willingness to face up to the other challenge philosophy has faced since its beginnings: the challenge that we live up to our potential as rational creatures by avoiding the temptation to ‘go with the crowd,’ rely on common sense or some authority, to simply accept majority opinion as obviously right. You all know that nothing of the sort is allowed in philosophy – where evidence is everything, especially evidence acceptable to other reasonable people, even if they disagree with us. I have not made any secret of the fact that philosophy can be dangerous: its demand for justification of the status quo, its demand for an argument that the Old Way really is the Best or Only Way, its demand for reasons in support of what seems obvious to others. As I tell my intro students every term: even if you live in the worst sort of dictatorship or some other system of political tyranny, if you are occupied with the study of earthworms or dinosaurs, you’ll probably be reasonably safe. If, on the other hand, you are caught reading Mill, or Marx, or Locke, if you advocate rebellion against unjust governments in writing or speech, if you suggest that civil liberties are worth some sacrifice of security – then you may well be awakened to face hours of questioning (or worse) under a strong light (or maybe your credit card records will be searched to see what kind of books you buy). There’s danger in opposing power – whether it’s the power of one or many. There’s danger in questioning authority, in claiming that faith, tradition, authority don’t count as evidence for something. Philosophers from Socrates to Martin Luther King Jr. have been facing that danger, and I’m grateful for your willingness to take up the challenge yourselves. The moral success of any democratic society depends on the willingness of its citizens to do precisely this.
I’m grateful for your willingness to see the world in a different way, in the big picture macroscopic way that philosophy looks at life. Because of course that sort of picture doesn’t always mesh well with the activities of daily life: when my car needed extensive repair for the second time, I started thinking about whether it’s the same car (because there’s an important question here about the identity conditions for a physical object). As often happens with me, I thought it and so I said it – and got a pretty strange look from the mechanic. But with all of you, the quirky story about me becomes an opportunity for demonstrating the irresistible lure of philosophical questions. Thank you again.
The "Final Lecture" of Clint Hirst, Professor of English
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 19, 2003
We are here to celebrate your induction into the Honors Program. I look at you as you begin your adulthood, and think back to when I began mine. It was during that period that I first took a course that seemed to address the important questions about myself and my world. It was a course in 19th century British romanticism, and Wordsworth was the original spirit of that movement. As a young man he had witnessed the French revolution, an episode that seemed to promise the end of traditional injustices and bondage. Looking back on those years, Wordsworth wrote:
. . . .
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
And that was true for my times too. John F. Kennedy had just been elected president and had offered us a new vision, a hope for a better world. The civil rights and the feminist movements were beginning to promise freedom to millions of individual Americans and to free America itself from shameful systems of prejudice and discrimination. Robert Kennedy seemed to show that even the rich and powerful might try to use power for the greater good rather than the privileged few. We were, many of my contemporaries thought, about to join in building a brave new world.
Then Jack Kennedy was murdered.
Then Martin Luther King was murdered.
Then Robert Kennedy was murdered.
Then Vietnam overwhelmed all other concerns in the country.
Then discouragement replaced confident hope.
Then everything seemed different, more complicated, darker. Charles Dickens' description of that revolutionary era then seemed more appropriate--"It was the best of times, he wrote, "it was the worst of times.
It was then another of Wordsworth's poems, one called ode: intimations of immortality offered further perspective on my own times, seemed written by someone who understood my disillusionment and offered a way to look at my world. This poem describes Wordsworth's efforts to reconcile his conviction that he was in fact a spiritual, immortal being with his growing awareness of how earthbound, how imperfect, how mortal he and his world actually were . . . perhaps you too are becoming more and more aware of the essential unsatisfactoriness, the imperfection of our mortal world . . . perhaps Wordsworth can still speak to you and me today.
Wordsworth starts by expressing his feeling that something essential is missing from his world:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
He goes on, recognizing the beauty that remains but insisting that a fundamental change has occurred:
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
He continues, offering a final symbolic image of our loss (perhaps a loss very like the loss felt when we were expelled from the garden of Eden):
-But there's a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Then he offers a metaphorical explanation of the human condition:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
This all seems to me to express Wordworth's conviction of the infinite value of the individual despite earthly discouragement and woe. But he goes on to indicate that eventually, as we move out of our childish innocence and become adults, the years will bring what he calls "the inevitable yoke" and advises that:
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
And so, from our youthful optimistic idealism, Wordsworth says, we finally become burdened with all that mortal flesh is heir to, our idealism hardly a memory . . . And yet life continues. How do we go on? Wordsworth finds deep consolation in what the world offers to the experienced adult.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
. . . .
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
What he means I think, is that we learn to perceive the essential connection between people and people and between people and god-what he calls the primal, essential sympathy. It is this fundamental spiritual connection that makes our mutual understanding of each other's travails and our acceptance of our physical mortality not only bearable but in fact the basis of our nobility. It is this ceaseless striving for the ideal despite its evident impossibility that gives light and hope to an otherwise dark world.
It is my fortune to be in daily contact with you who are still trailing your clouds of glory. I get to witness your potential as it is still unfolding and see how you, all unawares, brighten the world for those around you. You in the honors program-unusually able and unusually willing to accept the extra challenge-do this so much more than most. You bring us gifts daily.
I hope you find a subject that excites you. I hope you have dreams of making a difference. I hope you find a purpose that will give your life meaning and satisfaction. I hope that with them you will find the belief that will make the darker times seem only to renew and increase your deeper understanding of the value of the spirit and people around you. I wish you well.
The "Final Lecture" of Carol C. Weisfeld, Professor of Psychology
UDM Honors Program Induction Ceremony and Dinner
October 27, 2002
Thank you, Students, and Dr. Koukal, for asking me to talk to you tonight. This is really a terrifying honor. And I hope that after I’ve finished you’ll still be interested in reviving this tradition.
When I told a friend about this event, he suggested that I tell you how hard it was when we were students back in the old days--he even gave me some suggestions:
"In my day, we didn’t have hand-held calculators. We had to do addition on our fingers. To subtract, we had to have some fingers amputated."
"In my day, we didn’t have virtual reality. If a one-eyed razorback barbarian warrior was chasing you with an ax, you just had to hope you could outrun him."
"In my day, we didn’t have water. We had to smash together our own hydrogen and oxygen atoms"
"In my day, we didn’t have Senator Strom Thurmond--oh wait, yes we did!"
Enough of that.
Those of you whom I’ve had in class know that we always discuss a bit of biology in my classes, and this evening will be no different. I would like to start with an image from biology. You see, I feel as if you’ve asked me to describe the synapse. You know from basic biology or anatomy that the synapse is that space between two neurons in the nervous system of a living organism. The two neurons communicate with each other without actually physically touching each other. The space between them, the synapse, is microscopically small but absolutely essential. Depending on what chemical or neurotransmitter the first neuron releases into the synapse, the second neuron can be activated or inhibited from acting. Moreover, chemicals can enter the synapse from other sources, so that in fact a rich mix of stimulant and inhibitors can affect the behavior of a neuron.
I imagine the space between a teacher and a student as a synapse. And I imagine that you’ve asked me to meditate on and describe that space between the neurons--so I would like to talk about what happens in that space between student and teacher.
You might imagine that I visualize the direction of energy as coming from teacher to student. But, no, let’s do it the other way around tonight. What is the energy flow that goes from student to teacher? What can you do for us? I have some thoughts about that, and I’d like to structure those thoughts in the form of do’s and don’t’s. So here are the ten commandments for life in the student synapse.
1. Don’t be afraid to be smart. You’re in college because you have some ability, and you’re an Honors Student because you have some ability. Being smart doesn’t make you a snob; it doesn’t make you conceited; it doesn’t make you elitist. What it does make you is able to solve problems in intelligent ways. And, God knows, our society needs every ounce of your ability. So don’t be afraid to hang out with other smart people. Use big words. Talk about important details. Raise the level of debate wherever you are. I know that our culture is down on smart people–excuse me–dorks, nerds, etc. Saturday Night Live is still getting mileage out of making fun of Al Gore’s braininess. Maybe we need to rethink that as a culture, and we need you to lead us in that direction.
2. Work your rear ends off. I know that this part seems unfair. You pay money, and you do all the work. Well, we do a big chunk of the work, too. But you pay for the privilege of working hard when you come to the university. It must seem doubly unfair from your point of view. Most of you went to high school for free, and you might not have worked very hard when you were there. Now you’re at university, and you have to pay piles of money and then put forth more effort than ever before on top of that. You know what? You’re right. It is unfair. But the unfair part is what we did to you in high school. We cheated most of you . We let you go to work part-time instead of teaching you physics and calculus and international relations and two foreign languages. We should have structured it so that you’ve always worked up to your potential. I apologize on behalf of my generation. And now that becomes your generations’ task–fix the high schools in America, so that your kids have a better experience.
3. Don’t be afraid of our ideas. We faculty are an odd assortment of absent-minded professors, absently-mindedly wandering around in search of truth. Sometimes we’re wrong. But the only way you can determine that is to give our ideas a chance, evaluate them, and decide for yourself. If we can recall the image of the synapse, there’s enough for a rich mix of many people’s ideas in that space between you and your teacher, for you to check and compare ideas and evaluate the evidence and decide for yourself what you believe.
4. Don’t be afraid of your own ideas. Some of you are leaving behind beliefs you had as a child and are embracing new beliefs–in lots of areas, including politics, faith, your sense of yourself, and our ideals about relationships. This is exactly what you need to be doing in young adulthood. This is how you create your own identity, in Erik Erickson’s terms. As he put it, you have to live through crisis to get to commitment. And, once you’ve done that, you are well equipped to face any of the challenges of adulthood.
5. Don’t expect us to be your parents. We don’t love you the way your parents love you. That means you can’t trust us the same way you trust your parents. We are tempted to take advantage of you. And, once in a while, a teacher succumbs to that temptation and exploits a student in some way–it could be in terms of work, in terms of affection, or in terms of your intellectual property. Again, that image of the synapse is right, I think. The space is there for a reason. A good friend of mine who is a social worker told me that in social work talk, we are speaking of boundaries--essential for people who have slightly different goals.
6. Don’t try to be our friend. We’re too old. Sure, we’re unbelievably cool. But you need to look to your right and your left to find your friends. We can tell you from experience that the friends you make in college will probably be the best friends you carry with you through your whole life. This experience of growing up together in a learning environment provides you with a chance to really help each other out and create bonds of mutual altruism that will last forever if you’re lucky.
There’s another reason why you can’t look to us to be your friends. We’re too White. The ranks of the professors are filled with people who traditionally went into academe–White people, with a few Asians here and there. You look at your fellow students. You come from all over the world. This university is a microcosm of the world you’re going to live in for the rest of your life, the global village. Let me give you an example of how much we have to learn from other people. For a couple of years when our daughter was in high school, one of the girls in our carpool was a young student from Botswana, in Africa. The first day I picked her up I was asking her questions about her family. At some point I said, "your English is really excellent." There was a pause. Then she said, "Thank you. So is yours." I hadn’t realized, you see, that for most people of Botswana, English is their first language. I have a lot to learn about Africa, and she helped me begin to do that learning, in a gentle and humorous way.
You need to take advantage of how diverse the environment is here at UDM, and here in the Detroit metro area. You need to trust yourself and your classmates enough to reach out now, and get to know people from everywhere. It’s really safe to do it here. So do it now. Get to know that woman from Nigeria or that guy from Saudi Arabia who’s in your math class. Learn how to talk to people who are different from you. They don’t have to be your best friends–but you can learn to talk to one another. And when you raise your own children, your neighborhood should look like your classrooms here at UDM. Make sure your children grow up with diversity. You’re not doing them a favor by delaying their lessons about the global village.
I’ve given you 6 don’t’s. Now for some do’s.
7. Do challenge us. Ask questions. Force us to come up with evidence. Tell us about contradictory evidence you’ve heard. One of the goals of our curriculum is to teach critical thinking. You need to think critically about what you read in the newspapers, what you hear on the radio, and, especially, what you see and hear on the "Jerry Springer Show." But, also, you need to think critically about what we say. Ask impertinent questions. Challenge authority – don’t be afraid to stand up for what you think is right. We just lost a U.S. senator who did that, Paul Wellstone. We don’t have enough people like Paul Wellstone.
8. Please respect us. We realize that you appreciate learning, and we need you as our allies. We worked very hard to get where we are, and it cost most of us a huge pile of money. We all had student loans, and we don’t make great salaries. And you know what? You tell people "I want the riches of knowledge" and they laugh here in America. You’re not suppose to want that in America; you’re expected to make serious money. Americans laugh at you if you don’t. This reminds me of what I said at the beginning, that you should not be afraid to be smart. When did we decide in America that we’d all be better off being Average? When did we decide that smart people should be embarrassed about their intelligence? You need to know that it means a great deal to us to have your respect. Thank you for that.
9. Do have courage. In contrast to the tone of the jokes at the beginning of this talk, I honestly think that your lives will be harder than my cohort’s lives have been. For one thing, you’ll have all of us old fogies to support and care for. You have a world of that is terrorized and a nation whose leaders have not figured out how to deal with it. You have more serious economic challenges to face. And I think that most of your solutions will be social solutions rather than technological solutions. It’s no accident that, with the erosion of labor unions, we have lost the 40-hour work week. At the same time that Americans are working too hard for too little money, you are seeing the erosion of health care, and the loss of our mental health care infrastructure. Mark my words, your solutions will be social solutions. By that I mean that you will need to count on your family, friends, communities, labor unions, and the fellowship of nations. You are going to have build relationships and share expertise in ways that my generation only dreamed of.
10. Be lucky. I’m going to read a poem that has been a lament for the people who died and the people who lived on September 11th, 2001. The interesting thing is that it had been written in Polish by Wislawa Szymborska, 26 years earlier. The poem is named "Could Have," and I’ll read it in English:
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because
you were the first.
You were saved because
you were the last.
Alone, with others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining.
Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck.
There was a forest.
You were in luck.
There were no trees.
You were in luck.
A rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch,
You were in luck.
Just then a straw
went floating by.
As a result, because,
What would have happened
if a hand, a foot, within an inch,
a hairsbreadth from
an unfortunate coincidence.
So you’re still here?
Still dizzy from another dodge,
close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net
and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be
more shocked and speechless.
how your heart beats inside me.
Be lucky. Let good fortune come your way and embrace it