A Speech on Scholarship

Scholar by Osman Hamdi Bey

A friend recently sent me the copy of a speech that a friend of his had delivered at a Cum Laude induction at Exeter, which reminded me that I too had given a similar speech at Porter-Gaud in the 2010s, so I thought I’d pass it along, for what it’s worth.

Congratulations, inductees for embodying excellence. 

However, as John Donne famously proclaimed:  No man is an island.  These honorees did not arise on the foam of the Aegean fully formed. 

First, we need to acknowledge your parents.

Who read you bedtime stories, salved your skinned knees, said no, then sent you to time out.  

We need to acknowledge your teachers.

Especially those in the so-called lower grades who are not present to hear this praise, the ones who taught you how to read, how to form letters and Arabic numerals, how to add and subtract. 

I suspect none of us has forgotten our first grade teacher’s name.  Not you ninth graders, not you, Dr. Mac.

Mine was Mrs. Wiggins.  Who would be about 125 by now I guess, but who will live on as long as there’s one surviving student who remembers her.

And, finally, we need to acknowledge all of the friends of the inductees.

Research has shown that as far as influence goes, peers of teenagers wield by far the most potent power in high school, much more than parents and teachers.  So, thank all of you for being good friends, for providing needed support, or offering good advice.

Also, keep in mind that if you are a senior and not on this stage this morning, it does not mean that you won’t be honored when you graduate from college.   

And, likewise, your being inducted into an honor society in high school doesn’t ensure that you’re going to be inducted into a collegiate honor society.

Life is a process – we’re not seeds, nor buds, but an ever evolving becoming.

Interestingly enough, though, high grades and scholarship are not synonymous.  The student who gruntingly masters information for grades lacks the scholar’s curiosity and never comes close to experiencing the scholar’s joy.  So when I urge you to become engaged in your studies, it’s not so you’ll receive accolades or a handsome salary, it’s so that your life will be more meaningful.

The following statement is going to sound absolutely absurd to many of you, but I fervently believe it:  Being a true scholar is much more profitable than being a CEO, movie star, or hall-of-fame athlete, because if you become a true scholar, i.e., a life long learner, you will escape the nets of boredom, and boredom, as far as I am concerned, is death-in-life.

Despite the caricature of the pallid, bespectacled outsider ill-at-ease in his own body, I dare say that true scholars enjoy charmed lives because they’ve mined the kryptonite that protects them from those empty temptations of the temporal – all of those singing sirens – those manufactured products that are a lot of fun but not all that enlightening – e.g., Modern Warfare 3, or as I have rechristened it, Modern Warfare 3 Homework 0.  

The metaphorical kryptonite that scholars possess is a love of learning.

They have, as Joseph Campbell put it, found their bliss, and are following it.

What thrills a scholar is delving deeply into the profound mysteries of being. 

The scholar marvels at the truncated evolutionary transformation that takes place in the womb.  

The scholar attempts to fathom the idiocies that resulted in WWI.  

The scholar is fascinated by the metamorphosis of Jamaican dance hall toasting into rap music and then hip hop and traces the underlying musical commonalities of all three sub-genres as she conjectures how popular music reflects 21st century American society.

In short, the scholar seeks to see the immense interconnectedness of things, to rip down Maya’s veil of illusion.  

True scholars have found the elixir that is the antidote to one of Adam’s curses – labor – because for a true scholar labor and love are the same, the quest to know more and understand better.

And although Adam’s other curse – that ferry ride across the River Styx – cannot be avoided – by studying what Yeats called “monuments un-aging intellect” – the cave paintings of Lascaux,  The Tragedy of Prince Hamlet, the  3rd Law of Thermodynamics,  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony,  Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal –  our deeper understanding can be liberating and offer comfort as we contemplate our own demise.

I’d like to end by reading two quatrains of a poem that conveys this theme much more powerfully than I could ever hope to do. 

It concerns Alexander the Great who supposedly wept when he thought there was nothing left of the world for him to conquer, and Sir Isaac Newton, who took a very different view of his accomplishments.

It’s called “Worlds”

By Richard Wilbur.

For Alexander there was no Far East,


Because he thought the Asian continent


India ended. Free Cathay at least

*

Did not contribute to his discontent.



But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more


Serene. To him it seemed that he’d but played


With several shells and pebbles on the shore


Of that profundity he had not made.


I ask you, who would you rather be? 

Thank you, and again, congratulations.