Commencement 2013: Commencement Address

David Nasaw, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Distinguished Professor of History, the Graduate Center, gives the commencement address.

Commencement Address by David Nasaw
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Distinguished Professor of History
May 23, 2013


Members of the platform party, President Kelly, Provost Robinson, CUNY Board of Trustees Vice-Chairman, the Honorable Philip Berry, Senior Vice Chancellor Marc Shaw, Honorees Lawrence Weiner and Robert Wilson; fellow faculty members, graduates, family, and friends:

It was at a commencement address in 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, that Winston Churchill declared that an iron curtain had descended on Europe; a year later, at Harvard, Secretary of State George Marshall announced during his commencement address what would become known as the Marshall Plan; in 1963, in his American University commencement address, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy declared that the United States would refrain from atmospheric nuclear tests and seek a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. In 2009, at the University of Tennessee, Dolly Parton announced the twenty-fifth anniversary of Dollywood, her theme park and declared that it was “gonna be special . . . come up and see us.”

Sorry, but I’ve got no such world-historic pronouncements to make—and, believe it or not, neither do most commencement speakers. Over the past half century or so, we’ve been obliged—by tradition—to instead offer graduates helpful career tips and inspirational personal anecdotes or parables, to outline the exciting opportunities that await, to remind you of all that you’ve accomplished on your way to your diplomas, and to tell some jokes to keep you attuned, if not awake, to the activities up here on the stage. Because, as former Governor Mario Cuomo observed, a commencement speaker is like a corpse at an Irish wake: you need him there in order to have a celebration, but hope he won’t say much. We commencement speakers are also enjoined to be brief.

Some 30 percent of commencement speakers are paid significant dollars for offering their advice and telling jokes. Rutgers gave Toni Morrison $30,000 in 2011. It has since raised the honorarium it pays its commencement speaker to $35,000; wise men and women like Katie Couric, Bill Cosby, and Rudy Giuliani can reportedly get up to $100,000. I want to thank President William Kelly for inviting me to give this year’s address and the Graduate Center for paying the mid-two-figure rental fee I have, until now, paid every year for my cap and gown.

This year’s pantheon of commencement speakers is, as has become the custom, dominated by CEOs, including, most prominently in 2013, those of Twitter, Nike, Domino’s Pizza, Whole Foods, Priceline, Dropbox, and Chobani Yogurt; just north of us, two different college presidents, at Mohawk Valley Community and Hamilton Colleges, have invited two different Batman executive producers to give this year’s address; Tom Brokaw and Bill Cosby, who can always be counted on to seamlessly meld inspiration and amusement, will address the graduates of Loyola and the University of Baltimore. Other 2013 speakers guaranteed to inspire include former musical comedy actress Julie Andrews at Colorado, former quarterback and now television commentator Terry Bradshaw at the New England Institute of Technology, and former shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. at Maryland. The Wesleyan president has asked the writer and director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to address its graduates. Harvard, in its infinite institutional wisdom, has invited Oprah Winfrey.

And you’ve got me. As a historian, there’s not much I can offer you as far as wit, wisdom, or inspiration. I would be delighted to be able to tell you what you can expect in the future. Regrettably we historians are total failures at predicting the future; the wisest among us have long ago given up trying. We have also come to the realization that we can’t really describe or re-present the past as accurately, as truthfully, as we would like. But while we’ve given up trying to predict the future, we still try to describe a past and connect it to our present, knowing that this past is not “the past as it really was,” but our construction. And why do we attempt this impossible task? Because the past, though unreachable, is an inescapable part of our present. To even attempt to know who we are—as individuals, as a nation, as peoples, as inhabitants of this planet earth—we have to struggle, as best we can, to figure out where we came from. When officer Marion “Cobra” Cobretti, played by Sylvester Stallone, aims his gun at the bad guy and tells him, “You’re history,” he gets it exactly wrong. The past is not and can never be dead to us.

As a species, a life-form, as human beings, we are defined, condemned, confined by our immersion in a river of time, buoyed along on unpredictable currents from a barely knowable past to a evanescent present to an unknowable future. As we travel that river of time, we historians tell stories about the journey, about where we’ve been, and where we hope to end up, about the creatures beneath us, the color and shape of the sky, what we see on shore, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, the changes we undergo on this journey. Ours are stories of the “real,” constructed from the evidence which we assemble from the detritus left behind, intentionally or not.

Fiction writers can guarantee happy endings to their stories or, if they choose, give them sad ones; historians do not know how anything is going to turn out. Our truths are provisional; our stories, we know, will be rewritten because historians of tomorrow will ask different questions than those of today, because the events or persons or issues we write about will change appearance and gain or lose significance, because new evidence will be found.

Still, by telling stories about our past and the changes over time that lead to this present, we make manifest the passage of time and we rescue ourselves from the suffocating, deadening fiction that there is no future, that we inhabitants of the twenty-first century are condemned to an endless present of inequity and injustice, of global desecration and destruction, of war and strife and conflict. By constructing a past that is other than this present but connected to it, we vouchsafe the existence of a future that will follow from this present. And we remind ourselves of the possibility, no, the necessity that we, as individuals, nations, as inhabitants of this moment in time, must locate that better place we want to travel to beyond the horizon of this present.

The metaphor of the river is, like all metaphors, flawed, but useful. If we ignore the currents, the tides, the winds on our journey towards a future, we risk disaster. If we, however, try to steer a course towards a better place, and do our best to measure the currents, chart the tides, map the hazards, find the breezes, then we have a chance of arriving at our favored destinations, a future that is safer, brighter, better than our present.

What, in the end, are the words of wisdom which I, as a historian, am obligated as a commencement speaker, to offer you.

1. Be humble. What Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said of history is applicable to all our fields: History is not written as much as it is rewritten. You have no more direct path to the truth than you had when you began your studies. Whatever knowledge you produce, whatever truths you discover will always be provisional, subject to revision. Though you are soon to get the right to attach some fancy initials after your name, you’ll still need a MetroCard to get on the train.

2. Be proud of what you’ve achieved, but not so proud you forget all of what we’ve tried to teach you.

3. Be responsible and responsive to the obligation your higher education, your degree, brings with it. Whatever your field, remember, as I tell my students until they want to strangle me, you need evidence, data, from which to draw your conclusions. Others are allowed to blather on, without any ground beneath them. You are not.

4. Most critically from the vantage point of this historian: never forget that there is a better future somewhere out there in front of us that we must actualize. It is your privilege and your obligation to help steer a course towards that future and to keep alive, healthy, free, and prosperous institutions like this one that are dedicated to providing the tools, capacities, methodologies, technologies, disciplines, and awareness that make us better citizens and more effective time-travelers.

A commencement is a time of celebration, but also a time for saying farewell, this year not only to our graduates but to our president, William Kelly. Speaking unofficially for the faculty, let me say that while we approach this particular commencement with delight—as we can think of no one better suited to lead our great university as interim chancellor than William Kelly—that delight is shot through with sadness. President Kelly, Bill, we will miss your near infinite capacity for looking past the problems of the present towards the solutions in the future. We will miss your compassion, your generosity, your concern for each of us, faculty, staff, students. And we will miss the example you have set for us: of scholarship and learning, not as a vehicle of escape from the real world and the city we live in and that lives in us, but as an avenue towards deepening our commitment and engagement with that world and that city.

Thank you.

David Nasaw
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Distinguished Professor of History
The Graduate Center, CUNY

Photo credit: Howard Jay Heyman

Submitted on: MAY 24, 2013

Category: Commencements