06/05/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

“Make Literature Your Religion” — And Other Commencement Advice

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Each year around this time, we keep our eyes and ears open for commencement speeches that touch on education-related topics. There were numerous noteworthy speeches covering everything from the courage to speak out for truth, to the necessity of learning from failure, to the opportunity found in adversity.

Many of this year’s addresses were weightier than usual, including comments by Oprah Winfrey at USC’s Annenberg School and New York Times columnist David Brooks at Butler University. Both charged graduates to engage in solving the cultural problems and divides that our current generation of leaders has more or less created. To the young generation of writers and journalists at USC, Winfrey said, “The truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here… to tell it, to write, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it.”

Encouraging students to “kill the golem of self-regard,” Brooks urged them to find a way to serve the world. “Ask not ‘what do I want from life,’ but ‘what does life need from me,’” he said. Outlining the effects of America’s current social fragmentation, Brooks went on to tell graduates, “Your generation needs to… integrate white, black, Latino, and Asian. Your generation has to jam rich people together with poor, urban with rural, New York with Indiana, conservative with liberal, secular with faithful, young with old. The assignment for your generation is to create the craziest, most beautiful mongrel mash-up in human history and give us back our country.”

While there are clear lessons for schools here on both intellectual and social-emotional learning, we thought we’d also highlight two speeches — one at Harvard University this year and another from Dickinson University a few years back — that focus on the essential value of literature in education and life. Given that literature — and the humanities more generally — is increasingly sidelined in higher education and in some precollegiate schools, we wanted to offer these comments as a reminder of why we teach literature in school and continue to read it afterward.

In Cambridge this May, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “Americanah” and other novels, spoke to the graduating class of Harvard College about the important link between truth-telling and literature — especially today:

“I urge you always to bend toward the truth. To ere on the side of truth. And to help you do this, make literature your religion. Which is to say, read widely. Read fiction and poetry and narrative nonfiction. Make the human story the center of your understanding of the world. Think of people as people, not as abstractions who have to conform to modernist logic, but as people — fragile, imperfect, with prides that can be wounded and hearts that can be touched. Literature is my religion. I have learned from literature that we humans are flawed; all of us are flawed. But even while flawed, we are capable of enduring goodness. We do not need first to be perfect before we can do what is right and just.”

Adichie’s comments reminded us of an earlier graduation speech at Dickinson University by novelist Ian McEwan. McEwan also spoke about the value of the literature in both education and life:

“I hope you’ll remember your time here at Dickinson, and the novels you may have read here. They would prompt you, I hope, in the direction of mental freedom. The novel, as a literary form, was born our of the Enlightenment, out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it toward pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman, or child on Earth whose mind the novel cannot reconstruct. Totalitarian systems are rife with regard to their own interests when they lock up novelists. The novel is or can be the ultimate expression of free speech. So I hope you’ll use your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient, and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have.”

For an interesting reflection on the shift in the tone and tenor of graduation pieces in recent years, we also encourage you to read Henry Alford’s New York Times piece, “‘Assume the Worst’: This Isn’t Your Ordinary Graduation Speech.

Also worth reading is the Jessica Bennett’s New York Times piece, “Gender Letter: Stop Being Grateful! Graduation Advice from 12 Women.” The 12 include Abby Wambach, Anita Hill, Nora Ephron, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen Degeneres, Amy Poehler, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Anna Quindlin, and Joan Didion.

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