Change the world—and for the better!

At thousands of college graduation ceremonies this May and June, commencement speakers will be exhorting graduates to “Go forth and change the world” or “Go forth and make a difference.”

The commencement speaker at graduation in Santa Fe last week, long-time tutor Eva Brann, decided to subject those sentiments to scrutiny—and, in the process, explain just how St. John’s prepares its students to meet life after graduation.

Here is her meditation on why “I want to change the world” isn’t a very sensible sentence:

This announcement has three parts: first, I want; second, to change; third, the world. So, first, “I want.” “I want” is about me, and if what I want is to be a “difference-maker,” it’s about my self-satisfaction. Recall yourselves as Juniors, when you struggled with Kant on morality. No one expected you to get it all. (In fact, there are some books we ask you to read largely so that you can reread them later in life, on the logical hypothesis that you just can’t read them for the second time unless you’ve read them for a first time.) As regards Kant, this much may have stuck: He thinks that doing right is not doing what you want but what you ought, and that, in fact, the only proof of your doing as you ought is that it hurts some, that your mere wanting is thwarted. So when it’s the world I’m planning to change, maybe “I want” should yield a little to “I should.”

Second, “change.” Why exactly “change”? There are many others modes of action besides this current mantra. There’s protecting and maintaining, activating and fulfilling, restoring and reviewing. Talk of mere change is just terminally vague babble—vague promise and vague threat. Its antidote is specific thinking expressed in adequate language. That very requirement, thoughtfulness and its articulation, was an explicit aim of the Program, to which you devoted the last four years.

Third comes “the world.” It’s a big space in which to thrash about. In choosing it as the venue of my action, I’ve pretty much committed myself to the silliest of all maxims of action—another current mantra. It goes: Only if x happens, can y occur. Filling in the most common variables for this formula: “Only if the world changes radically, can little kids learn to love reading,” in other words, never—guaranteed. The implied lesson is: Forget about “the world”—stay local and avoid stymieing preconditions.

And now the usually missing fourth part to the saying “I want to change the world,” namely, “for the better.” Your four years with us were, I think, above all intended to give you a head start in answering for yourself the most crucial of human questions: What is good? For making anything better without a view of good seems to me just groping in the murk of possibility.

So, you’ll recognize two of the ways that the Program and the College were meant to help you with making the here better now. One was that we, students and tutors together, read remarkable books by unusually gifted authors, books that offered us various, often contrary models of the good life and its conditions. You may often have thought that our, the tutors’, intention was to throw you into a permanent muddle. But, of course, the opposite was our hope: It was that you would find in your reading the elements of your own firm view of what is good universally and therefore what is better in particular. This crystallization is surely still in process for many of you. But my experience of six decades of alumni tells me that it does happen, perhaps over the next score of years. Much more will go into it than what you learned here, but that learning will, so alumni often say, be the informing reference of your experience. That ability to specify the universal is the second of the two ways our Program readied you for great deeds.

This is the way that liberal education prepares young people to meet the world: by presenting for their consideration the deepest human thinking about living well, and by giving them a training ground for putting their considered beliefs about living well into practice. Four years of this work allows them to hit the ground running when they land in the real world.

Liberal education, undertaken at the gateway of adulthood, is the perfect opportunity for young people to examine their notions of self and change, of the world and the good. Making the best use of this opportunity helps many to find their own reasons to be unselfish, to be prudent in dealing with change, to be effective in acting locally, and to be steadfast in their convictions about the good. And nothing in life could be more important—and, I might say, more useful.

Let us wish this year’s graduates the greatest of success in their individual endeavors to “specify the universal”—for their own sakes, and for the sakes of all those they will touch in their journeys through life.

P.S.: You can read the entirety of Ms. Brann’s convocation address HERE.