Graduation Message to our Seniors!

May 18, 2020

Dear Graduating Seniors of the Humanities Program,

Today we were meant to be celebrating Commencement together on Old Campus. In one of the few remaining ceremonies in modern life, you should have spent the morning lining up in parades and marching across courtyards in black gowns with flat-topped caps balanced crooked on your heads. You should have heard yourselves praised and celebrated and challenged to improve the world. You should have felt alienated by grandiose orations but also, in spite of knowing better, impressed by them. You should have had the chance, amidst the swirling crowds, to finally introduce your parents to your friends and your favorite professors. You should have been in close physical contact with others all day, shaking hands and hugging; you should have surprised yourself by slinging an arm around the shoulders of people you didn’t realize you cared for and posing for photos. You should have felt the unsettling swell of pride, sadness, relief, and expectation that comes over us in moments like this one, moments that bring together the people who are close to us from different parts of our lives, moments that stretch to do the work of both endings and beginnings.

Ceremonies often seem superficial to us today, so you might be surprised to feel yourself really missing graduation. But there is good reason for you to miss it. We are naive to be so dismissive of ceremonies. They help us to understand ourselves by offering us the outlines of a story to tell about our lives. On our computers’ clocks, time moves forward second by second, steadily, no instant more important than any other. In a person’s life, however – as one of you noted in your senior essay – some days weigh more; some hours pause for us to inspect as they march by; some occasions divide life into chapters, structure the narrative we’ll tell ourselves years later, and give us the companionship of shared moments and memories. This plague has taken away baptisms and bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals, and graduations; it has stolen the tools we use to sculpt time into something with the shape of a life. Like art and literature, ceremonies help us turn the bewildering flux and rush of what happens to us into meaningful human experience.

I hope the works of art and literature you have studied in the Humanities major have offered you glimpses of just how much there is to notice, to imagine, and to understand in a full human life. I hope that college has helped you to see the worldview you inherited as a child from a new perspective, without losing sympathy for your earlier self. I hope you have felt how exhilarating it is to be intellectually free, and how daunting too. And I hope you have found friends who share your love of ideas. 

My sincerest congratulations to all of you, and to your families too. Even though we can’t be together on Old Campus, don’t let the day slide away. Mark the moment. Enjoy a sense of what you’ve done. Let yourself wonder what’s ahead. And resolve, as you start the next part of your lives, to obey the simple but demanding command at the heart of every graduation address: Be good!

With warmest wishes,

Bryan Garsten

Professor of Political Science and Humanities

Chair, Humanities Program

Yale University