Spring 2007 Commencement Address
College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters
School of Education
April 29, 2007
Professor Charles Tilly was scheduled to deliver our commencement address today. Professor Tilly is a distinguished professor of sociology at Columbia University, and he has great affection for UM-Dearborn as a result of his time on the Ann Arbor faculty twenty years ago. He therefore has great admiration and affection for you, the graduates of the University of Michigan-Dearborn on this fine spring afternoon. Regrettably, Professor Tilly is recovering from a recurrence of lymphoma in New York City, and has been prevented from traveling from New York to receive an honorary degree from this campus and to provide the commencement address. He will postpone these honors until the December commencement on the Dearborn campus, and we look forward to greeting him on that occasion.
He has asked me to extend his greetings and congratulations to you, and to extend some special thoughts about your futures on his behalf. This I am very pleased to do. And in fact, I have an advantage that most of our commencement speakers do not have: a personal knowledge of the talent, achievement, and character of our UM-Dearborn students.
I would like to offer a fairly personal set of greetings and congratulations to you. And I’ve decided to do so around some of the men and women I’ve come to know in my career whose personal qualities have made the biggest impact on me – in the hope that you too will have learned, and will continue to learn, something about living by having the example of people who embody admirable characteristics of personality and character. So I would like to offer some personal reflections on several important virtues: courage, compassion, and integrity.
I begin with the virtue of courage -- Courage in our responses to the everyday obstacles and sorrows we all face, eventually. Why not start with the example of Chuck Tilly himself? Professor Tilly has coped with a serious illness, over a number of years. And he has faced these challenges with courage and good spirits throughout. In fact, he began his most recent book while sitting in the chair of the chemotherapy infusion center! Throughout his travails he has remained a dedicated teacher, with generation after generation of students learning from him and taking encouragement from him. Truly, the course of the science of sociology will be different because of Professor Tilly’s persistence as a scholar and teacher—and this in the face of difficulties of health and mortality that demand inner strength to confront. So what is courage? We might define it in these terms: it is the quality of character that permits a person to carry on as he or she ought to, even in face of pain, suffering, and the loss of hope.
I recently read a letter by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, to his friends during the final stage of a painful and debilitating illness—intestinal cancer. Hume is one of the great founders of modern philosophy; he was a bold thinker, a clear writer, and a path-breaking philosopher. He was an intellectual icon. He won many honors and recognitions, both during his life and after. But as much as anything, I admire his honesty and stoicism at the end of his life. He suffered much pain and indignity in his illness; and yet he persevered as a person of honesty, dignity, and good humor to the very end—considerate and caring to his friends, and reconciled to the difficulty of his life at its end. So this I recognize as courage. And I know that all of us – you young and successful graduates no less than we grey-haired administrators and faculty—will face such challenges, and I wish to all of you the inner resources that will carry you through life’s challenges. But this is not a gift of your DNA – it is a set of strengths to be cultivated through your own choices and actions, throughout the fullness of your lives.
I turn now to – compassion. Compassion is our ability to act generously in the face of suffering and need; it flows from a recognition of the human reality of the other. We perhaps think of compassion as a superficial virtue, easy to honor. But actually, I think it is a very challenging virtue, involving both the head and the heart. It requires a kind of knowledge that not everyone comes to easily—knowledge in the form of recognition of the lived reality of other people’s experiences. (Here is a hard question for you – do the young have a harder time in acquiring this knowledge than the old? Is there any truth to the old saying of “the cruelty of the young”?) We have to work at our ability to perceive the meaning and impact of circumstances in other people’s lives, in order to even begin to be able to act and react with compassion. And this is a form of knowledge discovery – something that you have perhaps learned as much through your experience in a course in women’s studies, exposure to a course on the holocaust or the Armenian genocide, or a service learning opportunity of tutoring a child. So knowledge is a part of compassion. But the heart is equally a part of compassion – that impulse within you to take a step or an action to address the suffering experience you have learned to understand.
A powerful example of compassion is to be found within our own history in metropolitan Detroit. I am thinking of the experience of Eleanor Josaitis and Father William Cunningham. I have heard Eleanor herself tell this story – of how she found herself as a suburban mother in 1967; how she saw the television reports of fire and strife in the city of Detroit on those hot July evenings; how she recognized the suffering and deprivation that these events reflected; and how she acted on that occasion to come together with Father Cunningham to form what eventually became the great social movement and human service agency known as FocusHope. Despite Father Cunningham’s death in 1997, FocusHope continues even now, forty years later, to be a powerful force for equity and justice, and Eleanor continues to be a passionately example to the rest of us, an example of a life transformed by compassion, and an example of the power of compassion. And we have many such examples in our community – for example, the establishment of ACCESS by our alumnus, Ismael Ahmed
Finally, consider integrity -- integrity in holding to the principles of honesty and commitment to principle that is easy to admire and yet costly to maintain. What is the opposite of integrity? Perhaps the best answer is “expediency”—the practical maxim that instructs us to “do what is necessary to achieve your goals.” The demands of integrity are often at odds with gaining our goals –at least in the short run. If your boss wants you to cook the books; if your peers would be happier if you agreed with their racist ideas – the short term calculation may recommend going ahead. But surely we most admire those people who stand by their convictions, who endure some risks to act on principle, and who speak the truth even against the odds. And this is integrity.
Here I think of another University of Michigan alumnus, Arthur Miller, who graduated from the Ann Arbor campus in 1938. He wrote many powerful plays, including The Death of a Salesman. And he wrote at a time when powerful forces threatened and bullied intellectuals, professors, journalists, and others. This was the time of McCarthyism, the dark period in American history when the power of the state was used to force people to lie, to betray their friends, and to side-step their principles and the blacklist punished non-conformists. (The great historian of the ancient Greek world, M. I. Finley, was a faculty victim of this witchhunt; forced out of his teaching position at Rutgers University, he went into exile in England and lived out his life outside the United States. Ironically, Finley was the author of a biography of Socrates that some of you will have read in the Honors Program. And Socrates, of course, sacrificed everything for his pursuit of truth.) Arthur Miller used his gifts to expose and oppose McCarthyism. He wrote the absolutely classic play, The Crucible, in 1953 as an allegory of this terrible time in American politics. The play demonstrated Miller’s own independence and courage. Miller was called by the House Sub-committee on Un-American Activities. He was faced with threats and the possible loss of his livelihood, and he was punished with a contempt-of-Congress finding. Nonetheless, he stood up to the committee; he spoke the truth; he lived by his principles. This is part of the legacy of the University of Michigan.
Why have I shared these stories with you on this happy occasion of accomplishment and finishing? Because your education and your growth as decent, strong human beings is just beginning. Because you will need to become even more thoughtful and receptive in the years to come, as you weigh the choices facing you and facing our country. Because courage, compassion, and integrity will be more important in your lives than the degrees you have earned or the professional successes you have achieved. The greatest thing in the world about being human, is that we set our own agendas. We create our own ambitions and expectations of ourselves. We decide what kinds of people we want to be. All of us on the faculty at the University of Michigan-Dearborn have the highest respect for you, our students. And we expect you to define yourselves in terms that will fulfill your lives and those around you.
So, on behalf of Professor Charles Tilly and on behalf of all of the faculty as well, I extend the warmest congratulation to you, the graduates of the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters and the School of Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Your hard work and dedication have brought you to this day, and your talents and achievements will bring good fortune to you and your families and will help provide prosperity and progress to our state of Michigan. And may the deepening of experience in the years to come bring to you ever more burnished qualities of courage, compassion, and integrity by which to life your lives.