Thursday, May 17, 2012

Age of longing

Today was Lang graduation, which always leaves me feeling strangely empty. Why is that? It might be the artificiality of us all dressing up in hired pseudo-medieval regalia and acting out some scene from a bad movie in a rented church - a space which hasn't had any part in anyone's experiences moving toward graduation. (We've outgrown the church on our block, so this is an unfamiliar neighborhood too.) There used to be a nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality to it, heightened by the presence of a fusty brass ensemble playing Renaissance music, as if all the assembled family members didn't know how unlike conventional schools we are... Now it feels more like the joke's on all of us in higher ed.

It might be from realizing how few of the graduates I know. Although I recognize more students than I used to, mainly because of the first year program and my faithful attendance of theater and dance performances, there still seemed a lot fewer than one might feel entitled to expect for all the teaching one does. (Not quite half of the students in my first year seminar eight semesters ago were there...) It can't be, surely, that studying with me makes people leave without graduating?! But it does in any case confirm how small a part what we Religious Studies folks do plays in most Lang students' careers.

It might also be the sense that the future's pretty scary for graduates - and has been for several years. Whatever we've done for our students, it's not enough to assure them bright prospects. I think our dean was trying to be both realistic and encouraging when she mentioned a talk she'd heard about the alternative economy of barter and sharing in Spain, where over 40% of young people are unemployed, but it's a pretty cold comfort. Our faculty speaker was trying, too, in a paean to Occupy Wall Street, the most "incandescent" political moment he's experienced (he's my age, "born too late" for the sixties), and the important contributions made to it by The New School and its students. OWS was huge for many students last semester. But I'm afraid most students will instead remember his rather grim observation that every generation has a right to have illusions of innocence, but this generation has been denied even that.

He also mentioned that he'd had several "surreal" conversations with graduating seniors contemplating their next steps, and that certainly rang true for me too. I've had many such, and with recent graduates too, who are in limbo, uncertain where to turn. We faculty are happy-sad to see students go and very happy when they come back to visit, but it's just sad when they come back in perplexity.

There's also the melancholy of the passage of time itself, which I felt most keenly seeing a student who was in the Religion and Theater class two years ago, standing with her mother and sister. I remembered that her father passed away the semester she was in our class. I'm sure they were missing him something terrible. Moments like these make not just the passage of time but its ineluctability palpable.

I'm not sure what it says (a good thing, surely), but the only really inspiring words were spoken by the student speaker. It was the most serious and best-crafted such talk I can remember and, starting in something like the scary dizziness of this moment, rose to a sober but real hopefulness. He began with Kierkegaard's argument that it's from despair than authenticity becomes possible. There followed an amazing ode to what we do, in the liberal arts and at The New School, a diverse community of individuals "not willing to settle for a life of falsity." Imagine that - a talk about the liberating power of truth and its pursuit, in 2012! Turns out we've been equipping people for lives of truth and meaning after all, and in the best way. He quoted a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which perfectly characterizes what we are about:

If you want to [teach people how to] build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Wise and empowering words for an age of longing.

Congratulations and best of luck to all the members of the class of 2012! Our best wishes go with you as you voyage on. You'll find the way.

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