Kenyon College 191st Commencement Speech
The following is the prepared text of the address delivered on the occasion of Kenyon’s 191st Commencement. He spoke to the Class of 2019 assembled on Samuel Mather Lawn. (Video of Marsalis’s speech will be posted soon.)
President Sean Decatur, the Board of Trustees, faculty, senior administrators, parents, grandparents, students, Murray Horwitz, Mark Rosenthal, Barry Schwartz and community members.
This morning we sit where generations have before us sat. We have completed courses, performed miracles, pulled all-nighters, made stupid mistakes, come back from abyss after abyss and we have finally scaled jagged mountains in glory. We are here at last — a year short of the new library, at least a year short of a winning football season, but we do have the first outdoor graduation in President Decatur’s six-year tenure. Hallelujah!
Faculty, administration, teachers, students and alumni alike decked out and dressed down in full regalia — just the sight itself says everything we need to know: This is a significant moment in all of our lives. It is an ending and a beginning distinguished by its certain uncertainty; a clear demarcation of an experience whose expiration date has come due, but whose promise begins as soon as tomorrow.
Graduates, look around and take in the intentions and best wishes of everyone who has traveled here to be with you in celebration of your achievements, which also burnish the reputation of this 194-year-old institution. Your dedicated people have come by every mode of transportation imaginable, and their presence is an expression of love, pride, respect and of protection. They are here to salute you, to join you in joy, and to ease your journey into the next phase of life. Handle the pressures of this day with grace and gratitude. It is an important ceremonial first step towards developing the type of grit and gravitas that life will demand from you in so many unforeseeable ways.
Today is a most important day. You have succeeded in aligning and convening the stars in your constellation with the stars in our constellation. The Kenyon universe is all aglow; from our oldest alumni to our youngest baby, the entire expanse of a human life is here in support of this class. They are all around you, enveloping you in feeling. Calibrate where you are in the time/space of generations who have worn the purple and white and embrace your position in this continuum of generations. With your diploma, you are also handed a responsibility to provide fresh meaning to this tradition that will divide your past and future into three two-word epochs: before college, in college and after college.
In these years you have been educated in critical thinking through the classics and philosophy. You have been provoked into curiosity and awe for the world around and inside of you through the musical precision of math and the molecular facts of the unseen. You have been given insights into the ways of folks and of their laws, customs and societal symbology. You have learned through foreign languages that our planet is diverse, complicated and lyrical, and that it slowly and deliberately reveals itself through the give and take of honest communication. You have been led even deeper into a relationship with the soul-expanding presence and timeless power of the fine arts.
Kenyon College has taught you to perceive the world from different perspectives, and to come to reasonable, intelligent and empathetic conclusions about what you see and feel.
When I was 9 years old, I worked in a gas station owned by a Mr. “Bossy” Clay. To give you a time perspective, at this time, gas was 35 cents a gallon. Whenever you gave Bossy some mouth in response to his instructions, he would shake his head and gruffly admonish,“Boy, I been your age, you ain’t been mine.” It was funny then, a phrase we repeated often in jest and ridicule. But as time has passed, Bossy’s perception has become clearer to me. As you age, time gets shorter and becomes more present. Your experiences are condensed, and things that used to pass unnoticed have your full attention. Any game with a clock exemplifies this. Not one player is nervously glancing at it in the first quarter, but check them in the fourth. That clock is all they see. And time runs out no matter where you happen to be in the game.
Be aware of where you are in time and space, and mind how you experience and digest events, because: Things happen. Little things you repeat every day that slowly make you into yourself with every repetition, like practicing an instrument, or playing your favorite videogame, or having your morning coffee; big things that you choose, like getting married; big things you have absolutely no choice in, like health issues or natural disasters; things that you think are glorious, but they aren’t — like what you liked, that everyone liked, when you are at any age that a lot of people like the same things together, and y’all feel that your sheer numbers will make it significant, but it won’t (like the latest fad); and then there are earth-shaking things that will never happen again, but you don’t know it until it’s too late, like the last time you saw a close friend who then passes away. Things happen, and it’s just not possible to pick and choose a menu of experiences you would like to have from the arc of your life journey. Some of the most profound things that will happen to you won’t be your choice.
You see, though we all envision our future and work towards it, the present is all we can actually experience. And it is often pressurized, chaotic and overwhelming. In response, popular pastimes distract us from a terrifying reality: the future is always now. So I ask you: Please be present today for your friends and loved ones, and allow the presentness of today to develop into a daily presentness throughout your adulthood.
Graduates, you will hear that an education in human ideas is impractical, foolish and a waste of time and money. But I will submit to you that your relationship to the ideas and ideals that you have developed here at Kenyon over these years is the very thing that will deepen in meaning and enrich your lives as you mature. That relationship saves you from an all-consuming bitterness over left- or right-wing politics you were never taught to evaluate; from an innocuous future of binge consumerism, or a cultish enslavement to online cookie-cutter predators that surround you with a curated world, tailored to your endlessly devolving tastes because everywhere you look you only see yourself.
Class of 2019, make no mistake about it. Live as if this is the fourth quarter. The world is a serious place, and your life is the most serious thing you have. Don’t spend it away in a pleasure-induced stupor at the cost of your personal power. This moment is not a rehearsal. Soon, you will receive your diploma, and that parchment is also a suit of armor. Should you choose to embody the ideas and ideals of this Kenyon College education, that armor will serve you well on this unruly, primed battlefield that passes for a globe spinning somewhere in the cold dark universe.
In the tranquility of this lush environment on this crisp morning, these words may seem far fetched, but the entire world awaits your presence in a conflict as old as dust that is forever being fought over the dignity, and meaning, of life on this planet. The victory of humanity hangs in the balance, and every sword is needed.
Because the future is always now, we need you now. We need your energy and enthusiasm, we need your optimism and skill and insight. We need your creativity and your humanity. We need you to solve the world’s drinking water crisis; you to clean up the oceans; you to create a lower-class economic infrastructure so everyone has a sense of value through participation; you to teach us how to value sharing as much as taking; you to show us how to fix our close-minded and close-eared democracy; you to free us from proudly accepting reduced personal freedoms; you to insist on leveling the plane of opportunity for the disenfranchised in your chosen sphere of influence; and most of all, we need you to do all of the things Alexa is not and will not be able to do. We need your participation in your own life, and we need you now, because your life is our lives. And it is the most serious thing we have.
I once gave a teacher of mine a composition. He looked at it for 15 seconds and handed it back with disdain. When asked what was wrong, he replied, “There is not a single rest or breath in it. All great music has some type of rest. You have to breathe.”
And so I say to you graduates in this proud moment at the end of a phrase: Though giddy with excitement, relief and release; full with celebration, feasting and imbibing of beverages, take this time also to reflect and to genuflect, to show gratitude no matter how difficult, to collect your experience; to enjoy what you have done; to cement friendships; and to begin a graceful transition from what-was to what-will-be by embracing this day with an open-eyed intensity. The genius composer and pianist Duke Ellington once said, “There is no art without intention. You have to play with intent to commit something.”
Your life is your art. Be intent on committing to living it in person. Start by trying to stay off your cellphone at the family dinner. It’s your graduation! Congratulations.