By Brian Rosenberg

Behind the desk in my office is a wall lined with books. I am somewhat particular about the way those books are organized, so they begin on the left with British literature, arranged chronologically and alphabetically and by genre according to a system only I would know, then move to American literature, then to literature written in languages other than English. The first book on the top shelf on the left-hand side is, of course, Beowulf. The last at the other end of the long wall is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Between are not just John Donne and Toni Morrison and Bertolt Brecht. Between, in many respects, are the ideas and words and moments of beauty and insight that have shaped my life.

I note this because we are living in a moment when many people—maybe most people—want to judge the value of what you have experienced in the classrooms and laboratories and studios at Macalester in utilitarian terms, which generally means in terms that are measurable and, most often, monetary. I am not without sympathy for this desire. A college education is one of the largest financial investments you will ever make; you and your families should expect a return on that investment. I have two sons in their twenties who attended excellent and expensive liberal arts colleges. One is in law school; one will go through a ceremony not unlike this one in two weeks. I want them to get jobs.

But that is not all I want for them, nor is it all I want for you. What I want for them, and for you, are lives of meaning and purpose and happiness, and what I hope Macalester has done is make it more likely that you will have the opportunity to lead such lives.

Gauging the extent to which we do this, or even describing how we do it, is achingly difficult. How do you measure personal growth? What formula do you apply to determine the evolution of intellectual curiosity or empathy or love? When will you know the degree to which Macalester has made a difference in your lives? Now? In ten years? When you return to campus for your 50th reunion? How do I determine or describe the value to me of reading those hundreds and hundreds of books? What metric would the Department of Education suggest I use?

Of a few things we can be sure. Everything you have experienced at this place—every poem you have read, every experiment you have conducted, every race you have run, every friendship you have made, every hurt you have felt—is now and forever a part of who you are; everything you have contributed is now a part of who we are, and a part of what future students at Macalester will experience. We hope we have been a worthwhile stop along the way in your journey, which now takes you beyond this campus; we know you have been an important part of the Macalester journey that is about to begin its 143rd year.

Tradition suggests that, in these remarks, I am supposed to offer you advice. Here it is: Don’t confuse education with wisdom. Reject those who are peddling fear, bigotry, and hatred. Try at least once a day to see the world through the eyes of someone else. Don’t get into a three-point shooting contest with Steph Curry. And be wary of those who are overly free with advice.

Let me conclude by taking you back to my books. There are 741 of them on that wall—yes, I did count—and I have read virtually all of them (though I confess to this private gathering that I skipped through long sections of Finnegans Wake and that three volumes of the collected works of James Fenimore Cooper are more than any human being should have to endure). With rare exception, I don’t remember more than a character here and a plot line there. But they helped mold me into whatever, for better or worse, I am today. More important than any information within them was the process of exploration that took me through their pages—the act itself had deep and intrinsic value that transcended any particular outcome.

Only those who have pushed their minds and their hearts into unfamiliar places will know what I mean. You all, I hope, know what I mean. 

This column is drawn from remarks President Rosenberg made at the May 14, 2016 Commencement ceremony.

August 3 2016

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