November 26, 2018
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Editors’ note: The following is a transcript of the address Royal Rhodes, the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies, gave at the Baccalaureate ceremony on May 15, 2015, celebrating the Class of 2015. The address that award-winning journalist Martha Raddatz H'15 P'15 gave at the Commencement ceremony on May 16, 2015, is available here.
Dear Class of 2015, let me thank you for the honor and privilege of being chosen as your Baccalaureate speaker. When I was asked if I accepted, I immediately blurted back: Yes, yes, yes! You have given me such a true gift. I want to express my deep gratitude for this honor and ask you for one more gift. I hope today and in coming days you each will be able to express your own gratitude to those who have helped you arrive at this special day: your families, friends, classmates, instructors, coaches and community members. And I hope that they in turn will find ways to express gratitude to those who helped them along the way — since none of us are here by our own efforts alone. Keep that rippling wave of gratitude flowing outward. As our alumnus John Green and his fearless nerdfighters would say: That would be awesome!
Four years ago I had the great treat of speaking to all of your class in Rosse Hall at your first official event at Kenyon: Learning on the Hill. So this "final lesson" brings us full circle. I said back then that some who embarked on learning at a new place might look for the security of a strict code of rules: what they might see as the Ten Commandments of learning. At Kenyon, I said, it would be more probably called the Ten Suggestions, and then proceeded like an academic David Letterman (goodbye, Dave!) to do a countdown. Among those suggestions, I reminded you that:
And I ended that talk by asking you to think about the whole nature and purpose of learning: beyond just accumulating knowledge and practical skills in communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and instrumental strategies to meet the changing problems of what is called "the real world" (but remember the four years here have been as real as the world ever gets!). The skills I just listed are important, but not the heart of the matter. That's why I quoted to you a famous line from the poet Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one, wild and precious life?" ["The Summer Day"]. Your response, now and in the future, to the truly Big Questions is the real final lesson, and one you will revisit all your days.
One signpost on that path has been given to all of us in a phrase used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." But justice does not just happen; it takes work — often thankless effort — plus patience and sacrifice. Another way I would put this is: The human arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward love. "Love in action," as Dostoevsky wrote, "is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams." At its core the work of justice is the work of the heart, the work of love: exasperating, unexpected, reconciling, fully human, fearless and flawed. Love and justice are not about success or failure, but about the human work to which they call us all. Education without a commitment to social responsibility and justice, without conscience, is ultimately an empty way of living. Remember — remember — that the only legacy of value we leave behind us is love. That is the great final lesson for our wild and precious life.
And that is the lesson you have been fortunate to see embodied here in those whose lives display that wider definition of justice as compassionate dedication to the common good. Think of people here who have cared for you, taught you, challenged you, comforted you. The list is long, an alphabet of angels unawares. Think of those students who through post-graduate awards have been able to realize dreams of international service and learning, helped by the wise counsel of Jane Martindell, assisted by Vicki Miller. Think of the humane and literally life-saving help from Patrick Gilligan. Or the people whom you may know only by a first name who make this Hill more like a family than an institution: Mary Ann in the Village Market; Julie in the post office; Mary, Denise and Darlene in the bookstore, Pam in Ascension, Carmen in the library, the workers in maintenance and grounds, the custodial staff, security, food services, and the faculty and College staff. Think of them when you imagine how you will find your own Kenyon beyond this sheltering space, and how you would treat others with the empathy and sense of justice you have exercised on this Hill.
Look too at how your own classmates have shaped our common life by generous service in Knox County, reminding us that "love is a place." Think of what you and your friends have done through volunteer work at Eastern Star, Wiggin Street School, East Knox, Head Start, the Red Cross, the Animal Shelter, A Hand At Home, the Health Department, STEM and KEEP Mentoring, and so many other projects. The lesson of radical love and justice is visible in the hope and healing you give. It was also found in the life of your classmates, Kathryn Currier and Andrew Pochter, whose names are written on our hearts, whose dream was for a world of peace and reconciliation: a dream you can make a living reality in your own future. As I wrote for Andrew's memorial: "The hearts that justice shapes will never die."
For that future, here are aspects of my hope for us:
I will end this little talk with a poem for you, written from this old heart:
A Final Lesson
A chorus sings "Kokosing" in farewell,
on Middle Path, near "fields of asphodel."
You leave behind these four bright college years
of lessons, sharp debates, with joy, with tears;
but you will keep the friendships and the love
that make the sun and stars and cosmos move.
The poet asks: How will you shape your wild
and precious life? — as open as a child
to wonder at the world, and by your hands
change it, so that justice stronger stands
everywhere, for all. You learned this here
Now ask us with a voice made strong and clear,
one final lesson — sharper than a knife:
Kenyon, will you love us all our life?
Yes, yes, yes!
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The human arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward love. In your dedication to justice for all, in your work of love, Class of 2015: Be AWESOME.