Good afternoon. This is an extraordinary group of graduates, and I’m honored to stand with them as we celebrate their achievements.
Commencement talks are notoriously difficult to write. You want to be profound, but you know ultimately no one remembers commencement talks. So you end up trying to be wise, but ultimately just reveal something about yourself, and if you’re lucky, or clever, you manage to place your revelation in a useful context. I thought I might break from this formula, but it occurs to me that the formula endures because it has value. Seeing oneself in context may be the only antidote we have to the rampant narcissism that’s unraveling our shared institutions, large and small.
So let me establish some context.
I love Goddard because we don’t have to live here.
We come together twice a year and go back to fabulously complex lives. While living in community we narrow our bandwidth, focus on one facet of what matters to us, but we also go home and place that facet into life’s tumult. Our coming and going allows us to be several things at once.
In my other life I teach leadership and engage in community development work. I observe and think about how we achieve our aspirations, and I’m especially interested in how we hold space for new leaders. In practical terms, this means I help people understand their skills and capacities in relation to their goals and circumstances. Some might say this is what I do at Goddard, but it’s not exactly true. At Goddard I teach art. Art breeds a kind of arrogance. Artists often feel entitled to enter unknown terrain fearlessly and, too often, recklessly. I’m guilty of having indulged this arrogance from time to time, to bad ends. But, as with so many things, it’s complicated, and I’ll admit that my indulgences have also led to rewards. But it’s through reflection on my indulgences that I’ve a sense of my context, and that ultimately I’ve learned to be aware of my capacity to blindly stumble toward bad endings. And to stop myself from putting my needs ahead of the needs of those I say I care about.
I can pinpoint when I was first taught to be fearless, maybe reckless, as an artist. When I was 17, my high school art teacher introduced a six-week unit on jewelry making. I was the only boy in the class, and my complaints about the unit were in the minority. And my complaints were transparently false. I said the skills we were being taught were useless to me, when everyone in the class could see that I saw the unit as an assault on my masculinity—which as a closeted gay kid was assaulted by other kids and adults everyday. Compassionately, and with more than a dash of feminism, my art teacher went out of her way to make a point: soldering metal is a basic skill, and can be applied in multiple contexts. Loud enough for me to hear, she told a group of girls, “when you get around to buying a house, knowing how to solder copper will allow you to fix your pipes.” This helped me find a dignified way into metalsmithing. And she was right. When I bought a house I was able to fix a leaking pipe. But more ambitious projects and woeful experience taught me I can’t go much further than a simple patch.
I’m not a plumber. And I shouldn’t pretend to be.
And yet, it’s not that simple. Without a proclivity to fearlessness, without a belief that my skills can be applied from one realm to another, I would never have jumped into community development work. I would’ve been too cautious to help start a couple of community arts centers, and I wouldn’t, yet again, be jumping into building a big, unruly center for arts and economic development. But I now know myself well enough to see my strengths, to know I can’t do everything I imagine myself capable of, and know I need to work with a team that holds the expertise I don’t have. I know good work emerges from good relationships. I know someone has to take responsibility for cultivating the community and sense of share values that allow for success. But most importantly, I know that my desire to do something doesn’t qualify me to do it. I have to be accountable for who I am, and to do that I need to see myself in context. Knowing my strengths allows me to be valuable to my colleagues. And acknowledging my weaknesses, paradoxically, gives me more value.
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the MFAIA program. Established by the brilliant Danielle Boutet in 1997, the program was meant to be an antidote to the careerism that’s rampant in the arts. It was meant to help artists find places in the world where they might maximize their value. And, yes, it was designed to prompt, cajole, and sometimes force reflection on an artist’s context. This program has had great moments and hard times. But it’s always held its promise. There has always been, within it, the possibility of transcending the everyday and doing the extraordinary.
I came to the program in the summer of 2000 as a spy. Having learned to be a progressive educator at the Highlander Center for Education and Social Research, and having worked to develop a community-based practice as a progressive educator, I knew that my integrity required me to undertake graduate study in a Progressive Education context. And I wanted to see how higher education undertook this messy, time consuming, and complicated pedagogy. It wasn’t always an easy fit for me, as some of my colleagues will remember. I’m especially prickly when pedagogy, that is the method through which we teach and learn, gets tangled up in or mistaken for ideology, a system of theories that perpetuate values. While ideology is a danger that always threatens this method, I’ve seen the promise persevere because it’s deeply democratic, trusting there’s genius in every individual. And the promise of Progressive Education is contained in the seed of real learning experience: once we’ve experienced transformational learning, we understand that engaging our critical faculties starts to actualize the genius within. I came here to spy on this method, have been routinely vexed by its idiosyncrasies, but, like so many others, ultimately transformed. And for that I’m grateful.
On the precipice of our second twenty years, the question of transformation and genius stands again before us. Anniversaries offer occasions for deep reflection on the good times and bad, methods and values, and for visioning. Unlike when we began, our program isn’t held by one genius or two or a small handful. Rather, it’s held in community. And the questions, within the arts and within society, that guided its creation are today different. Our challenge is to look at who we are and weigh that against who we need to be – both in the small ways that allow us to function as a program, and in the big ways that allow us to impact the world. Those matters cannot be divorced.
I started by suggesting that knowing our personal context is an antidote to the narcissism that’s wrecking out our shared institutions. Let me end by turning that around. I’m really talking about competence. Reflecting on context, seeing ourselves in complexity, knowing how others see us, helps us become competent. It also calls us to accountability and allows us to hold others accountable. And ultimately, it’s our competence and accountability that will rebuild the world.
We all know there’s a lot to do.
In one way or another, over the past few years, I’ve had the profound pleasure of witnessing each of the artists sitting next to me, and I know each of them has wrestled with the contextual questions I’ve named this afternoon. I know each of them are engaged with the life-long process of assessing their place in the world and discerning how their labors might achieve great ends, might best help others, and might assisting in building a just and flourishing culture. So I won’t exhort them to look for their context or to be of service. They’re already doing that. Instead I’ll exhort them, and all of us assembled, to be transparent about the context of our lives and always searching. Tell your stories. Be aware of your gifts, and don’t apply them in the wrong places. Be honest about your limitations, and know that such honesty is valued and makes your stronger. Be aware that the opposite of this transparency—dishonesty about our context and competence—is to indulge in the narcissism that’s grinding our shared institutions to dust. To indulge that narcissism is to fuel the racism and sexism and transphobia and homophobia that’s deadening our culture and assaulting us everyday. To engage that narcissism is to be culpable in the culture of death that today threatens all our lives. It’s not brave or noble to achieve a title, an office, or fame. It’s brave and noble to manifest your truest gifts in the right places, in the fullest way you can; to think and problem-solve, and see the world both as it is and how it might be. I exhort you: Be brave. Be noble.
Thank you and congratulations.