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Photos by Wendy Edelstein (left) and Bonnie Azab Powell (center and right)

"Fail forward fast" (and other wisdom from the podium)

03 June 2005

Good graduation pictures, in capturing joy and a sense of accomplishment, resemble one another strongly. Good graduation speeches, if carefully written, strike their own singular chords. On these pages, examples of both, from the commencement season just concluded.

Department of Classics/Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology
Danielle Allen, Dean of Humanities, University of Chicago
I needn't tell you graduates that today is an important day. Henceforth, no one will ever ask you what you want to be when you grow up. Now they'll just ask you what you are. I hope that you'll always be able to answer, "I'm happy." Why have you, after all, bothered with all of that homework, those exams, the reading lists, Greek and Latin word order and syntax? If all you cared about was the certificate you're about to get, you wouldn't have worked hard enough to get into Berkeley in the first place, nor would you have decided to focus on ancient literature and culture. You've clearly been chasing something else: What could it be but happiness? Yes, surely that. So now the secret's out. All along, the adults kept asking you what you wanted to be when you grew up, but all along they were also winking to each other — there was always only one answer. They wanted you to be happy.

Department of English
Mark Danner, journalism professor, UC Berkeley
Whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time – the most difficult I remember – to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard. Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it's your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can't help but understand about that world – this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won't always make you happy.
Read the full text of Danner's remarks

African American Studies
Farai Chideya, political commentator
What is blackness? Is blackness the SPF of sunscreen you wear? Is blackness genetic? Is blackness cultural? Is Eminem blacker than Colin Powell? What are we really talking about here? What brought us into this space together?... I want you to imagine who you would be if you weren't black or whatever race you are. Just take a second and imagine if I wasn't black, if I wasn't white, or Latino, or whatever. And then take another step, and say who would I be if I was not this gender, male/female, if I was not this sexuality, if I was not born into the income level I was born into or living in the income level I was living in, if I was not someone born speaking English or Portuguese or whatever you were born speaking. Who are you? Is it possible there is a you after you have given up all of these identities?...I think right now the crossroads in blackness is to really decide how we operate using blackness as a set of ethical values, as opposed to something that somebody dumped on us when they look at us.

School of Journalism
Maureen Dowd, New York Times opinion columnist
If you would like to do great journalism, you have to be gutsy. This is the business we have chosen, as Hyman Roth said in The Godfather, and it's in trouble.... Certainly, we have desperate networks, as the TV suits flail about trying to negotiate a world without the sonorous echo of Tom, Dan, and Peter, trying to figure out what comes now....Even though we're in a perilous moment in American history, in a war in Iraq that has left us too strapped militarily to be prepared to properly face down growing nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran, the network newscasts are filled with reports on plastic surgery, miracle diets, dermatological breakthroughs, and UFOs. And now that summer is coming, we can look forward to Brian Williams' reports on killer sharks, killer bees, and killer bears. Those repetitive stories about hundreds of people in Iraq dying and losing limbs every week in car bombings because Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz didn't armor up the Humvees properly don't get the ratings of a good runaway-bride update.

Commencement Convocation
Benjamin Barber, political theorist, University of Maryland
When consumers are mistaken for citizens, when the market is encouraged to do the work of democracy, our culture is perverted and the character of our commonwealth undermined....What more cynical and effective way to subvert freedom than to urge women and men to be private solitaries, lonely shoppers, personal choosers?

....As you graduate from one of America's great public universities, the character and quality of our democracy and the possibilities for justice here and abroad are likely to depend on how you choose to exercise your freedom — whether you take the arts of liberty to be the arts of citizenship, or are content to think of them as the arts of shopping.

Boalt Hall School of Law
Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco
It's not good enough to talk about problems. You've got to have the courage and take the risks to manifest them. And if there's one thing I've learned in my life, and there's one reason I'm standing in front of you today, for better or worse, it's that I've always believed that the secret of success is failure, and that in order to determine a right way of doing something you've got to seek, over and over again, ways not to achieve success.... Have the willingness to fail, the willingness to be held accountable to your true self. That's my only advice in life that I could ever offer you. Fail forward fast.

Goldman School of Public Policy
Warren Beatty, actor/filmmaker
Although I've never known Arnold [Schwarzenegger] very well, I've always liked him.... But now that he's a politician, I say, why not rise to the higher levels of that calling, rather than denigrate your fellow politicians, calling them "stooges" and "girlie men" and "losers"? They give years of their lives in public service in the legislature of what is intended to be a representative form of government, where public policy on decisions affecting 38 million people's lives are adequately discussed — not a government by ballot initiatives financed by huge advertising monies that bypass a careful examination of a bill by the people's elected representatives. Can we accept that devotion to the building of the body politic is more complex and a little more sensitive than devotion to bodybuilding? Does that make me a "girlie man"?
Read the full text of Beatty's remarks, or watch the webcast

School of Information Management and Systems
John Battelle, technology entrepreneur
The most valuable resource in our culture is knowledge. You are not becoming just knowledge workers; you are becoming builders of knowledge refineries, the architects who drive how knowledge itself is created....The world wants more projects like yours. It stands ready to fund them, to tweak them, to hack them, to embrace them ... and then inspire you to do it all over again.... And if you can help someone turn information into knowledge, if you can help them make sense of the world, you win. It takes a special kind of person to do that: a knowledge architect, exactly what you have all chosen as your field of study and, I hope, your careers.

Department of Geography
David Loeb, Publisher/Editor-in-chief,Bay Nature magazine
I have to wonder what it does to us as a species to have our craving for beauty met by packaging and advertising; to have our need to be connected to the planet and other people on it replaced by an anonymous supply chain that links us, but only sort of, and certainly not in a humane way, to a factory worker in China or Honduras and then later to a landfill God knows where polluting goodness knows how many wetlands. Clearly, this way of living can't continue forever, and we are certainly condemning our children, or their children, to a very painful reckoning if we don't make some changes.

Language departments graduation
Anthony Bliss, Rare Books Librarian, UC Berkeley
The French have a notion that I find very useful: baggage. Not the stuff you lug through airports, but the furniture of your mind. It is composed of what you know and exists only in the minuscule synapses of your brains, but it is weightless and you carry it with you at all times. It consists of facts, ideas, concepts, principles, and all manner of social and intellectual data. This data might be dismissed by some as disassociated factoids (a wonderful term coined by one of our Beat authors), but you must have something to work with — your intellectual toolkit. You do not need Google to access it. It is ready at a moment's notice, even when the power is out. I like students to bring a lot of baggage with them to my classes or to the reading room. I really hate to have to explain who/when was Gutenberg. You should really have that factoid at the ready in your holster.

Department of Anthropology
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley
We are a nation and a world in great need of the anthropological imagination, one rooted in a deep appreciation of biological, historical, and cultural diversity. But often our wisdom and worldview are misunderstood. The new pope ... is a critic of cultural relativism. In a much-cited homily the former Cardinal Ratzinger held forth against the tyranny of "relativism," which he described as letting oneself be "swept along by every will-o-the-wisp idea or teaching." The "dictatorship of relativism," he said, "does not recognize anything as real or certain and is driven by egoism and personal desires."

I hope the new pope ... comes to understand that cultural relativism is neither about moral indifference nor modern egoism, but to the contrary is about approaching others ... with intellectual and emotional generosity, recognizing in them our shared humanity despite our inhabiting "many different mansions," or cultures, each representing a different way of being good, moral, and intelligent. If we ever needed a dose of modulating cultural relativism, it is now.
Read the full text of Scheper-Hughes' remarks

Area and International Studies
Darren Zook, Lecturer in Political Science, UC Berkeley
It may surprise some of you to learn that many of the so-called great philosophers have at some point in their musings tried to come to terms with the meaning of laughter. ... And so, as I began to re-visit the works of many of these luminaries of philosophical thought, I began to imagine myself at a dinner party with many of them, wondering how they might react to a bit of mischievous interrogation of their ideas and ways of thinking.... I can imagine Karl Marx fussing about the whole idea of commencement, ranting and raving and foaming at the mouth about the elitism of graduation and the class dominance it no doubt implies — something which I am sure he would not have seen as a laughing matter. " I'm not so sure about that, Karl; you might enjoy yourself at graduation," I would say. "After all, during commencement, school is not in session, and you know what that means: a classless society."

Department of Ethnic Studies
Christopher Edley, Dean, Boalt Hall School of Law
I [gave] a lecture several years ago in North Carolina, and in the audience were many people who had been leaders in the civil-rights movement during the '60s in the deep South. I was bemoaning the lack of substantial progress on issues of racial and ethnic justice over the past generation. And I said to that group of former leaders, "It's your fault. It's your fault, because people of my generation, coming of age in the '60s, watched what you were doing on the marches, in the streets, in the courtrooms, at the ballot box, and you were so outstanding in your leadership that many of us made the mistake of thinking that America's progress towards racial and ethnic justice was somehow inevitable, that somehow it was like water rolling down a mountainside and that we would get to the promised land. You made it look so easy, as though the natural state of America was to move continually toward justice.

The truth of the past generation is proof that nothing could be farther from the case. America does not move forward in a progressive vision of racial and ethnic justice on automatic pilot. That progress has to come because people will shoulder the burden of carrying us forward....What will be your struggle? What burden will you shoulder? What lives will you lift? Answer these questions and I assure you that joy and fulfillment will rain down upon you like, well, like a warm shower in the morning that makes a field bring forth its bounty or makes a garden blossom.