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University of California, Berkeley Commencement Convocation: Faculty Address by Professor Alan Dundes, Professor of Anthropology and Folklore
17 May 2002

Congratulations, Class of 2002, you made it! And thanks to all parents, friends, neighbors, in some cases spouses, in others children, and all those who may have helped you get to this important milestone occasion in your lives. You are a special class, a palindromic class, one of the very few to ever graduate from the University of California, Berkeley.

A palindrome is a word, line, or verse that reads the same forwards and backwards. I suppose the classic one is supposedly the very first sentence ever uttered on the face of the earth. According to folk tradition, Adam’s first words to Eve were: "Madam I’m Adam." Of course, this presumes that Adam not only spoke English, but also knew how to write or spell English words. The same kind of problem (regarding knowledge of English) occurs with respect to the great Napoleon’s alleged nostalgic reminiscence: "Able was I ere I saw Elba." In any case, the class of 2002 is, according to my calculation, only the third palindrome class of this institution. There was the class of 1881, and more recently the class of 1991, most of who are still around. You are the third palindrome class and I shall return shortly to the significance of this fortunate distinction of being number three. The next such class will not be until the class of 2112.

You should feel pride, great pride, graduating from the number one university, in the number one state, of the number one nation in the world! On the other hand, there are probably a few things you won’t miss all that much, once you leave the campus for good. Finding your way in and out of Dwinelle Hall which, according to campus legend was built by two brothers who didn’t get along---in one version, one brother was involved with the other brother’s wife—and they each started building Dwinelle from one end and that’s why the room numbering is so confusing. You probably won’t regret not having to dwell on this past season in Bear football, and noticeably wincing or flinching every time you see a car with a licence plate frame or surround, with the slogan of a local automobile sales agency proclaiming to the world that "Nobody beats Berkeley!" Actually, I have a solution for our football problems but unfortunately the chancellor and athletic director have not sought my advice. What we should do is to stop replacing our coach every couple of years but instead temporarily drop out of the Pac Ten and play all of our games, except the Big Game, against just one team, say, for example, Rutgers. In that way, we could be assured of a winning season! But as the proverb goes, "Winning isn’t everything---it’s the only thing." No, what I meant to say is "It’s not who wins or loses that counts, but how you play the game." Well, speaking of the importance of ritual, let us turn to today’s event which is definitely a win!

To more fully appreciate this afternoon’s ceremony, we must have recourse to folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s pathbreaking study of 1909, Les Rites de Passage. The very title of this work has become a standard part of the lexicon of both the social sciences and the humanities. Van Gennep’s discovery was that very different rites of passage, e.g., those involving birth or marriage or death, all seemed to follow the same sequence of three stages: separation, transition, and incorporation. We see this pattern quite clearly when we travel abroad. First we take formal leave of our home country, then we are in a state of transition as we move towards our destination, sometimes spending time in an airport transit lounge where we in one sense in the country where the airport is located, but in another sense, we are not officially in that country as we have not gone through the passport control. Finally, we arrive at our final port of call and we show our passports (and sometimes visas) which may be stamped by someone representing the host country whereupon we are duly admitted into the new realm.

In the present context, you are all in the transition stage, "betwixt and between" as it is sometimes called. You have completed the coursework for your degree, (with the exception of a few last minute papers or final exams), but you are not officially a graduate of UC Berkeley. In order to move from student to the status of alumnus, some university official has to utter the right magic words: "By virtue of the power vested in me by the Regents of the University of California…" sometimes accompanied by your receiving a blank scroll symbolizing the diploma that you will receive in due course. At that point, you can move your cap’s tassel, usually from the right front to the left front, immediately after the degree is conferred. Of course, many of you will go right on to face another arduous sequence involving a rite of passage as you make your way through law school, medical school, business school, graduate school, or the rough-and-tumble job market. Life, it seems, is nothing if not a series of initiations, transitions, and incorporations.

One reason why Van Gennep’s scheme resonates so well as that it consists of three stages. As all my students know very well, the number three is the ritual number of choice throughout the Indo-European and Semitic world. (This is in contrast to native American cultures whose peoples prefer the number four, and to the peoples of India and China who have a predilection for the number five.) Our whole culture is three-determined. We divide everything into threes including space and time. Whether it’s literary theory claiming that all literature exhibits a "beginning" a "middle" and an "end" or plays that conventionally have three acts or the division of literary periods into "ancient" "medieval" and "modern," or that our language distinguishes "past, present, and future" or the three degrees of comparison: "good, better, best," the pattern is constant. Are there really only three states: solid, liquid, gas (corresponding to land, sea, and air)? Are there really sharp lines between North, Meso and South America? What about the East, Middle West, and West in our own country? Are there really only three social classes: Lower, Middle, and Upper Class? Is there anything sacred about having three meals a day (and using three implements: knife, fork and spoon) (And when you order your steak in a restaurant, you must choose "rare, medium, or well-done") Of course, we find ways around this three-determinism. So in the class system, we distinguish "Lower-Middle, Middle-Middle, and Upper-Middle" just as my archaeology colleagues do the same within Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic time periods, not to mention the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages. Our day is usually divided into three eight-hour periods, the most common of which is the normal workday which runs from 9 to 5. Is there any reason why our basic governmental structure just happens to consist of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches? Just as our world is divided into animal, vegetable, and mineral? Do insects (members of the phylum Arthropoda) really have bodies divided into three parts: head, thorax and abdomen? And does the metamorphic continuum of some insects really involve the stages of larva, pupa, and adult? Does the human ear really divide into the outer, middle, and inner ear, the brain into cerebrum cerebellum, and medulla, the small intestine into the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum? Does the world really come in threes, or is that just the way we Americans see it?

Our educational system reflects the same pattern. There is primary education, secondary education, and higher education. In the latter, you concentrate in the humanities, the social sciences, or the natural sciences and you earn a B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. and you can graduate cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude. Ph.D. thesis committees typically consist of three members. It’s not just, as anthropologist Ruth Benedict noted, "we cannot see the lens through which we look", but we cannot easily escape the restrictive limitations of our own native categories. And limit it is. There is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Other days have to be referred to in reference to one of these three designations: the day before yesterday, the day after tomorrow. Same goes for kinship terms. We have parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. After that, it is "great great," "great-great-great." The limiting nature of three in our culture permeates our culture. In the Olympics, there are gold, silver, and bronze medals, nothing for a fourth place finish. (Just as in horse racing, there is win, place, and show.) As a professor of folklore, I try to teach my students that native categories are easily accessible in folklore. So there are three little kittens who lost their mittens, the three little pigs, the three bears, three men in a tub, three bags of Baa Baa Black sheep’s wool? And in our folksongs: Row, row, row your boat….Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb? Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man? Third time’s a charm and the game of "Tic Tac Toe" which one must get three x’s or three o’s in a row to win. SOS, the distress signal, is composed of Morse Code with S consisting of three dots, O of three dashes, and again S with three dots. Think also of our national pastime: baseball with its three bases, three strikes, three outs, box scores of "runs, hits, and errors" and the goal of hitting .300. Incidentally, I doubt the so-called "three strikes" law would have passed if it had been the "two strikes" law or the "four strikes" law? You don’t learn your "AB"s or your "ABCD"s; you learn your "ABC"s. Names are important so it’s no surprise that we prefer three names or organizations with three letter acronyms. The chant at the Olympics: USA. We are UCB or Cal. You are the class of "twenty" "o" "two" or "two" "thousand" "two." The advice (I’m supposed to be giving you advice on how to succeed in life) would include a trick when you are applying for a job or for a fellowship to give "three good reasons" why you should get the job or the fellowship. Two reasons aren’t enough; four reasons are one too many!

I mentioned that one of the tripartite formulas in American worldview involves time: past, present, and future. I want to say a few words about the future---that, actually, is what commencement or convocation speakers are supposed to talk about. Here I would like to suggest that you NOT overemphasize the concern with your future. Americans have a penchant for the future and tend to disregard the past. In this respect, Americans differ from many if not most of the cultures of the world who tend to worship the past. In these past-oriented cultures, education consists of replicating the past, often through rote memorization of ancient classics. Many of these past-oriented cultures are unable to forget old enmities and they tend to hold grudges forever. They are amazed that the United States can be friends and allies with Germany and Japan after opposing these two nations in World War II. But American folklore dictates "Forgive and forget," (or in the American gangster film dialogue version "Forget about it!"), "Let bygones be bygones" "Everybody makes mistakes" "That’s water over the dam," "under the bridge," and the like. Ancestor worship, or filial piety so characteristic of Asian cultures, for example, does not really resonate with Americans who favor children, not grandparents. We are a child-oriented, future-oriented culture and we often neglect the older generation and the past. I believe it was Henry Ford who said (in an interview in the Chicago Tribune on May 25th, 1916) "History is (more or less) bunk!" In America, where you are going is much more important than where you’ve been. We glory in our social mobility. Anyone can be president (except, so far, women, African Americans, Latinos, Jews, etc.) but that may change and it may change in your lifetime. I hope so. How many times in your life have you heard family members, teachers, friends ask you, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" The emphasis on the "future" starts early in life. Children may be encouraged to join such organizations as "Future Farmers of America’ or "Future Homemakers of America." In High School yearbooks, peers evaluate their classmates, especially with regard to who is "most likely to succeed." American children are taught to hope for the best; they like to look "forward" to future events; they want to know what’s "in store" for them, that is, what the future holds. Coming to Berkeley, you were constantly asked, "What are you going to major it?" Now, on the verge of leaving this exciting oasis and hub of intellectual stimulation, you are surely being overwhelmed with the inevitable "What are you going to do after graduation?" In American culture, there is a tremendous stress placed on the value of prediction (of the future). Polls are frequently taken to try to tease out or determine likely directions and trends, but once taken, they belong to the past, requiring that new polls be taken.

In the light of our culture, these are not unreasonable questions and tactics, but if once again, we try to see the lens through which we look, we can see that there is far too great an emphasis placed on the future. Whenever you go to hear a lecture, the introducer will typically plug the next speaker in the same series. When you go the movies, before you see the feature film, you are shown previews of coming attractions. Often these trailers are so enticing that you can’t help wondering why you are in the movie theater now. You should have waited until next week and attended the film advertised in the trailer which looks so much better than the one you are about to view. As a result of the undue emphasis on the "future," Americans often have trouble enjoying the present moment. My advice, for what it’s worth, take time to enjoy the present, savor the moment, take pleasure in "now" not worrying yourself to death about tomorrow. In one sense, tomorrow never comes; it’s always today. Now I am not suggesting that you completely ignore making future plans. That would be foolish and obviously counter-productive. But do realize that American culture seems to denigrate and demean the present in a never-ending push towards a future which may or may not ever materialize. Just recognizing that aspect of American culture may give you a welcome breather in the rat-race portion of your post-graduation career.

There’s a wonderful joke which suggests that we Americans are somewhat aware of our worldview and values. It is a joke told in different forms in many countries but it always involves caricature and stereotypes. We should beware of stereotypes as they tend to cramp thinking, but on the other hand, stereotypes exist and they are often transmitted via folklore. So there’s an international scholarly conference devoted to the elephant. The Englishman gives his paper on "Elephant Hunting in India." The Russian presents, "The Elephant and the Five-Year Plan." The Japanese scholar offers "The Elephant: How to make it smaller and more efficient." The Italian delivers, "The Elephant and the Renaissance". The Frenchman: "Les Amours des Elephantes" (or in other versions of the joke: "L’elephant dans la cuisine") The German gives, "The Elephant and the ReNazification of Germany" (or in other versions "The Military Use of the Elephant" or "Ein kurze Einführung in das Leben des vierbeinigen Elephanten" [A Short Introduction to the Life of Four-footed Elephants] in twenty four volumes, but dies after preparing the seventeenth for press.) And finally, the American rises to give his paper on "How to Build a Bigger and Better Elephant!"

Americans do believe in progress and there is almost certainly a kernel of truth in the joke. Future orientation is combined with a notion and expectation of progress, and nothing is impossible. "You ain’t seen nothing yet." More and more of what was once thought to be part of immutable nature, intractable and unchangeable nature, now seems to be fair game for human tinkering. With the genome and advances in cloning technology, we may indeed be able to build a bigger and better elephant. But at the same time, again looking at the lens through which we look, we ought to consider that "bigger" is not always "better." Cities all over the world are getting bigger as more and more people move from rural to urban sites, but that has created enormous problems with respect to environmental pollution and the general quality of life. What we can salvage in a positive way from the joke’s stereotype is the American delight in optimism. Especially at Berkeley, justly famous for the idealism of its students and faculty, we believe that we can make the world a better place, and that might serve as a credo for your class: Do your very best to leave the world a better place for your having been in it!

Speaking of giving advice, I feel fortunate as a folklorist to have a number of contemporary proverbs or samples of folk wisdom to share with you on this happy occasion. Most of this folk wisdom can be illustrated by an anecdote. For example, when you were a child, surely your parents at some point warned you "Not to talk to strangers." Well, last week I was driving down route 5 to L.A. and I made a rest stop at the Harris Ranch. I decided to use the facilities there. The first toilet stall was occupied so I went into the second one. I was no sooner seated when I heard a voice from the next stall:

"Hi, how are you doing?"

Well, I’m not the type to chat with strangers in a restroom, and I really don’t know what possessed me, but anyway I answered, a little embarrassed:

"Not bad"

And the stranger said: "And what are you up to?"

Talk about your dumb questions! I was really beginning to think this was too weird! So I said:

"Well, probably just like you I’m driving to L.A."

Then, I heard the stranger all upset, say:

"Look, I’ll call you right back, there is some idiot in the next stall answering all the questions I’m asking you. Bye!"

Time does not permit my illustrating some of the other expressions of wisdom I’d like to share with you and most of them may not have yet made it into the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs or other canonical collections, but nevertheless they make pretty good sense. You be the judge.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.

Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

The only time the world beats a path to your door is when you’re in the bathroom.

The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Those that live by the sword get shot by those who don’t.

If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you.

If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all the evidence that you tried.

If at first you do succeed, try not to look too astonished.

If you try to fail and succeed, what have you done?

Two wrongs are only the beginning.

It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.

No one is listening until you make a mistake.

No wonder kids are confused today. Half the adults tell them to find themselves; the other half tell them to get lost.

Learn from your parents’ mistakes—use birth control.

Be nice to your kids---they’ll choose your nursing home.

If you look like your passport picture, you probably need the trip.

"Heck" is where people go who don’t believe in "gosh."

Some days you’re the dog; some days you’re the hydrant.

Some days you’re the bug; some days you’re the windshield.

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away and you have their shoes.

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets angry, he’ll be a mile away---and barefoot.

When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty.

He who laughs last thinks slowest.

You don’t stop laughing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop laughing.

Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.

Borrow money from pessimists—they don’t expect it back.

The mind is like a parachute; it works much better when it’s open.

For Sale: Parachute. Only used once, never opened, small stain.
Laughing stock: cattle with a sense of humor.

Suburbia: Where they tear out all the trees and then name the streets after them.

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

Ham and eggs: A day’s work for a chicken; a lifetime commitment for a pig.

Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice doggie!"—till you can find a rock.
99 percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name.

Psychiatrists say that 1 of 4 people are mentally ill. Check 3 friends. If they’re OK, you’re it.

There are 3 kinds of people: those who can count & those who can’t.

Remember, half the people you know are below average.

Always remember you’re unique, just like everyone else.

Eat Well, Stay Fit, Die Anyway.

On the other hand, "I intend to live forever. So far, so good."

Some of these modern aphorisms are in the form of bumper stickers:

Honk, if you love peace and quiet.

Keep honking, I’m re-loading.

Wear short sleeves! Support your right to bare arms!

Join the Army, meet interesting people, kill them.

Make love, not war—Hell, do both, get married.

A day without sunshine is—like, well, —night. (is like a day in Seattle)

I majored in liberal arts. Will that be "for here" or "to go"?

Now to fully appreciate just how great this university is and how extraordinary and special today’s convocation ceremony truly is, you have to put it in comparative perspective. You remember I mentioned earlier that I was driving down to L.A. last week. Well, the reason for the trip was that once I received the invitation to speak today, I thought I should check to see how other universities handle graduation events. So I went to USC to observe their graduation. There was a huge crowd of students, parents, alumni, much like here. President Sample was holding forth extolling the virtues of USC. They now had a Nobel Prize winner; they had had more success in their sports programs, but suddenly the crowd began chanting "Let Bubba graduate! Let Bubba graduate! Let Bubba graduate!" Louder and louder and louder. President Sample turned to his provost and whispered, "What’s this all about?" The provost answered, "You know, Bubba, the star of our football team, he’s reason we’ve gotten to the Rose Bowl." "Oh yes, I remember, but what’s the problem?" "Well, he’s one unit short and can’t graduate." President Sample resumed his speech. "Oh yes, Bubba, we know how much he’s done for our school and he’s just one unit short of graduation." "Bubba" (and it turns out that Bubba is right there sitting in the third row). I’m going to ask you one question and if you can answer that one question correctly, you’ll get one unit and be able to graduate." The crowd hushes and President Sample says, "Bubba, how much is 9 times 9?" Bubba thinks for a minute and says, "81." The crowd starts up again: "Give him another chance; give him another chance, give him another chance!"

In closing, I hope you are all "cool, calm and collected", "ready, willing, and able" and that you will get your diplomas "signed, sealed and delivered." Good luck, Godspeed, and Fare thee well in life, Class of 2002!



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