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, Adams first words to Eve
were: "Madam Im 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 Napoleons
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 wont 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 didnt
get along---in one version, one brother was involved with the
other brothers wifeand they each started building
Dwinelle from one end and thats why the room numbering
is so confusing. You probably wont 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 license 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
isnt everything---its the only thing." No,
what I meant to say is "Its not who wins or loses
that counts, but how you play the game." Well, speaking
of the importance of ritual, let us turn to todays event
which is definitely a win!
To more fully appreciate this afternoons ceremony, we
must have recourse to folklorist Arnold van Genneps 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 Genneps 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 caps 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 Genneps 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
its 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. Its 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 sheeps
wool? And in our folksongs: Row, row, row your boat
had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb? Do you know the
muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man? Third times
a charm and the game of "Tic Tac Toe" which one must
get three xs or three os 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 dont learn your "AB"s
or your "ABCD"s; you learn your "ABC"s.
Names are important so its 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 (Im 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 arent 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" "Thats
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 youve 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 whats "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 cant 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
its 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; its
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.
Theres 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 theres
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: "Lelephant 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 aint 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 jokes 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, Im not the type to chat with strangers in a restroom,
and I really dont know what possessed me, but anyway I
answered, a little embarrassed:
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 Im driving to L.A."
Then, I heard the stranger all upset, say:
"Look, Ill call you right back, there is some idiot
in the next stall answering all the questions Im asking
Time does not permit my illustrating some of the other expressions
of wisdom Id 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 youre
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 dont.
If at first you dont succeed, skydiving isnt for
If at first you dont succeed, destroy all the evidence
that you tried.
If at first you do succeed, try not to look too
If you try to fail and succeed, what have you
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 mistakesuse birth control.
Be nice to your kids---theyll choose your nursing home.
If you look like your passport picture, you probably need the
"Heck" is where people go who dont believe
Some days youre the dog; some days youre the hydrant.
Some days youre the bug; some days youre 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
Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That
way, if he gets angry, hell be a mile away---and barefoot.
When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty.
He who laughs last thinks slowest.
You dont stop laughing because you grow old; you grow
old because you stop laughing.
Change is inevitableexcept from a vending machine.
Borrow money from pessimiststhey dont expect it
The mind is like a parachute; it works much better when its
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
Ham and eggs: A days 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 theyre OK, youre it.
There are 3 kinds of people: those who can count & those
Remember, half the people you know are below average.
Always remember youre unique, just like everyone else.
Eat Well, Stay Fit, Die Anyway.
On the other hand, "I intend to live forever. So far,
Some of these modern aphorisms are in the form of bumper stickers:
Honk, if you love peace and quiet.
Keep honking, Im re-loading.
Wear short sleeves! Support your right to bare arms!
Join the Army, meet interesting people, kill them.
Make love, not warHell, do both, get married.
A day without sunshine islike, 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 todays 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,
"Whats this all about?" The provost answered,
"You know, Bubba, the star of our football team, hes
reason weve gotten to the Rose Bowl." "Oh yes,
I remember, but whats the problem?" "Well, hes
one unit short and cant graduate." President Sample
resumed his speech. "Oh yes, Bubba, we know how much hes
done for our school and hes just one unit short of graduation."
"Bubba" (and it turns out that Bubba is right there
sitting in the third row). Im going to ask you one question
and if you can answer that one question correctly, youll
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!