Virginia Woolf’s UC San Diego Graduation Speech

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And so here, at the end, at graduation, at the time when my education comes to a screeching halt in its tracks, I suppose its only fitting that I start with the beginning. This is to be a speech about education, so the program says, specifically about my own. Speak to the audience, my advisor said, after much beseechment on my part; speak to the audience and tell them the truth of it; impart wisdom to the young college hopefuls out there in the audience, and stir up old memories for the mothers and fathers of the young college hopefuls out there. Ah, I said, no problem, and it wasn’t until I was already out the door when I finally thought about it, and by then it was too late for my advisor had retired for the day. But since it was only early afternoon, so I decided to stroll around the campus I’ve been tied to for the last five years and let my mind turn over the task in front of me, examine it from all sides, like a child turns over a rock in order to see what creatures he can find underneath. Or perhaps, I thought idly, oddly, languidly, perhaps I ought to let the task in front of me turn over my mind and see what happened.

For starters, I must apologize because you see I never really learned how to talk. For when I arrived at college I quickly learned that education isn’t about talking, although most every professor assured the hushed multitudes of wide-eyed freshmen that offices are great places for talking, all one had to do was show up at room 1671 on the fourth floor of Engineering complex I (not II!) between the hours of eight and nine on Friday mornings. I marveled at the ease in which I could have a conversation with a real, educated, college professor; why it seemed so simple. However in the midst of pondering how much Mr. Engineering must have donated in order to have not one, but two complexes named after him, I had missed the part where the professor had said to make sure and ask questions to the teaching assistant first and then bother him if it still weren’t clear. And so it went, and while other classes did indeed encourage speaking – in fact some mandated it in which points were proffered for pearls of wisdom such as restatements of last week’s lectures, or thoughts clever enough to be so broad and sweeping such that they could not possibly be wrong for they didn’t really say anything in the first place. At first I must confess I was very intimidated by all the smart people around me; I mean these people talked so much and it was quickly obvious that the more one talked, the more intelligence one had; and all I had were dull and tangent thoughts that did not restate, that did not simplify, that did not make the professor sigh with relief when a hand was finally raised to puncture the silence of the desperately broad question asked a good dozen seconds ago. But the talking was the important part, and so it was necessary each class period to come up with something to say; anything, and like wise politicians we went around the room and offered our hoarded responses, each person contributing a brick that together made a fine floor. I think the class was Creative Writing, and of course structured so to maximize the creativity and to maximize the writing.

But all that is really here nor there, and so I tried to pull my errant musings back to the topic of education. If I should sit and think of all my classes and what I had learned, and what I had been tested on, and what had changed my life, and what hadn’t, why it should take volumes upon volumes; although oddly enough I couldn’t really think of anything right now. One could really ponder all day, sitting in ponderous, resplendent repose like Rodan’s statue, thinking of great big issues well suited for that famous thinking pose, issues such as the nature of truth and beauty, justice and peace; philosophies of life could swirl in one’s head, the ills and wills of society, the trials and travails of historical peoples, poverty, all the flaws in the world today and how to fix them – one could really sit and ponder all day, but then one should not get one’s homework sets done and never learn how to recite in essay form chapters from great books, never learn how to repeat by rote memorization the study guide of the professor, never learn how to plug in different numbers into the same mathematical and physics models that approximate reality with such resolution and firmness one should think they were gods in their own right. And then one would have to drop out, and that would be disastrous for one’s education – imagine it; having no set structure, no boundaries with which to bump into in order to console oneself that there is a limit, that one won’t fall into the bottomless pit; it wouldn’t do at all really, having the time free to pursue knowledge as it comes, to be able to investigate every thought that pops into one’s head, such as why soda is cheaper than water, why gasoline in America is half as expensive as it is in Britain, why institutions seem to stifle creativity and original thought instead of cultivating them. No, such expansive freedom wouldn’t do at all, one needs a safety rope to follow, as frayed and worn as it may be from the many who have climbed it before, at least it has been proven that it safely goes in a direction. No, no, give me the Bernoulli effect of fluid dynamics any day of the week, because that’s real, tangible, substantial. Why Bernoulli’s all around you, a professor loved to say, it’s in your shower, on your streets, in your oceans and lakes; and it was thanks to god this solid piece of physics was there because think about it, if those other issues mentioned above, say corporate liability and greed for instance, if those issues had the same kind of proximity to our lives than Bernoulli why, why its not even imaginable what should happen. No, no, no the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that that had to have been what Rodan’s statue was thinking – I’m almost positive it was Bernoulli.

But again my thoughts were off track, and I did my best to bend them towards more meaningful directions. I have learned all questions have answers, and all questions have quick answers, and all questions have quick, easily attainable answers that once found end the question; and so I focused my best effort towards the question in front of me, because it bothered me that it hadn’t ended yet, that it was sticking around; questions aren’t supposed to do that. Inspiration struck as I looked up and spotted the library, its unique form a comforting view in the midst of my scattered wonderings and wanderings. When I had first seen it, I had thought it appeared like a Rubix cube, standing on one corner; but that was when I was a stupid freshman. Now of course I can see that it has history, and indeed the man who paid a lot of money for it has his statue on the top of it. However it represented salvation for me, the lifesaver for those drowning at sea – for what better place to answer questions than at a library?

However it was not meant to be, for the day had extended almost into dusk now, and the library was closed early since it was a Saturday, and of course no one (especially students who really just need expensive textbooks for the pursuit of the knowledge most necessary for them) can study in a library past five o’clock on a Saturday. It was amusing, I thought, thinking of the time before I was in college and was simply one of the millions of uneducated clamoring to get in the hallowed halls of academia in order to learn, in order to learn and in order to use that learning for the benefit of society and human race – for isn’t that why everyone wanted a college education? And it was somewhere along the way that I was able to do it, to get past the hordes on the outside beating against the walls of academia, those that crashed against its gates like waves against the cliffs a few hundred yards away. During one of those high tides, I stepped over, stepped past, stepped on a few of the horde and on their backs lifted myself over the gates, I pushed off and made it onto the ark, where I imagined finding two of every type of intellectual, of finding white sails to billow out with the breeze of my studious exertion, of finding philosophical mysteries embedded in the very sap holding the planks of the institution together; however it was only to find a closed library at five o’clock on a Saturday, and a talking tree in a forest.

Fortunately though the food court was still open, and its cheerily lit signs, bright menus, spotless counters made the restaurants look as if they were the newest entities on campus, which they may very well could have been. As I ate I reassured myself that these thoughts, while not new to me, were only temporary, and should soon die out to the murky recesses of my mind. That worn and frayed rope always got me past these moments, and I concluded that in the end it simply meant that I had failed my education, and wasn’t fit for giving this speech.

Note – this was written in 2005, the year I graduated college from UC San Diego and is written in the literary style of author Virginia Woolf.

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