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Scott Elliott- On Knowing the Good (build

On Knowing the Good
Whitman College Convocation Address
August 28, 2015
Scott Elliott, Associate Professor of Creative Writing and English

Thank-you, Pat, for the introduction. I've always liked this event and appreciated the way it offers a jolt to the beginning of the academic year, the way it galvanizes this community in its mission. So I'm honored today to be 
welcoming the class of 2019 into our community. I also want to thank the powers that be for their bravery, in light of a number of friendly suggestions that this address be kept brief, in choosing a novelist to give it. We'll see how that goes.   

In a 1907 address to the Association of American Alumnae given at Radcliffe College, titled "The Social Value of the College Bred," American psychologist and philosopher William James-(older brother to literary lion Henry James, whom I'm much more used to quoting)--  said, "The best claim that a college education can possibly make on your respect, the best thing it can aspire to accomplish for you, is this: that it should help you to know a good man when you see him."

So, there it is. Thank-you very much and good luck...Surely that was brief enough?

In addition to noting the irony that this admonition to know a good man was originally given at a women's college, right away we might suggest a friendly, gender-inclusive correction and amend the quote to read "to know a good person when we see her or him." And, if we consider the best thing a college education can accomplish beyond its social sense, we might also widen the scope to say that the purpose of a college education is to develop the critical apparatus necessary to know the good when we see it in all spheres, and, by implication the less-than-good. 

In his address, William James goes on to say that a college education is about sifting human creations in order to gain a better perspective on what it means to succeed and fail in a human project writ large and what we might mean when we say that something is "better" or "worse" than something else on this scale. We know a good person when we see her or him, we can recognize the truly good, when our knowledge has a foreground in a hard-won critical apparatus gained through a college education.  My colleagues in the sciences and social sciences might be interested to know that for William James everything a student studies at college can be classified within the humanities because the bodies of knowledge we study in every discipline come about through human achievement within those disciplines. 

The political implications of being able to recognize a good person are, of course, central to James's address. Class of 2019, your second year at Whitman will see a presidential election in which many of you will vote for the first time. It's crucial in a functioning democracy for the populace to be able to recognize and vote into power good people to serve as our representatives. Employing a sailing metaphor, William James likens a college education, with its investment in "the ceaseless whisper of the more permanent Ideals and the steady tug of truth and justice", to a firm hand on the tiller amid tempestuous seas.  If we college-educated fail to use what we have gained through our education in furthering the experiment of democracy, we will cede ground to a society in which "Vulgarity [is] enthroned and institutionalized, elbowing everything superior from the highway." 

This bird's-eye view precept sounds simple, but, of course, like most precepts that sound so simple and look good on bumper stickers, this one is the tip of the iceberg underneath which lurk snarly questions, especially in a polarized and contentious political atmosphere in which goodness is defined in so many ways.  How do we define goodness? How determine who or what is good? Good for whom?  Good at what price when reconciled with other goods? What sort of goodness are we talking about? When he gave his speech in 1907, William James knew that such a premise needed defending. The not-so-often-quoted next sentence in the speech is, "that [this claim] is neither a joke nor a one-sided abstraction I shall now endeavor to show."   

In Cormac McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road, a father and son travel together through a "silent, barren, godless" world that has been destroyed by an unnamed calamity. Many critics speculate that a comet has hit the earth prior to the novel's action.  McCarthy writes of the father and son that "each [is] the other's world entire." He uses the simplicity of these two protagonists moving through a hostile world to emphasize good versus bad in a way that is satisfying for its clarity, at least initially. The bad guys are the cannibals, the flesh cults. The father and son are the good guys, very self-consciously so, and they are good in the moral system they cobble together as they go because they would die before they would eat anyone else and because they "carry the fire," a phrase symbolic of keeping good alive in the world within their tiny community. 

Things become more complicated as the novel moves on.  The son, who is more naturally inclined to trust other survivors they meet on the road, begins to question the father, whose survivalist position, possibly a wise and probably an absolutely necessary one, is that it is too dangerous to ever trust anyone else. The boy sees the father shoot another man who holds the boy at knifepoint; sees him close and lock a cellar door on a group of people being kept for food; sees him punish a thief who's taken their belongings by taking away all of the thief's clothes, including his shoes, essentially sentencing the thief to death.  At one point in the novel, the boy asks the father "Are we still the good guys?" And, toward the end of the novel, the boy questions the narrative he and the father tell about themselves when the boy turns down the father's offer to tell him a story, saying, "In the stories we're always helping people and we don't help people." There are resonances in these moments with the rhetoric of unconsidered American exceptionalism. In a life involving bargains and compromises, how can we be assured that we are the good guys in both an individual and community sense? Does the narrative we're telling about our own or others' goodness square with our actions?  In what way might one way of being good be bad for someone or something else?  How do you negotiate different kinds of goodness? Who are the good guys? Are we the good guys? All of these are questions we might ask ourselves continuously in developing a sense of the good and how to recognize it.

It's not easy getting to a place where one has the mechanism for recognizing the good when one sees it in someone or something else. It is equally as difficult, possibly more so, to become a good person oneself or to see the ways in which one has fallen short in one's intended goodness.  

Flannery O'Connor's 1955 short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" demonstrates how difficult it is to be good.  In one of the most famous punchlines at the end of any literary short story, an escaped convict known as the Misfit says of a grandmother just after he's shot her three times, "she would have been a good woman, if there'd been someone there to shoot her every moment of her life."  Just before she follows her son, daughter-in law, and grandchildren into death and in her last act the grandmother reaches out for the Misfit and says, "Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"  Before that moment the grandmother has lied to and manipulated her family in petty ways. In her scene with the Misfit she implicitly insists on her separateness from him, condescending to him from a place of supposed moral superiority. When she finally reaches out to him, recognizing their common humanity, it is a moment of grace at which she arrives too late. The end of the story can be read as a commentary on how hard it is to be a good person, how difficult not to fall into rationalization and self-deception, unintentional hypocrisy, how hard not to hang one's hat on empty ideals. By making the metaphorical literal in its darkly comic way, and as severe as it sounds, the story wants to show us that perhaps we could all use the threat of someone shooting us every moment of our life in order to change our ways, in order to find our own moments of grace, in order to finally be the good people we aspire to be. But perhaps it's better to make the change ourselves, difficult as this may be, rather than have to confront our own reckoning with some version of a Misfit in one of the many possible guises life affords.   

It's useful for us to remember how hard it is to be truly good so that we might appreciate a hard won goodness in others. If we condescend to the grandmother in O'Connor's story, thinking we are superior to her, we fall into the same trap she falls into with the Misfit. In his address William James acknowledges the importance of appreciating the difficulties of being good. He says, "We sympathize with...[our] mistakes even in the act of penetrating them; we feel the pathos of lost causes and misguided epochs even while we applaud what overcame them."

By expanding the universe of lives we've experienced, a great work of literature can bring us into an awareness of the most important human questions. Reading great works and trying to write a passable example ourselves is a way of expanding our experience of what might be considered good in a human life and what it means to engage or to fail to engage obstacles to that goodness. Great works of literature often have wrapped into them, usually subtly and implicitly, the larger perspective William James is talking about. Such works teach us by showing us a significant narrative in a life-in-progress, perhaps just a glimpse into a moment in such a life, exquisitely noticed and expressed in the best language we have and in all of its complexity. Such works enrich our appreciation of difference, expand our sense of what it means to be a human being and what is good in a human life writ large-- what is most praiseworthy and problematic set alongside the entire human project, and in doing so great works of literature subtly suggest how we might better live and change the course of our lives for the better. 

It might be useful for all of us to remember and for you, class of 2019, to keep in the backs of your minds this notion of sifting human achievement and folly, of using your four years here to see how many moments in how many lives, how many of the great achievements of the ages you can absorb in the attempt to hone the exquisite critical perspective by which you will recognize the good in this broader sense, so that when you hold your diploma you might stand ready to take your own place in the continuing human project, not only as someone who can cast a well-informed vote for good leaders and pattern yourself after the best sorts of people but also so that you can step up as a leader yourself. 

Further on in his address William James talks about the importance of what he calls "spreading power," in a college education, by which he means that the valuable perspective gained from sifting human creations in all disciplines, should remain in vibrant, robust contact with the larger culture. The good perspective gained in college has to be able to connect to, interact with, and shape the larger culture, and in order to do this it needs to discover the right tone, the best expression.  

Good writing has a big role to play, both in helping us distill and arrive at our best thinking on a given subject and between subjects and also in augmenting this "spreading power" of what's good in a college education. It is through discussing and writing about the best of human creations (and by implication, the worst) that we come to understand them, to discover what we really think about them-what we can and cannot defend, where we might be convinced to yield to better arguments.  The "spreading power" of what's good in a college education is intricately entwined with the vitality of how these good things might be expressed, and college is a proving ground for the art of finding their best expression. 

What's good in the art of the written word? In the ABC of Writing Ezra Pound says that "fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing." You may find, class of 2019, that many of your professors will treat you like an immoral person if you fall short of fundamental accuracy in your papers. This is another bumper sticker precept that sounds so simple, so easily achieved, but isn't. We might well pair the Pound quote with another from E.B. White, who says, "When you say something make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair." Not good, only fair.  Class of 2019, I urge you to give your own unique and complex thoughts the respect they deserves as you sift human beings' greatest achievements and failures over the next four years. I urge you in all of your written work to give your good thoughts the hard work necessary to improve the chances that you've remained fundamentally accurate and said what you mean.   

Beyond a hard-earned fundamental accuracy of statement, the expression of vital truths requires reinterpretation and innovation if it wants to remain vibrant and powerful, if it wants to take a robust place in the larger culture. If Henry James, William James's younger brother-- (I told you I was more likely to quote the fiction-writing James brother)-- read a manuscript he didn't like, he was said to write back, "You've chosen a perfectly acceptable subject and you're dealing with in a straightforward manner." This was not a compliment; it was Henry James's way of saying, "find a new way to tell this story, a new approach, the slant that will make it come to life and give it spreading power." On the same subject, Emily Dickenson, in her poem "Tell All the Truth" writes "Tell all the truth but tell it slant--/Success in circuit lies." In typical Dickenson fashion, multiple meanings bloom from these seemingly simple, ballad meter lines, one meaning of which is that "Success" as it relates to telling the truth can become stale. A truth that has won the day in capital S Success may come over time to just lie there, inert, or, worse, yesterday's successful truth might come to mean the opposite of what it intends, become corrupted and lie in the sense of becoming a falsehood, once it's been cycled around on the circuit for too long. To avoid this, we writers need to find new ways, slant ways, of accessing and finding insights into the same old unchanging ideals and truths. We need to find a new language for new ideas and times, new expression commensurate to new complexities and insights. In some sense that is our mission here. 

As a teacher of creative writing, an inherently interdisciplinary field, I get to see evidence of the benefits of a liberal arts education in the work written for my classes where there's a lot of experimentation with language, an innovative yoking of ideas, coincidences of words one might not expect to see in the same place. I'm privileged to get to work with students who bring the language of their disciplines into their poems, essays, and stories. A biology major in an essay about her family referred to her mother's maiden name as a recessive allele. A breakup poem used astronomical terms-- black hole, dark matter, cosmic ray, red dwarf, conjunction-- to shed light on a romantic relationship and its demise. A math-inspired student patterned a poem on the Fibonacci sequence. Another wrote a poem about a fossil immortalizing the exact moment when one fish attempted to eat another.   

This yoking of different disciplines in sound thinking and good, fresh language, infused in a sense of discovery and forged in a student's own inimitable take on the world brings into being the valuable perspective William James talks about. It is also where this perspective finds its best spreading power. Class of 2019, each one of you is vitally important to the work of this college. More than any other constituency, students engaged in actively claiming an education-more on this word "claiming" later-- supply the energy that connects the various divisions and their disciplines on this campus. Class of 2019, you are the ones who will carry ideas and knowledge and skills from one place to the next on this campus more than anyone else. You are the ones, in your travel from one discipline to another within the course of a day, who will experience the rich cross-pollination you'll gain by exploring and immersing yourselves in the profusion of courses offered by the expert faculty before me. These courses will shape who you are and who you will become. The sweet, rich, golden honey in your hive, if you'll follow me into my bee conceit, will correspond directly to the degree to which you engage courses in a variety of fields. The poet Adrienne Rich, who visited Whitman in 2001, said in a 1977 Convocation address to the women at Douglas College, 

"The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb 'to claim] is: 'to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction.'   

The degree to which you will take your place in the world one day as someone with the well-honed critical perspective that will help you recognize a good person, a worthy achievement, when you see one is the degree to which you take an active role in claiming rather than passively receiving your education, the degree to which you find your own thoughts and words for the achievements of the ages, the degree to which you yoke your own distinctive thinking to the ideas you encounter here. 

I realize I've laid a lot on you, here, and I can sense some of the people behind me itching to check their watches perhaps second guessing giving the platform to the novelist. No big deal, I've said, you're just about to embark on a journey by which you'll join a group of people who guard the highest human Ideals (or ought to), who represent the steady hand on the tiller of the fate of the human project amid tempestuous seas (or should), a group of people on whose shoulders may very well rest the salvation of a globe in danger of being cashed in at the expense of its best things. No pressure. I can almost hear you thinking, "Sheesh, and I haven't even been to a single class." 

I want you to know that these are not so much thoughts on which to dwell as a birds-eye view of something all of us might do well to keep in the back of our minds, a touchstone to guide us, as we embark on the academic year. Perhaps a fitting analogy for a way to keep this awareness in perspective lest it paralyze us before we're able to act is that of writing a novel. If we dwell too much at the outset on the task of turning a blinking cursor on an empty screen into the embodiment of the flawless idea of a novel in our minds, something we hope will turn into a nearly perfect, graceful three or four hundred page multifaceted narrative with no false notes, it's likely to seem daunting to the point of freezing us in place. But if we pay attention to the small things we can accomplish in an individual writing session, day by day, moment by moment-getting this bit of dialogue just right, providing the minute sensual stroke that will help a reader feel as if they're living in this tiny moment, subtly limning in the three or four physical details that will help a reader begin to credit a character as a living breathing person-the novel will get written, one small moment at a time. And it's important, both in writing a novel and in embarking on your Whitman education, to realize that you don't have to know where we're going, that in fact it may go better if you remain open to turns in the path, discoveries made along the way, surprises encountered as you go. It's also worth remembering that we don't necessarily have to get it absolutely right the first time, that writing is rewriting and there's time to make the changes and adjustments we need to make before an audience sees our novel. Before we know it, we'll have five, ten, fifteen pages, and on this course, in time, the entire novel. That may be the best way to approach the job before you of claiming and not merely receiving your Whitman education. Work from the manifold strengths you already have and let yourself be guided by the larger purpose that has brought you here, proceed one moment at a time, one day at a time, one course at a time, but be present and bring your best selves to each of those moments and your novel will get written, your diploma will be invested with meaning when you hold it in four years, your hive gloriously provisioned.   

Class of 2019, my ten years here make me confident in assuring you that you have arrived at a good place, not in the sense that it will coddle or overprotect you or hold your hand, but in the sense that it will challenge you and acquaint you with what one of my teachers, poet and essayist Reg Saner, has called "the pleasure of the difficult."  Our recent presidential search has proven that Whitman knows a good person when it sees one. In Kathleen Murray we have a great new leader, a scholar of music and an accomplished musician with a rich understanding of the value and purpose of a liberal arts education. Be sure to recognize the good in the foundations that have gotten you here. Take some time to thank those people who provided that foundation and who have invested so much in you. Tell them you appreciate what they've done, tell them you love them. Then watch them go, and with confidence that our Admissions Office knows how to recognize good Whitman students when it sees them, turn to the work at hand of sifting the human achievements and worldviews of the ages so that you might recognize the good writ large in the human project and as it might be found in potential leaders, the work of discovering the good in yourself in close collaboration with your new community and in your own inimitable way. It is in devoting yourself to this task, every day and in large and small ways that you will claim your education and invest your diploma with meaning so that in four years you'll be prepared to spread a well-honed sense of what's truly good to a world that very badly needs the rare perspective only attainable through a liberal arts education such as the one before you.   

Thank you. 

James, William. "The Social Value of the College Bred". Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass., November 7, 1907. 
Keynote Address.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage: New York: 2006.   
O'Connor, Flannery. "A Good Man is Hard to Find". Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor. The Library of America. 
New York: 1988.   
Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New Directions Paperback. New York: 2010.
White, E.B. The Elements of Style. Longman. New York: 2008.
Rich, Adrienne. "Claiming an Education". Speech delivered at the convocation of Douglass College, Rutgers 
University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, September, 6, 1977.  Convocation Address.

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