On a fear of commencing and Bill Maher

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It’s hard to make a statement that applies to all of us who are about to graduate. We are a diverse set, varied in tastes and beliefs. There is no typical Berkeley student. But, I think right now all of us are a little scared.

Since I was 18, Berkeley has been home. But, soon enough Berkeley will be behind me. This terrifies me. I don’t want to let it all slip away.

Consider the manifold of relationships we’ve each developed in the past four years. It’s almost impossible to, at once, hold together all the moments of admiration and jealousy, of hope and fear, of fondness and anger. More intense, still, the moments of love, and moments of loss.

Like small town newspapers, we each have inscribed thousands of stories in just a few square miles. The stories themselves are more than just byproducts of our experiences. The stories turn concrete the stuff that we fear losing to the ineluctable passing of time. From these stories, gently retold, we draw comfort.

The commencement ceremony is the ultimate story in our college experience.  A great deal of effort is spent engineering it this way. But the ceremony itself is largely superfluous. You’ve already finished your exams. You don’t get a physical degree for months. Nothing really happens. It’s about crafting a memory for the future.

So it’s no surprise that people are troubled by the announcement of Bill Maher as the December commencement speaker. The strongest arguments presented by the Anti-Maher camp run something like this: On a day all about students, it’s unnecessarily harmful to honor someone who would make some graduates uncomfortable. Anti-Maherians don’t oppose Maher’s presence on campus; they’re just asking the campus to choose an alternate that can inspire everyone equally.

It’s tempting at first to buy into this logic of appeasement. But, a closer look reveals how this line of thinking stands at odds with the very thesis of a liberal arts education: that the world is not about you.

Etymologically, the word “inspiration” draws its roots from the idea of the divine imparting some truth to man. To be inspired is, in a sense, to be struck by something otherworldly. The essence of inspiration is in its feature of surprise or novelty. You can’t expect to be inspired.

The students trying to determine their inspirer have assumed an inappropriate prescience. They’re not really looking for inspiration; they’re looking for someone to recite platitudes and lukewarm anecdotes that make them feel good. They’re looking for a speech that reflects themselves rather than something new. This is plainly self indulgent.

Liberal arts students are supposed to have achieved a sense of “intellectual maturity.” This I think is a sophisticated way of referring to the idea of empathy. Whether you study classics or computer science, your education is supposed to expose you to a world outside of yourself. Intellectual maturity is the ability to separate reason from sentiment. This is not always easy.

But, a liberal arts education reminds us of this distinction. It provides a set of tools that allow to help figure out things in a an intellectually clear manner, a method devoid of generalizations and rash egoism. It teaches students that diligence can reveal insight even when it is uncomfortable. More often than not, it pushes students to move outside of comfort zones into places that often house the most profound insights (for an extreme example, think Lolita or Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem). Nuance is the jewel of a liberal arts degree.

Reducing Maher’s entire existence to a handful of, albeit offensive, statements seems to be like the exact sort of stuff we’re not supposed to be doing as card-carrying liberal arts graduates. Let’s get a few things straight. Maher has done nothing illegal. He is undeniably an influential voice in today’s world. And, given his career as an enormously successful entertainer it’s hard to convincingly argue he won’t give a good speech. Those who oppose Maher have reduced him to a series of soundbites and then claimed to be offended by his entirety.

But, put your liberal arts hat on for a moment and really look at all Maher has to offer. He is someone who followed his passion in comedy. He’s seen a career filled with ups and downs. He’s engaged with some of the most pressing issues of our time in religion and politics. He knows what it’s like to say things that appeal to wide audiences. And, as we know, he knows what it’s like to say what he believes (legally!) even when it incites pushback. At the the very least, he’s been alive for 58 years – about 35 more than most of us!

Understandably, it can be difficult to put aside personal feelings when it comes to Maher. This is a day that we were told is about us. Moreover, this day comes at a point when we’re most worried about letting go of our connection to Berkeley. It’s supposed to be light and comfortable.

But, that’s when our liberal arts education instructs us to be wary. The challenge once we graduate is to assume the mantle of our teachers and to continue to expose ourselves to new worlds. I’m betting that in the day-to-day of adult life, there will be no shortage of people who seem infinitely worse than Maher does today. It’ll be easy to retreat into the comfort of ourselves. But, disengagement can’t be the recourse.

It’s no trivial thing that “to commence,” by definition, means to begin. With intellectual tools in hand, Maher’s speech will be for some of us the first test of adult life.

It’s scary to start, but I think that’s how inspiration strikes.

Contact Curan Mehra at [email protected]

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