Commencement Address by Erin Frykholm (CAS ’03), May 22, 2011

Commencement Address delivered by Erin Frykholm
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 22, 2011


I was surprised and delighted to be invited to speak to you today. My thanks to Professor Garrett and the rest of the faculty for inviting me back to join you on this occasion.

The timing of this event makes it especially poignant for me, as I am a few weeks from another graduation myself, in the final moments of my dissertation in philosophy. When I left here eight years ago, I did not have a career plan. But I knew I was leaving with something important in my pocket, and in the years since I have not ceased to be surprised by just how valuable that thing is.

The education I received here at BU echoes through my life in surprising ways. For example, for the first time in my life, I live in a place where everyone has air-conditioners.   I always hated air-conditioning—I grew up in the north, and even living in Boston, I thought it was for wimps. I moved to San Diego, where I loved to sit outside in the warm sun, and open the windows to summer breezes.

And then, I moved to Kansas.

I often hear the echo in my mind of Professor Roochnik’s warning that air-conditioning breeds moral numbness. When the best place to be on a sunny summer day is inside your house, your perspective can become insular. One lesson that has stayed with me from my BU days is to take the outside stairwell to my office even on sweltering days.

As I have continued to work in philosophy, I have been able to see more faces of the discipline, the philosophical education I received here at BU has continued to sustain me. You can be confident that this department has set a high bar, and you have cleared it.

So what does one do after graduating with a degree in philosophy? One option is to become a professional philosopher. A recent report said that this is the #7 least stressful job to have… but as someone with two more weeks to finish a six chapter dissertation that pleases two chairs with diverse interests, I offer a mere “no comment” to that study.

But even if you don’t continue in philosophy professionally, a degree in philosophy is extremely valuable. It has pragmatic value, statistically. As many people here already know, I’m sure, philosophy majors score higher than every other major, even English majors, on their verbal GRE’s. They score higher than any other humanities majors on the LSAT. They beat business majors on the GMAT by 15%, and they have a 50% acceptance rate into medical schools. Don’t worry, Parents, they can still be doctors and lawyers and business-women and -men if they want to. And if they don’t want to, they’re much better prepared for alternatives than if they’d studied organic chem. or supply chain management for four years.

Toward the end of my college career, when I was still openly exploring career options, I took an internship at a corporate environmental sustainability organization. As the only intern and the youngest person in the office, I had the usual heap of tasks that no one else wanted, like photocopying giant topographical maps and blueprints… One day I was assigned the task of walking through the woods (and the poison ivy) with a topographical map to see if every five-foot gradation on the map was still accurate. For another project, they gave me the job of writing up a one-page report arguing for the lack of evidence of a natural spring underneath a freeway culvert. I took it as seriously as I take any work, but I realized by my boss’s reaction when I submitted it that it was probably the most clearly argued one page report on a roadside drainage ditch that they’d ever seen. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back—I say it to encourage you that the skills we learn as philosophers can be widely used, in ways you might not expect.

But the value of a degree in philosophy is much greater than any job it can get you. Philosophy is, for my money, one of the most widely useful degrees you can have. That’s because, in the most basic sense, philosophy teaches you to think clearly. And that, to state the obvious, is a skill you can always use.

I imagine that you don’t know yet how well prepared you are. I surely didn’t know it eight years ago. At this point, with your education, you may take for granted skills that put you at the front of the pack. The ability to parse ideas and language, to make a reasoned point, both on paper and in conversation, are skills you’ve worked hard to learn, and they will serve you well.

However, this feature of philosophy also makes it different than other majors because it does not have a distinct domain in which you use it. If you’re an engineer, or an archaeologist, there are clearly delimited times and places in which you use your knowledge and skills. But part of the challenge of being a philosopher is knowing when—and when not—to use your skills.

I say “when not” to use these skills because, like any other skills, they have a time and a place. We philosophers have the tendency to be very proud of our skills of reasoning and the arguments we have in reserve. And when unloosed, we can be real jackasses.

These abilities are certainly important in a variety of contexts. If you’re on your city council, or in a business meeting, and you can see that two groups are at cross-purposes, you can recognize the important claims that each is making, and help them respond to each other’s arguments. But if your neighbors want to let their kids watch supervillain cartoons, it may not be your place to impose on them Plato’s theory of censorship for children. An important responsibility in entering the world as trained philosophers is to learn these boundaries, so that you can be of service to people without being self-important about your knowledge.

So how can you use these skills?

We live in a time in which people believe not only that they always have a right to express their opinion, but that they should do so freely, in writing, on the internet, in ungrammatical snippets … and we are starting to believe that everyone is actually interested in what we say. This is a cultural phenomenon that has a life of its own these days—everyone imagines that the whole world could be interested in watching them live their lives and hearing what they have to say.

I see it on occasion in my classrooms, and you may have in your own classes: students who have been excessively validated throughout their lives, just for being average, and they lack any concept of conversational engagement. Their idea of participating in class is to say whatever is on their minds, ill-formed as their thoughts might be, whenever they can get their foot into the conversation, and by means of a few personal anecdotes believe that they have proven their opinions to be universally valid.

This is a very different thing than a principle of being free to express yourselves. While this freedom of belief and of speech are vital for a free society, we should not mistake them for a rubber stamp approval that whatever we believe and say is valid and worthy of respect just because it is our opinion. You know the difference between an opinion and a valid argument. As you enter the world as philosophers, you have the skills to help people differentiate the two. We can do this, and we should do it gently, and directly. Hold people, including yourselves, responsible for their beliefs, but approach them on their terms without condescension. When Socrates challenged people’s beliefs, he did not begin by preaching his own—he began by asking them questions, and guiding them through their own thoughts. That is easier said than done, and that is the true gift of a philosopher.

You probably are some of the most skilled, intelligent people entering the workforce. But—and Hume may roll over in his grave when I say this—a little humility will serve you well.

The world needs philosophers, but it is not full of them. And although the skills we have are important and valuable in many respects, these alone do not make us smarter or closer to the truth than people who have not studied philosophy. Philosophical reasoning is a good tool for seeking truth and eliminating ambiguity, but it does not guarantee certainty or knowledge.

For all you know about the arguments philosophers have constructed, and for all your skills in reasoning and logic, I implore you to remember that now and then, you need to trust your gut. And trust other people, too. Because even among people who pride ourselves on our ability to pick out the good arguments from the bad, and cite the annals of history for validation, it is in our nature to deceive ourselves and convince ourselves of many things, without knowing we are doing it. As hard as we try, we are not purely rational creatures. Don’t trust without question, but maintain the ability to trust yourself and other people just a bit farther than you’re able to reason. It is from these reaches that we can best learn to question our values, and the beliefs we take for granted.

Your philosophical education has given you plenty of reasons to be skeptics and cynics. You’ve been taught to approach other people’s views with a skeptical eye, and to accept their attitudes or opinions only when they can be justified. These outlooks have their allure, but they also have their dark sides. Have faith that people can get it right, even if they don’t take the most reasonable path.

When your reason runs out, as it will on occasion, be cautious, but be optimistic. Remember your responsibility to take all minimally reasonable points of view seriously, and be open to unexpected results.

To borrow some words from Walt Whitman,

have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book…, [and] dismiss whatever insults your own soul….

The skills you leave here with are rare to possess, and difficult to use well, but they have transformative power when put to good use. So treasure them, and use them judiciously in whatever you go on to do.

Thank you, and congratulations!