Commencement Address by Dr. Victor Kestenbaum, May 19, 2012

Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Victor Kestenbaum
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 19, 2012


Tomorrow on Commencement Day, I probably will do what I have done for most of the 40 years I have been at Boston University. Starting near Kenmore Square, I slowly walk up Commonwealth Avenue with the stream of parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and all those who have gathered to celebrate the graduation of someone they love. Why do I do this? My answer is something of a confession. The truth is—I am eavesdropping. By adjusting my walking speed I can overhear anywhere from a dozen to maybe two dozen conversations by the time that I arrive at Nickerson Field. I do not overhear full conversations of course, just bits and pieces, fragments really. The combinations and permutations are endless. There are small families, large families, quiet families, loud families, happy families, angry families, families hugging, touching, and shoving each other, families maintaining a strict two foot distance between each other. And so on. For a brief moment though—I—an uninvited guest in their party, hear their voices and feel their moods. The meaning of graduation takes on a richness of meaning, a fullness of meaning, when you have taken such a walk on Commonwealth Avenue, in May, on Graduation Day.

I have noticed a good number of things over the years on these walks, but I shall not try to summarize them or to invent a common theme. I should like to make one, and only one, observation. As you might guess, I have heard on more than one of these walks the following phrase: “You have your whole life ahead of you” or other variations on this theme. Usually this is said in a loving, encouraging, inspirational fashion. Live! Explore! Do it! Go for it! Dream! Your possibilities are limitless. In short, possibility is your friend. Sometimes, though, I have heard it delivered as a worry or at least as a caution: “Robert, you have your whole life ahead of you. Are you sure that you are making the right decision to move to Santa Fe and make necklaces? If you pass up the opportunity to intern at that great law firm this summer, you may regret it later.” Here, the student is reminded that possibilities are not limitless and that a poor choice now could have irreversible consequences later. Hence, caution must temper and sometimes replace the jubilant “anything is possible,” dreamy attitude. So, on one hand possibilities are nearly infinite and should we miss or mismanage one possibility, others will come along to replace it. On the other hand, possibilities are finite. We can miss or mismanage a possibility and its equal may not come along again. Furthermore, by just the tiniest margin we may lack the intelligence, will, and luck to coax a possibility into existence where there had been none before.

Parents and professors are joined, I think, in a common enterprise. We steer ourselves, and those entrusted to us, through a tangle of possibilities and maybes. Being a parent, if it is anything more than the provision of room and board and love, is an education in possibility. An undergraduate education, if it is more than career training, is an education in possibility. Parent and professor are, in important respects, romantics. We know that in order to understand the actual, the concrete, the “real” world, you must see it perfected in ways only available to imagination, you must range beyond it in possibility. But parent and professor also are realists. There are natural and constructed limitations in and of this world, including our own self-limitations and none of these can be ignored. Thus, parent and professor are engaged in the rather formidable task of helping young adults discover in what ways having your whole life ahead of you—having possibilities—is both an inspiring invitation to dream and a declaration of hard fact.

Being both a parent and a professor, I have no doubt which is the more difficult position to be in. Parents get to see everything: the trivial struggles with possibility and the ultimate, sometimes life-and-death struggles with possibility. Professors are not direct participants in the great and small ordeals of operations, illnesses, broken toys and broken hearts. We are privileged to have known your children in a very special and very limited setting: in the classroom and often in our offices. We have helped your sons and daughters discover some of the possibilities in themselves and in the world, but we have not known them and loved them as a parent. We have not had to put up with their rebellion, their moods, their eating habits, or their friends. We get them, so to speak, on their best behavior. Happily, we are under no obligation to put up with their eccentricities. In fact, they have to put up with ours. So, in this respect at least, our work is easier than yours, the parents’

But if we do not love in the way a parent loves, we do not judge in the way a parent judges and in some ways this makes our task harder than the parents’. When students fail to live up to the possibilities of Plato or Kant or Heidegger, we give them a grade, a low grade. In short, professors make judgments regarding the quality of students’ efforts to understand themselves and the world as seen and spoken of by philosophers. Wouldn’t it, though, make life interesting for parents if they gave their children grades that might affect their life possibilities? Imagine it. Included in their placement folders is a transcript from Mom and Dad. Could you do it Mom? Dad? Would you do it?

From one parent to another, I know how difficult it is to love and judge at the same time. Parents who strive to be wholly non-judgmental make, I believe, a mistake. Parents who do nothing else but make judgments are likely to have troubled children. Ask your son or daughter about Aristotle’s mean and you will understand the deeper point about too much and too little. Because it is difficult to love and judge at the same time, God created professors, or perhaps they just somehow naturally evolved. We judge, we get paid to judge, and we enjoy judging. If we love less (or at least differently), it is to judge better. Naturally, judging is not all we do, but through the exercise of our critical, reflective judgment we have sought to deepen and expand that of your child’s.

I realize that I have not addressed you, the graduating seniors. Obviously, though, you—individually and collectively—are the reason we are here today. Your parents and this faculty have a bond that you may not have been aware of, but after decades of eavesdropping on Commonwealth Avenue, I am keenly aware of it. But it is our bond with you that we, the faculty, treasure most. We have done our best to help you find your own path to self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. We know, and you know, that you do not need a formal Commencement ceremony to feel the weight and the thrill of the fact that you have your whole life ahead of you. The philosophers you studied have told you that, but not only that. Philosophy has, I hope, helped you to reconcile the joyous and the somber meaning of having your whole life ahead of you. You are fortunate. With just a couple of decades behind you, you do not have that much of a past, with the result that it is unlikely that it will unalterably shape your possibilities for the future. But not all possibilities are available to you at any particular time, or even over the course of time, no matter how hard you try to leave open your options. The man or woman of your dreams may not happen to be in the store or at the party the same time you are. So, too, the possibility that promises profound self-fulfillment simply may elude you, despite your best efforts to seek it, even to create it. Possibility, after all, cuts both ways. It is possible you will meet with success and it is possible you will be happy. It is possible too that you will not find success or happiness. A well-lived life is a possibility, but it is only a possibility. Such a life will possess all the adventure, uncertainty, and potential for tragedy and glorious triumph contained in any great, magnificent possibility.

So, finally, what might professor, parent, and student make out of the remark that you have your whole life ahead of you? How are we to manage the conflict between possibility as inspiring and lightly colored and possibility as unforgiving and far more darkly colored? I would like to close with a quotation from William James, from his essay, “Is Life Worth Living?”

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is not better than a game  [of private theatricals]  from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,–as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem….For such a half-wild, half-saved universe our nature is adapted.

We sincerely hope that we have helped with some of the preparations for the life ahead of you, a life that will unfold in a universe that is “half-wild, half saved.” Thank you.