Since 1995, Professor Gregory Aldrete has been relating the past to the present at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. A professor of Humanistic Studies and History, Aldrete focuses his studies on the Ancient World and what lessons we can learn from history. The following is his address to the UW-Green Bay 2018 Winter graduates.
“This is a day of communion. We are gathered together today in the presence of those closest to us — our friends, our family, our classmates, our teachers. Graduations are one of those few life occasions, like holidays or weddings, when all the most important people in our lives gather together in a single place. However, on this ultimate communal occasion, I would like to advocate for the importance of its opposite — solitude.
We are also gathered together today to celebrate one of the great lifetime achievements that people strive and sacrifice for — earning a university degree. It is no small feat to do what you graduates have done. It will mark you for the rest of your lives as individuals who place great value on knowledge and education. It is both a notable success, and proof that you are capable of further accomplishments. However, on this day of honoring achievement and success, I would like to advocate for the importance of its opposite — failure.
Finally, we are gathered together today to recognize and affirm the knowledge that you have acquired over the course of the last four (or in some cases, perhaps a few more than four) years. We hold the acquisition of this knowledge to be so important that in a few minutes the highlight of this ceremony will be when each of you walks across this stage and is handed a diploma certifying, in writing, for all time, and for all to see, that you have learned a lot of stuff. However, on this day that celebrates the acquisition of knowledge, I would like to advocate for the importance of its opposite — ignorance.
So, I call upon you to value solitude, failure, and ignorance. Why, you are probably asking, would anyone praise these things, especially on a day that seems to celebrate their opposites?
Let’s start with solitude. I would like to suggest that one of the greatest and most useful virtues to possess is self-awareness — having a clear-eyed, objective assessment of one’s values, motives, goals, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. It is knowing who you are, and what you stand for. Quite often this sort of hard-won self-awareness only comes from giving yourself the time and space simply to think, and this often means being alone, and in a distraction-free environment.
Now, I’m a historian, so let me give you a historical example. During the Middle Ages, people had closets, but they were not for the purpose of storing clothing. Instead closets were small rooms into which people went in order to be alone, and they were used to pray and meditate.
Often, they are called prayer closets to distinguish them from the later usage of closets for storage. The idea was that you could not properly and whole-heartedly devote yourself to something as important as contemplating your place in the universe, unless you first isolated yourself from all other people and from all distractions.
Now, I’m not advocating that all of you immediately go home and lock yourself in your bedroom closets for hours at a time like a Medieval hermit, but I might suggest that you do make it a habit to carve out a little time each week to spend in solitary introspection. Turn off your cell phones, clear your minds, and take a walk around the arboretum, or in a park. Just be alone for a little while with yourself and your thoughts.
How about the second value, failure? We like to celebrate and remember our successes, so why should we dwell on our failures? Well, it’s a cliché, but a legitimate one, that failures build character. And often success goes not to the most talented, the smartest, or the most creative, but to the person who is most persistent. The one who does not give up, who is not deterred by adversity, who persists even when everyone tells them not to. And here’s the best part: even if you fail, over and over again, all that matters in the end–all that anyone remembers–is the ultimate success. But you can’t succeed in the end, unless you keep trying.
I once read an article arguing that everyone should maintain a resumé not of their achievements, but of their failures — a comprehensive listing of all the things that they unsuccessfully attempted. All the jobs they applied for that they did not get, and so on. The author argued that such a resumé of failures would actually reveal far more about that person’s character than a list of their successes, and there is probably some truth to this. Persistence, resiliency, and determination, can indeed be some of the most important attributes to possess.
To illustrate how such persistence pays off, I’ll cite another Medieval example, although rather than one from the real world, I refer you to the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (By the way, Monty Python films are always an excellent source of wisdom). There’s a scene where the King of Castle Swamp is telling his son about how he established the empire that his son will inherit.
He says: “I built this kingdom up from nothing. When I started here, all there was was swamp. Other kings said it was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them! It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So, I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up! And that’s what you’re going to get — the strongest castle in these islands!”
For the king and his son, what matters is that Swamp Castle is the best castle, not that it is Swamp Castle number four.
Last, we come to ignorance. How can this be a good thing? Here I want to suggest that rather than being complacent, and congratulating ourselves on how much we know, we should instead always be thirsty for new knowledge and cognizant of how much remains unknown.
The greatest thinker of the ancient world was the philosopher Socrates, who repeatedly stressed that if he possessed any true wisdom, it was that he was aware how much he did not know. Socrates was also famous for his style of teaching. He did not lecture others, but instead his form of instruction consisted exclusively of asking questions. Ignorance can be good when it sparks curiosity. And curiosity begins with the simple act of asking questions.
In connection with asking questions, let me share a final bit of historical trivia. The very first person to write history in the western tradition was the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, and he began his book with this sentence: “These are the histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus which he writes in the hope of preserving the memory of what human beings have done.” Prior to Herodotus’ usage in this sentence, the word “history” did not mean a record of the past, but instead simply meant “asking questions.”
I have always been very strongly attracted to this original meaning of history as an act of asking questions, and it is one that is applicable in every other academic discipline as well. No matter what your major is, all of you graduates today, by virtue of earning your degrees, are now professional askers of questions.
So, before this communal gathering of friends and family, I heartily congratulate you on the commendable triumph of earning a university degree. But as we celebrate this achievement, I also urge you to appreciate and harness the power of solitude to gain self-awareness; to remember your failures, and to value how they can bolster your character; and above all, to go out into the world and never, ever, stop asking questions!