Alumni David Brooks addresses University of Chicago graduates at UChicago’s inaugural Class Day
I was so honored to be invited to be inaugural
class day speaker, but obviously since I’m a graduate of University
of Chicago, I couldn’t just accept the invitation, I had to overanalyze
it. My first thought the that Chicago really shouldn’t have a class
day, it should be a class conflict with marks and angles or race class
and gender day with Betty T-shirts. Then I began to wonder why the University
of Chicago class is asking me to be a speaker an the this big
event. I remember the major addresses in my own time here and how intellectually
rigorous they were. I remember freshman year gave an uplifting
aims of education address called “December, despair, futility and of
the human existence.” [Laughter]
Then senior year at commencement our speaker was a noted biologist. I
found myself tremendously inspired by his uplifting talk “the 16
qualities of new laic acid.” [Laughter]
Eventually I realized I’m being invited because Chicago is trying to be a
normal school with a celebrity commencement speaker. But of course they
couldn’t go for big time celebrity right off the bat. Chicago’s a place
where you lose your virgin at this slowly. [Laughter]
So for the first class day speaker then wanted someone on TV but only
on PBS. [Laughter]
[Applause.] Then after everybody is acclimated to the
whole outside speaker thing this, e could go invite somebody big.
That’s when the truth came to me: I’m the University of Chicago’s
gateway drug to Stephen Colbert. [Laughter]
You, the class of 2017 will have to such through me so that future
classes can enjoy Matt Damon. [Laughter]
That’s what I call living for something larger than self.
[Laughter] When I realized what was going on, I confessed
I was attempted to do what millennials at other schools are always
doing, I felt I would feel triggered and unsafe, lead a campaign to get
myself disinvited, all the historical traumas of being a lower middle
range celebrity came back to me. I retreated to my safe space which is
under the bar at Jimmy’s. But since none of you did your generational duty
and got me blogged from this gig, I decided to go ahead.
Now, Chicago’s new to this game, so I should note there are certain
traditions to these kinds of occasions. At occasions like this a major
university asks a person who has achieved fantastic career success to
give a speech telling you that career success is not that important.
At occasions like this, major risks or universities often ask
billionaires to give speeches telling you how much they learned from
failure. You can take away the lesson that failure
seems really great if you happen to be Steve Jobs or J. K. Rowling.
Then we speakers are supposed to give you a few minutes of completely
garbage advice, listen to your inner voice, be true to yourself, follow
your passion, your future is limitless. First my generation gives you a
mountain of debt. Then we give you career derailing guidelines that will
prevent you from ever paying it off. [Laughter]
That’s why I’m asked to speak at these sorts of things, I always try to
tell the graduates that since you never graduated from college before,
you may not know the etiquette. Tomorrow, when you get your degree, it’s
always nice to tip President Zimmer 10 or $20 just to show he did a good
It’s also nice to slip the class day speaker a few bills, 2 or 3
thousand, 5 thousand for the econ majors. [Laughter]
On these occasions, I always try to tell students about the glittering
futures in front of them. Within just a few short years, many of you
will be sleeping on your parents’ couches while working for a completely
dysfunctional NGO. Others of you will have is soul crushing jobs
as corporate consultants working on PowerPoint presentations past midnight
at the Topeka country Inn. I’m here to help you navigate these exciting
I’m here to help you take advantage of the skills you learned at the
University of Chicago. You learned how to dominate classroom discussion
while doing none of the reading. [Laughter]
You learned, as now, to stare the you were professors with looks of
complete rapt attention even though secretly you are completely asleep.
I’m here to urge lives of public service working on Capitol Hill for fine
Congressmen bringing the nation’s top leaders coffee and sexual
I’m here to urge you to serve the world’s poorest peoples in the way it
will look good on you were are you may. I’m here because as someone who now teaches
at Yale, I thought you should have some sense of what it would have been
like if you had been accepted there.
[Laughter] But ultimately I’m not here to give you some
standard speech. This is Chicago. This is the only time in my life
I’ll get to address the graduating class of my own school at the place
that formed me down to my bones. I confess I didn’t enjoy every day
I spent here. I major risks order in history and celibacy.
[Laughter] I learned to walk through campus while awkwardly
averting my eyes to anybody I might know. But like all of you,
I was changed fundamentally in this place. And the older I get, the more
I become aware of how this place shaped me.
I’m 34 years out from the college. And I feel more influenced by the
University of Chicago today than I did on the day I graduated.
So today I’d really like to talk to you about two things. The things
Chicago gave me which I carried through life and the things Chicago
failed to give me, which I had to learn on my own.
When I think back on my time here, I remember certain moments of great
intensity. There was one very odd moment during my first year when I was
reading a book called “the death of tragedy.” I didn’t know what it was, the driving power
of his thought, the overwrote or intoxicating nape turf his prose,
but somehow while reading that book down there in the basement, reality
seemed to slip outside its bounds. I lost all sense of what.
Where I was or whether time was passing or all. Hours flew by and I was
just buried inside that book. I was not so much as reading it, I was
immensed in the prose and in the fury of its ideas.
I was just sort of dissolved, lifted out of myself, transported, subsumed
in some sort of trance or odd reverence that a spell casts by a semi
crazy long dead mind. There I was in the shabby Carol on the basement
level of the ugliest building on God’s green earth. And I was experiencing
something close to transcendence.
When I awoke from that state, I looked around startled and blinking,
shocked to rent ter world of the 20thsen turny and to real life.
I never really became his fan but it was exciting that the ideas of some
genius could transport me and give me a glimmer to a higher realm.
There were other intensities during my time here. There was the intense
arguing of all my friends about bull shooty subjects during the dining
hall hour upon hour. There were intense pseudointellectual debates with
students an the Jimmy’s. There was the intense of serious movie going of
films and most of all there was a certain intensity of the class, mostly
at Cobb Hall. In those days, it was pure grade books for
the first two years. And our professors didn’t just teach them, they prosily
advertised them. Some of the old German refugees from World War II
were still round then and they held a belief with a religious fervor that
the magic keys to the kingdom were in these books. The mysteries of life
and how to live well were there for the seizing for those who read well
and thought deeply. There was a legendary professor called Carl
Weintraub teaching west Civ then. Years later when he was nearing
his death, he wrote to my classmate Carol about the experience he had
teaching those books. Teaching western Civ, Weintraub wrote, seems
to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming at
the students. Sudden oh God my dear student why cannot you see that this
matter is a real, real matter?
Often matter of the very being for the person for the historical men and
women you are looking at or are supposed to be looking at. I hear the
student answers and the statements that sound like mere words, mere
verbal formulations to me. But that do not have the sense of pain or joy
or accomplishment or worry about them they ought to have if they were
truly informed by the live problems and situations of the human being
back then for whom these matters were real. The way the buys embodied words of students
come forth can make me cry and the failure of the student to probe for
the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.
If I do not come to feel any love which Pericles feels for his city, how
can I understand the funeral oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of
the drive to ride from thinking he had a special mission, what can
I understand of Socrates? How can one grasp anything about the problem
of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problems
of worrying about God’s acceptance?
Sometimes when I have spent an how were or more pouring all my enthusiasm
and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in
which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted.
I think it works on the student, but I just do not really know.
It’s a tragedy of teaching, sometimes, that the professors pour more into
the class than the students are able to receive at that moment. But the
truth is: With intense teaching is more like planting. Those teachers,
like Weintraub, were inserting seeds that would burps the forth years or
decades later when the realities of adult life called them forth.
I hated Edmund Burkey read him freshman here later here. But he became
one of the great guides. I was — August inwhen I confronted him. I
understood the powering of his loves twrestling with his own soul and the
need to be careful about what you love because you become what you love.
Chicago gave me glimpses of the mountain ranges of human existence that I
had never imagined before. It gave me a set of desires, higher desires
than any I had had. In the first place, I longed to know how to
see. Seeing reality seems like a straightforward thing. You just look
out and see the world. But anybody who is around politics or many
other an reasonable ans of our public life knows how many people see the
world with a distorting mirror, how many see only what they want to see or
what they can see by the filtering light of their depression, their
fear, their insecurity, their narcissism. Sometimes I think the whole disaster
of the Trump presidency is because of a breakdown in intellectual
virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence clearly,
to pay due respect to the concrete con tours of reality. These intellectual
virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty,
incuriocity and intellectual laziness, everything else falls
John Rus kin once wrote, the more I think about it, I find this
conclusion more impressed upon me. That the greatest thing a human soul
ever does is to see something and to tell what it saw in a plain way.
Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think; but thousands can
think for one who can see. At Chicago, I encountered so many writers
who could see so purely and carefully, Shakespeare Huehms, George Orwell,
I met so many professors and students who could weigh evidence and
who didn’t tolerate intellectual shabbiness. It aroused in me
a desire to have that virtue, the ability to see clearly and face unpleasant
facts. Then there was the second yearning which was
the yearning to be wise. I really couldn’t tell you what wisdom consists
of. And I still can’t really give you a concrete definition. But
we all know wisdom when we see it. There’s a deep humanity and gentleness
and stability to a wise person. That person can perceive with love
and generosity the foibles of another heart. That person can grasp the nub
of any situation, see around corners and has developed an intuitive
awareness of what will go together and what will never go together.
That wisdom, I imagine, comes from paying deep and loving attention to
the people around you. It comes from many hours of solitary reflection.
It comes from reading the greats. It comes from getting out of your own
Century, thinking outside your own assumptions, and embarking on a great
lifelong journey toward understanding. That sort of humane wisdom was admired here.
And we wouldn’t have told each other this because it would have been
too pretentious. But all those bullshity days of conversations and
bar stool conversations about the great ideas were attempts to put together
the building blocks of that kind of wisdom. They were attempts to put
ourselves together so we could be of use. They were attempts to imitate the
penetrating of Huehm, Voltaire, the gentle guidance of a dozen professors
whose names you may or may not know, some living, Nathan tar could
have, Joseph stern, some of my old professors who are now dead.
Third, Chicago gave me a yearning for ideals. It is sometimes said that
we humans seek happiness. We seek fulfillment of our desires. But of
course that’s not true. Peace and happiness is great for a while, but
after a bit it gets Bohring. What our human emotions seem to require, William
James once wrote, is the sight of struggle going on. The moment the
fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble, sweat and effort,
human nature strain to the utter most and on the rock, yet getting
through it alive, yet turning back on its success to pursue another rare
and arduous journey. This is the sort of thing that inspires us.
James summed it up pretty well “human existence is the same eternal
thing. Some man or woman’s pains in pursuit of some exalted ideal.”
I recently saw the movie Hidden Figures some African-American women who
face racial justice. Those women weren’t exactly happy during the movie,
or the story told in the movie, but there was a spiritual intensity
serving their two great ideals. And that’s what we want in all our
lives, intensity struggling for the good. If nothing else, Chicago and the great books
presented us with the high ideals and profusion. The patriotism of Pericles,
the commitment of Ferme, the national nationalism of Alexander
Hamilton. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to come up with my own
philosophy or set my own ideals, but I could try on the different ideals
passed on to us from our betters and I can see which ones seem to fit
and I could join their parade.
They say that life here is about the life of the mind. But that’s an
injustice. The mind and the soul are not so easily separated. These
yearnings that I’ve just described which are implanted in me here to see
the world clearly, to be wise, to pursue ideals, these weren’t really
yearnings of the mind. They were yearnings from deeper, from the part of
us that can only be called the soul. We don’t talk about this much in
our secular culture. But there’s a part of each of us that doesn’t care
about Facebook likes or annual income or even how popular you are.
This is the part of us that yearns for permanent things, for beauty,
truth, justice, transends ensure and home. This is the part of us that is morally valuable,
that in each of us is worthy of dignity and respect.
The poet Wilke had an education like us. He wrote “I am learning to see.
I don’t know why it is, but everything penetrates more deeply into me and
does not stop at the place where until now it had always used to finish.
I have an inner self of which I was ignorant. Everything goes thither
there now. What happens to it there I do not know. I’ll never be as
deep as him but I was deeper when I left Chicago than when I arrived.
And more important I graduated from the University of Chicago with a
sense of my soul and its yearnings. And there’s still a lot of that that goes
on today. Twisty Saturdays ago my wife Ann and I got together with a philosopher
professor voller and led a seminar under the sponsorship Hyde Park
institute. It was a beautiful spring day and we all spent it inside
talking about character and spiritual growth about Aquinas, Beethoven,
victor Frankle. Instead of going outside to enjoy the sun, some of
their students had their sandwiches inside and had an internal debate
amongst themselves about the immaterial quality of the soul. Only at Chicago.
And I saw that day that this place is still wonderfully itself. I saw
old intents of purpose. There are still honest and unironic hunger for
wisdom. There is still the willingness to put your ideas out there and
argue and listen. There is still that ardent searching for truth and a
willingness to be silly in pursuit of it. Chicago gives you a taste for mountaineering.
He, for climbing up towards the summits of human existence. Afterwards
you’re never quite content living in the flatlands, living solely
in the stuff that gets written about on Twitter or even in the newspapers
or talked about on TV. Many years ago a man named Robert Maynard
hutch ends bet this institution’s future on one proposition: That
if you put the big ideas in front of a bunch of 20-year-olds, you can
change their life forever. I can tell you it worked for me. It completely
worked for me. And this change that happens to us that went
here is a very practical change.
We have a TLOS crisis in this country. Many people do not have a clear
sense of their goals and their own purpose. They don’t know what they
are shooting for or what fundamental convictions should guide their
behavior. They’ve been trained in hyper dispensationalized universities
that tell them how to do things but don’t ask them to think about why
they should do them, that don’t give them a forum to ask the questions
“what is my best life? What am I called to do?
Why am I here? From college, theyent ter world we all live
in which is a busy world. The flow of a thousand emails, the tasks of
setting up a career and family, these things distract from the great
questions of purpose and meaning.
I find that many people haven’t even been given a moral vocabulary to
help them think these things through. They haven’t been surrounded with
a functional moral ecology and a set of ideals to guide and orient them.
And this produces a great emotional fragility. Our friend niche said he who has a wide lived
for can endure anyhow. But if you don’t know what your purpose is then
the first throw back can totally throw you into crisis and a total
collapse. I see this among my former students and I see it over and over
again by people in their mid 20s.
The young person without a conscious person graduates and hopes that by
piling success on success he can fill the void within. He becomes what
the writer Mattias stallsguard calls the insecure overachiever. Such a
person he writes, “must have no stable or solid foundation to build upon,
yet nonetheless tries to build his way out of his problem. It is an
impossible situation. You can’t compensate for having a foundation made
of quick sand by building a new story on top of it. But this person
takes no notice and hopes that the problem down in the foundation won’t
be found out if only the construction work keeps going.
But of course the reckoning always comes. It produces a crisis,
depression, a sadness. David foster Wallace noticed it back in 1996.
It’s more like a stomach-level sadness, he wrote. “I see it in myself and
my friends in different ways. It manifests itself in a kind of lostness.
This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far
as meaningful moral values goes” he wrote. You can see the fruits of this telos crisis
in the rising suicide rates, the rising drug addiction rates. You can see
it in social distrust. You can see it in isolation. And in the lives
of people who are adrift. The fact that you went to Chicago means you will
always have an orientation that is slightly different than the mainstream
culture, slightly countercultural. You’ll have a harder time
being shallow. You may not know your life’s purpose or your
calling, but you know that the mountain world exists up there and that
you can explore it. And that the answers can be found up there in the museum
of beautiful things and that knowledge itself could be a source of
great comfort and stability. Life at Chicago is not always filled with
day-to-day happiness, but it gives you a glimpse of a cosmic happiness,
glimpses of understanding the long story we’re all involved in. And if you
have cosmic joy because you know this story is ultimately about something
meaningful and holy and good, you can bear the day-to-day Ms.Eries
a lot better. So that’s the good side of what I got here.
And what I hope you got here.
Let me finish by speaking very briefly about what the University of
Chicago did not give to me and where it failed me.
Now here I speak provisionally because I will start speaking about the
school as it was in the 1980s and a lot of the problems may have been
fixed by now. Traditional for alumni to say the college was better in my
own day as both an alum and trustee I can tell you that’s none says here.
I can tell you that Chicago is way better now than it was when I was here
and way better than it’s ever been. But in my eraen and maybe today, Chicago did
not prepare its students for intimacy. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to
see that the capacity for intimacy is one of the more crucial talents
for a fulfilling life. That’s because the primary challenges of life
are not knowledge challenges; they are motivational challenges.
It’s not only knowing what is good, but it being completely and passionately
devoted and loving what is good. It’s about passionately loving your
spouse and family in a way that brings out their loveliness. It’s about
loving your vocation with a fierce dedication. It’s about loving your
community with a serving heart. It’s about loving you were philosophy
or your God with humble fervor.
A fulfilled life is moving from open options to sweet compulsions. It’s
about saying no to a thousand things so you can say a few big yeses to
the things you are deeply bound to. It’s about loving things so much
that you’re willing to chain you were self down to them, the things that
you chain yourself to are the things that set you free.
And it’s not only loving Platonically. It’s actually and intimately
living out the day-to-day realities of your fierce love. It’s intimately
sharing the same bathroom, getting up every day and riding on the same —
writing on the same dam laptop. It’s about mastering all the phases of
intimacy, being open to that first enticing glance, having the energy to
really learn about those people like a person on the first date who knows
to learn how much they have in common and treat these things as amazing.
You don’t like foie gras? Neither do I. We should get married.
[Laughter] It’s about having the courage to go in the
ever cycle of — it’s about enduring faithfully when there’s some crisis
and you’re not sure you believe in this relationship, this career
or this institution. It’s about forgiveness for the betrayals committed
against you and asking forgiveness when you have let down your friends,
your profession or your spouse.
When you make an intimate connection to a spouse, a friend, a profession,
a community or a faith, you are, as Leon weasel tier puts it, “consenting
to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect.” And so on these the skills of intimacy to
live well. One needs the skill of intimacy to achieve the kind of fusion
that leads to real joy when a couple becomes one loving entity, when you
and your vocation have merged into a single identity, when your love for
your God or your philosophy is a complete surrender.
What I’m describing here are emotional arts. They are not natural. But
have to be acquired by repeated vulnerability, commitment and experience.
When I was here at Chicago, we students by and large did not excel at
intimacy. We were artful Dodgers. With a superb ability to slip out of
situations at moments when deep heart to heart connections might come.
We were in business at age 20 or 21 of trying to make a good impression.
So of course we weren’t going to show the unattractive sides of
ourselves, which is an absolute prerequisite for intimacy. We were busy
with our work and our books and our student activities, and we told
ourselves idiotically that we didn’t have time for deep relationships.
We too often approached each other shrouded in what Candice vogueler
calls an edifice of thought. When confronted with uncertainty or difficulty,
we tended to revert back to our strengths, which were our IQs, our
thinking and talking skills. We sought to be masters of life rather than
surrendering to emotions which are so much out of our control.
And the university didn’t help. The atmosphere at Chicago then was
emotionally avoidant from the top down. Too much of life was defined by
what could be discussed in the classroom. And everything else just sort
of fell by the wayside. There wasn’t enough dancing or drinking or any
of the other activities that make diffidence possible. There wasn’t
enough joint physical activity. Too Mitch emphasis was put on scholar
shim and professionalism and that was by a sense of detachment,
specialization, critical thinking, aloofness and the mythical belief in
cool reasoning. Too much time was spent studying, which is a solitary
activity. Too much of student life was oriented around the Reg and not
because couples were fooling around in the stacks.
I left Chicago better at reading books than at reading people.
I did not have the eyes to see the but any people who were so open
hearted they had nothing particularly interesting to say.
I didn’t know how to handle the deepest and scariest intimacies. I’m
hoping I’m a little better and I’ve had some graduate tutors in this.
Life will offer you a diminishing number of opportunities to show how
smart you are. It will offer an infinite number of occasions that
require kindness, mercy, grace, sensitivity, sympathy, generosity and
love. Life will require that you widen your repertoire
of emotions, that you throw yourself head long into other people,
that you take the curriculum of intimacy.
If you haven’t mastered it yet, I ask you to turn to this task
intentionally now. So I’m asking one final thing of you, members of the
class of 2017, tomorrow you will graduate. And that’s a great
accomplishment. But before you do, I hope that tonight you will do one
thing to cap your education. Go to the regular enStein with a special
friend in your life. Find the spot deep in the stacks where niche’s
death of tragedy is found. But don’t open the books. Take off some of
your clothes and fool around. Thank you and God bless you.