Kwame Anthony Appiah: Keynote Speaker

Kwame Anthony AppiahGraduates of the class of 2015!

This is an exciting day. You are taking a great step over the threshold into a new life. (I’m a humanities professor, so I can’t help pointing out that what I just said was pure etymology: gradus is just the Latin for step.) I feel honored to have been asked to be here with you, your friends and family and, of course, your teachers, as you mark this great transition. My Asante ancestors had a saying: Asempadie mu nni biribi a, ewo animuonyam. If there is nothing much in giving good advice, it entitles you to respect. Clearly, none of them ever gave a commencement address!

But the reason I feel so honored is that I believe deeply in the values that underlie the liberal education that Sarah Lawrence promised you. Those values have at their heart a challenge: Find—your teachers told you—find among the treasures we have for you here the ones that will help you live creative and constructive lives, as citizens of your nations and of the world, as people who care, people who need to understand, people who want to create. I’m honored because you folks have a reputation for taking what you found here and going out into the world and challenging the world, in its turn, to be better and to do better. You know what steps must be taken.

You have learned here, I know, to take risks. Which means you have built on your failures as well as your successes. And so, when the world disappoints you—and it will—and when others disappoint you—and they will—and when you disappoint yourself— and, alas, that’s in the cards, too—you will be ready, in the words of that illustrious philosopher Kendrick Lamar, to “lift up your head and keep moving.”

The vision of a liberal education that this great college had for you wasn’t about making you into something: it was about giving you the tools to make something of yourselves. Because of that, you’re all wonderfully unlike one another, I am sure. And yet somehow I have a picture of a representative Sarah Lawrence graduate: You want to engage with the best understanding of our day, in the humanities and in the sciences, social and natural, not just because they are tools for advancement but because understanding is itself a precious thing. You love literature and the arts. You know that education is a journey, not a destination, and you have prepared yourself here to keep learning for the rest of your lives. You want to work hard to make the world better. You play a couple of instruments, you’ve already founded a not-for-profit corporation, you’ve mastered several Javanese dances.

And the world now needs a whole lot of Sarah Lawrence graduates: smart, educated, passionate people, aspiring for justice. My generation has left you some terrible problems to solve—in global gender inequality, in the threatened ecology of our small planet, in our unequal economy, at home and abroad, in the tormented relations between races and religions. But one thing my generation can be proud of is that we can see in you, our legacy, the hope and the ambition and the capacity to build a better future.

Now, I am a professor, as I said. So even though you have had four years of classes already, I can’t resist the temptation of forcing on you one last lesson. And because I am a professor of the humanities, I’d like to talk to you briefly about one of the places where the very idea of the humanities comes from.

Among the surviving works of the great Roman statesman, lawyer, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero is his legal defense of Archias, the poet, who was threatened with deportation as, in effect, an illegal alien.1 I once had to learn a passage from the “Pro Archia” by heart, absorbing the language with which the great lawyer beguiled the Roman courts more than two millennia ago. Here’s just one of those many sprawling Ciceronian sentences:

For when Archias first left boyhood, and turned from those arts by which young boys are gradually molded towards humanity, he devoted himself to the study of writing, first of all at Antioch—for he was born there in a noble place, which was formerly a famous and rich city, abundant in the most learned men and the most liberal studies—and there he succeeded speedily in showing himself superior to all in talent and in fame.2

The phrase I want to focus on is “towards humanity,” ad humanitatem. Cicero uses it in another passage, just a little earlier: “all the arts that are relevant to humanity . . . are, as it were, connected by a sort of kinship to one another.”3 Cicero refers to these arts when he says that Antioch was rich in the most liberal studies. The studia liberales were studies or projects that befitted those who enjoyed freedom.

If we’re to draw on the past we must do so critically as well as appreciatively. And there’s much to criticize in Cicero’s picture, because, in relying on the idea of what befits a free person, it assumes the contrast between the free person and the slave. There’s not a lot of room for women in the picture, either. But Cicero thought an education towards humanity, an education in liberal studies, was worthwhile, because it allowed you to face the world responsibly; to accept the buffetings of fate with poise; to see reality for what it was and live a good life; to be a good citizen, a fine human being.

Kwame Anthony AppiahCicero was right about the value of the humanities; he was wrong in thinking that they were valuable only for the few. And there’s a larger pattern here: We progress, over the centuries, not so much by shifting our moral ideals as by expanding the circle of those they embrace. John Milton grasped the value of free speech and freedom of conscience, except when it came to Catholics, Muslims, and Jews; Locke believed in religious toleration, though not, of course, for atheists. And so the age-old question lingers for us, as well: What creatures are we excluding from the compass of concern?

As we explore that question, we do well to hold on to Cicero’s core idea of the humanities as an essential part of the education for free people, because one achievement of the modern world has been to establish a global consensus that every man and woman ought to be free. In that sense, the central liberal idea—that individuals are all entitled to lives of their own, lives in which the vital, shaping decisions are for them to take and not to be settled for them by a master—is increasingly the common property of human kind. If you doubt me, you have only to listen to the voices on the streets of Lagos or Cairo, of Hong Kong or Delhi; or read the impassioned words of Wole Soyinka or Liu Xiaobo or Aung San Suu Kyi. And if you are to discharge the terrific responsibility of making the only life you have, you need all the help you can get.

So why does an education in the humanities provide some of this help? After all, as a good modern person, you might think you would get more help from the sciences. Psychology, especially the new “positive” psychology, can tell you what it takes for a normal person to gain satisfaction; economics and political science help you think about the effects of various public policies; physics and chemistry and biology tell us how the world works, so that we can take what we want from it.  Those of you who have trained in the natural and social sciences are indeed indispensible in our shared mission. But how will you learn what satisfactions are really of value? Which effects you should aim for? What is worth wanting? Who will help you decide whether John Stuart Mill was right to say: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”?4 And where will you learn that one reason for studying the sciences is that understanding how the universe works, understanding where we fit into it, would be worthwhile in itself, even if we could never put the knowledge to use in making anything?

You are graduates of Sarah Lawrence: you know how to grapple with these questions. These are the questions you learn to face, learn to live with, learn, provisionally at least, to answer, with the help of the arts, critically appreciated; through the disciplined study of philosophy, and history and anthropology; through the creative practice of the arts. A great science teacher will make you fall in love with the sciences, but it takes the context of a humanistic understanding to explain the fundamental reason why the sciences, too, belong in a liberal education—an education for free people. There’s a wonderful exchange in the records of the United States Senate between a Senator Pastore of Rhode Island and the physicist Robert R. Wilson, one of the founders of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab. They are discussing the funding for that laboratory and Senator Pastore is suggesting that it might advance the military needs of the U.S. in the face of the Soviet threat.

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians …?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

Dr. Wilson was clearly educated ad humanitatem. Science matters not just because it helps us solve problems or advance technologies, but because a free person, living a life worth living, wants to grasp, however imperfectly, the best understanding of her own time. It matters, in other words, in the end, for the same reason that all the liberal arts matter. And striving for that best understanding, forever beyond our reach, is an aspiration I hope you will take from here, along with your passionate ambition to improve our world, as you set off into the next stage of your lives. I am eager to see what you make of this world of ours. I know you want to make it better. I have faith that you will succeed—gradatim, as Cicero would have said—step by step.

1 The legal and political issues in the case are discussed in: Richard Wellington Husband, “The Prosecution of Archias,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jan., 1914), 165-171. But, of course, Pro Archia is best known now for the defense of poetry.

2 “Nam ut primum ex pueris excessit Archias, atque ab eis artibus quibus aetas puerilis ad humanitatem informari solet se ad scribendi studium contulit, primum Antiochiae—nam ibi natus est loco nobili—celebri quondam urbe et copiosa, atque eruditissimis hominibus liberalissimisque studiis adfluenti, celeriter antecellere omnibus ingeni gloria contigit.” “M. Tvlli Ciceronis Pro A. Licinio Archia Poeta Oratio” para. 4

3 “Etenim omnes artes, quae ad humanitatem pertinent, habent quoddam commune vinculum, et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur.” op. cit. para 2

4 John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X - Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985). Chapter: CHAPTER II: What Utilitarianism Is
Accessed from on 2011-05-27