The following is the prepared text of the Baccalaureate address, titled “And When They Ask Us What We’re Doing, You Can Say, We’re Remembering,” delivered by J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology Dave Suggs P’15 on May 19, 2023. Suggs was selected by the senior class to deliver the address prior to their graduation, and previously spoke at Baccalaureate in 1990 and 2007 after joining the Kenyon faculty in 1987. He won the Senior Cup in 2006 and the Trustee Teaching Excellence Award in 2008, and will be awarded an honorary degree from Kenyon upon his retirement at the end of this academic year.
Good afternoon. Before I begin, let me extend my own personal welcome to all the friends and family who have come to Gambier to celebrate with us. We are glad that you are here!
The first time I gave a Baccalaureate address at this college was special because it was at the end of my fourth year, and so the graduating seniors in front of me were the first group that I had known throughout their collegiate experience. And of course, this one is special because those who are in front of me today are the last group that I will have known throughout their collegiate experience. This day — and tomorrow — are yours and mine, because we will graduate together. For many of you, it will be a graduation into the workaday world of life in late capitalism. For me, it will be a graduation into that place where I no longer have to sell my labor to capital. Regardless of that difference, I think we all know it is time — both yours and mine.
I want to acknowledge that I quite intentionally take my title from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
The first Baccalaureate address I gave called forth the Marxian ideas of historian Eric Hobsbawm and anthropologist Terrence Ranger to address changes occurring at Kenyon and beyond in terms of their relationship to tradition. The second addressed an issue I kept hearing repeatedly from students — the sense that they couldn’t as individuals change this world.
While my topic today is related to both of those messages, this one is oddly personal. It speaks to important parts of my own identity and to my commitment to both Marxian analysis and to living a personal life “well lived.” So few of us here today have read the works of Marx beyond passages from “The Communist Manifesto,” a work that I mostly ignore as utopian or even dystopian in some ways, one that Meghnad Desai described as “the work of hot headed youth.” It is also in part a product of 19th-century unilinear evolutionary thought; the entirety of the discipline of anthropology has rejected unilinear evolutionary ideas for so long that it amazes me when folks still cling to them.
But so few have read the rest of Marx, and there is so much of continuing value in those works. So let me say in that regard that most of you here today will be relieved to know that my address has no direct politically revolutionary message. Rather, it centers on the significance of historicity in social analysis, as did Marx. Yet, while I have no revolutionary message for you, my message is one of reform — reform at once personal, social, political, and economic.
My gratitude for your invitation to deliver this Baccalaureate makes me emotional, as does the topic. Forgive me if my emotion becomes apparent. Most Americans don’t much care for personal displays of affection or any other emotional baggage. But this particular emotional baggage becomes more willing cargo as I age.
Take a moment. Look around you. Remember where you are. Remember faces and remember places. Remember personal achievements and remember losses. Remembrance is so important. But remembrance is also work. In remembrance we learn and grow. Such a simple message. Of course, forgetting can be work, too, when it is intentional.
Let me start with the personal motivation for this address.
My own mother lost her memory to a form of dementia that my brother and sister and I came to call “tormentia” before she passed in 2018 at age 92. We could call such length of life a blessing for her if I was willing to be a liar. Oh, I want to forget this personal history. To just remember who she was when she was herself intact. But I keep thinking that it would be wrong to do so. It would ease my pain but lead no one else to ask — as many writers have of late — whether in increasing longevity we are extending life or extending death. Forgetting is not the answer to my pain. Remembering is.
Remembering and speaking and acting is a far better choice than any pretension that she was really ok when I know otherwise, than any pretension suggesting “well, we did the best we could do” when I know we can still do better and for the sake of the elderly we certainly should.
Remembrance is work. And remembrance can be love, not just of a mother, but of a planet in distress.
Part of remembering effectively is learning to do the work of history — both of grand histories and personal histories. It is work that can be tedious and tiring — so much easier to cozy up to a bourbon and Coke (unless you insist on drinking wheated bourbons, in which case I am sorry for you on another level, but that would be another address). My point is that the work of remembering must be purposefully historical.
Painful or tedious or joyful and enriching, if you tell yourself now, “I need to remember this,” then you will. And if you take the histories that we taught you here to heart, those you will remember too, even as voices say to you “no, but this is different. We aren’t like those people before. Our times have changed.” Even as people tell you, “wait. The founding fathers intended otherwise. Some things don’t change.” From the beginning, no matter how you measure it, change has been the constant force in our human universe. Purposeful remembrance is crucial in this work of understanding continuity and change, crucial for building those bridges between what was, what is, and what yet may be.
To be sure, as Marx said, each epoch is its own. Yet as he also taught me, to be sure, the forces that produce an epoch are not simply natural, but are created — by those who came before us and by us, as is our species being — all worthy of our efforts to change them, all dependent to a degree on what has come before; and our ability to change them is diminished to the extent that we willfully ignore or forget past struggles, declaring them irrelevant because we believe we have made some special measure of progress. The philosophers, Marx said, have taught us to think about the world. But, he continued, the point is to change it, to make things better than we found them.
Yet oddly, it isn’t primarily academic and historical analysis that I want to talk to you about today. Listen, working in remembrance personal will help you make a difference, as well as connect your own life with those of others. I spent my teen years telling myself things I didn’t like about the way I was raised — even if to be honest, there were few things I really disliked. My parents’ generation would tell me, “oh, you will feel different when you are our age.” But actually no, I didn’t. I remembered, and I didn’t repeat those actions as a parent. And I have taught my daughter to do the same. We all make mistakes, and in remembering mine she may herself do better for her child.
I remember still the things I disliked about being a college student, and there were plenty of them. Faculty told me I would feel different once I was a faculty member. No actually, I did not. I remembered. Personally, such remembrances feel like a triumph because I needed not repeat actions I detested when I was once differently positioned simply because many others did so. I could remember, and make the experience of my own students better. Don’t we all owe that to the world, whether our vocation is teaching or not? This work of personal remembrance allows you a path to making a difference, to innovation and towards reform both personal and social no matter what you pursue as a career. All change, Margaret Mead told us, began with one person. Remember now. Make a difference when somnambulants tell you to forget.
Believe it or not, at 66, I still hear the “Oh, wait until you are older. You will feel differently.” More and more I think that is the voice of “socially engineered forgetting” ensconced in self-righteously and pridefully blinded others, telling me to join them and forget, too. I mean, as I said, it’s just so much easier. On all fronts. And this feeling of mine would just be hubris if I didn’t continue to emphasize that remembrance itself requires work. Then it is still more work to get yourself to do something differently so that you don’t do the thing you detested or so that you can fully embrace and enhance the thing that you admired. Still again, it is even more work to convince others of your position.
But, people, it is worth it at every level, from the personal to the social to the political and economic. It makes poignant or repugnant historical actions of the powers that be — and today, there are too many that, to steal a line from Bruce Cockburn — “stir up eddies in a dust of rage” — as disconcerting as they are poignant or repugnant. You remember the same sentiment and reason yielding horrific result in the past; you remember. You speak out. You vote more informed.
But then when others forget, or choose to pretend that they don’t remember, you are left holding an alienating bag so marvelously summed up by another musician — this time John Fogerty — when he penned, “it’s like deja vu, all over again.” Castaneda is typically cited in moments of such discussion for his famous line “he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it.” But of course whose history is the question, isn’t it? And that is where personal history and grand history meet. In negotiating that intersection we find the power of diversity — the ability to learn not just from our own experience but from that of others — and in negotiation we find the agency to act collectively and with conscience.
So, those of us who do not ignore histories have a responsibility that we must all navigate. You must work harder to make others see the nakedness of their emperors as you see them and when you see them.
Those of you who have had my classes know that I am fond of ending them in the last week with lectures or discussions that I entitle, “Maybe that’s a world you want to live in, but I don’t.” Once in my intro class, I had a pair of students stopping to thank me for the class after those lectures. The first said, “Thanks Professor. You made me think this last week. You really did.” I said something nice in return but in my mind I was having a party because I did not expect that reaction from this particular young man. Then the second said, “really. Thanks for a great term. But with regard to this week, well … I just want to get what’s mine.” Failure. My failure. As much as I know I can’t and won’t convince everyone of why I believe what I believe — of the threads of history that I have tried to weave socioculturally and economically and politically into informed argument so as to change this world — and as much as I always meant that I am disinterested in producing clones of myself — still that line, “I just want to get what’s mine,” has haunted me for almost 10 years now.
So I remember. I don’t ignore it as the song of the uninformed. He had his reasons for disconnecting from where I have gone and where I want to be. I remember that the work of history is indeed work, and that convincing others of it is part of that work.
And so we hope for you and expect of you. Our future lies in your hands — no pressure. Well. That’s a lie. It is plenty of pressure. We need you and your remembrance of the plight of others more than ever, I think, right now, and I for one believe in you. You have shown me that, by and large, you are up to the work.
Let me finish by tying the conclusions of three addresses into one — by being historical, as I ask you to be.
Cling to tradition only when it serves the moment you live in and do so when it does; but discard it when it does not. All of us need tradition. But new traditions can speak of human ingenuity. People forget that the “traditions” established by our founding fathers were rejecting the traditions that came before them as antiquated. As belonging to another epoch. As worthy of change. There are always ways that we can live our lives better. Please try to do so for the sake of all of us.
Know that you, like those who moved our collective histories and so many others globally who moved theirs — can make a difference. In this world, as Eric Wolf has taught us, we are all connected by the reality of a shared history and a shared present. This means that it is essential for us to relentlessly critique the ways that being differently positioned in political-economic and social structures differently privileges some while simultaneously disempowering others. Simply claiming that you just can’t change something, just as simply means that you won’t. But if in informed belief you speak out, organize and act, then others can find the hope in that trope of a diverse world unified in the quest for a better and more morally just future. And, you become part of an inspiration to change current structures productively for the sake of us all today and for the sake of those yet to come. This tired old world needs you, your voices, and your actions.
And, remember. Please do the work of your own history as it intersects with the lives of others. For solace, remember. For growth, remember. For pain relief, remember. In consternation, remember. For the joy of it, remember. For inspiration, remember. And for the future, and for the promise of a more humane life for all, remember not just your own history but those histories of others. Remind those who intentionally choose to forget histories — or who ignore the histories of those less empowered as the song of the uninformed — that they do a disservice to us all. “And when they ask us what we are doing, you can say we are remembering,” remembering in order to craft a better tomorrow.
And please remember one more thing; remember us here in Gambier, and return to us often because we surely will remember you.