Professor of Philosophy Joel Richeimer was selected by students to give the Baccalaureate address at the December 2021 celebration for seniors who finished their academic requirements in the fall term of 2021.
Most of you have a range of feelings about leaving college — obviously, you are happy and excited, there is a sense of accomplishment and rightly so. But also, among those feelings — is the feeling of anxiety. Tonight means leaving the structured world of Kenyon, a predictable world, and more — it means leaving your structured life — the only life you ever knew, the student life, and that is over. That change has to be anxiety producing.
The anxiety is different for different people of course. Some of you are anxious because you don’t know what you want to do. Some of you are anxious because even if you do know what you want you don't know how to get there. There is no one story here. No one thinks otherwise. And of course, some of you will be directly going to professional or graduate schools, so you will be moving from one structured world to another, you will have to face that anxiety later in life.
But for most of you, something big has changed. And you are facing the unknown. What will happen to me? Where will I end up? The anxiety is legitimate, because it is true that you don’t know what will happen to you and it is true that you don't know where you will end up. It is not myth. It is how things are.
Among my college friends, none of us could have predicted where we would be today. No one would have guessed that the lesbian feminist would now be married to a Christian fundamentalist minister or that the pothead would now be a real estate developer or that the drama major would now be a federal prosecutor or after dropping out of college three times, I would be an academic.
No, we don’t know. And it is scary. Let’s not deny that.
I want to talk about some things that might help you to put some of this in perspective. Because you have resources from Kenyon that you might not know you have. But there is also something else I want to talk about first — things that you should not have learned at Kenyon.
Most of the things you learned at Kenyon will help you, but a few things that you learned at Kenyon will harm you. In particular there is one thing that is very destructive: putting things off to the last minute, and then cramming. That worked okay at Kenyon, it got you through Kenyon, but it won't work well when you leave Kenyon. As far as I can tell, the only thing cramming is good for is taking the written part of the driver’s test. Five minutes before the test you can cram how close you can park to a fire hydrant. But beyond that, putting things off to the last minute will only close doors. It will drag you down, it will limit you, you will miss opportunities. That is true whether you are preparing for a job interview or some project at your work or some dream of yours. It simply does not work. When you postpone doing something, it means you are not going to do it as well as you could.
I was a graduate student in philosophy. What was true there is probably true in most programs. The vast majority of graduate students didn’t finish the program, they didn’t get the Ph.D. It is not because they were stupid. They were not. There was no difference in intelligence between those who finished and those who didn’t. The difference was work habits. When you are ready to write a dissertation, the faculty shakes your hand, pats you on your back, tells you to go off and write a book and come back when you are done. No one is monitoring you, grading you, checking up on you. And a lot of graduate students thought — well, if I don’t work today it is only one day, it really makes no difference. And they are right. You can always work on your dissertation tomorrow. But if you think that, you will never finish. The fact is most people don’t finish.
There are many things in life like that, many more than you might think.
Someone once asked Thomas Mann, the author of “The Magic Mountain,” a very very long book, “How was it possible that you could write such a long book?” and Thomas Mann said: if I knew it would be that long, I would never have started it. But I just worked on it every day, and one day I had 800 pages.
That is how people get things done. They get things done by working, not by postponing work. This issue is more serious than you think. Many of you who will falter, will do so because of your work habits. It is the biggest danger you face. And Kenyon did not help many of you on this. Just come to accept that certain parts of your life are now finished. Cramming is finished. It is just over, don’t even consider it as an option.
I want to talk about two aspects of your Kenyon experience that makes the Kenyon experience both unique and powerful, and that will help you. They are two things that you might not be aware of yet — although undoubtedly you will be aware of them later, and they might help you now — given your worry and anxiety.
Everyone knows that college friends are special and everyone knows why. College is the time in your life where you are segregated from society and you associate primarily with people who are going through the same things you are. You are all at the same stage.
Of course, when you leave college, things will be different. You will be associating with people who are in different places in their lives. You will be associating with people of all different ages, doing all kinds of different things. Some preoccupied with family, some concerned with retirement, others dealing with various crises, people on different career paths, you-name-it — the whole gambit of possibilities — everybody knows this. So, no one is surprised that — given the unity of experience — college friends are special friends. But beyond that — there is something special about friends made at Kenyon. Not only are you in the same life stage, but this is probably the only time where you shared your lives with your friends. This is probably the only time you worked and lived and ate with the same people.
Life beyond Kenyon is not like that. It is fragmented. Few people in America ever had the experience you had at Kenyon. And you won’t have it again unless you go to prison. This unique place has created connections between you that you can’t yet know and you won’t discover until long after you leave Kenyon. That group experience has given you a resource: you have a resource in your friends. And you will discover over time that you have more friends and deeper friendships from Kenyon than you might expect. There is something strange that Kenyon students discover, or at least strange to me — since I come from a large university — you will discover that you have friends from Kenyon that you never met at Kenyon.
The Kenyon experience is so powerful that you will have a bond with students you never knew at Kenyon. Coming from a large university, this is inconceivable. I have no connection to UCLA students I never met, because the UCLA experience is not that strong. I don’t care about other UCLA students. Why should I? We have nothing in common. But you will care about Kenyon students. I don’t think you can realize this until long after you leave Kenyon, until you spend time in our fragmented world. But this turns out to be a powerful psychological resource — and one that you should not underestimate.
You are not alone.
And you are far less alone than the vast majority of students who are graduating from colleges. There is something else you might not yet realize about the Kenyon experience. The vast majority (I mean the vast majority) of college students go to large universities or to urban colleges or they commute from home to college or all three. For them, the college experience consists of going to classes, trying to find a parking space, going to parties, and going to a football game — they have minimal involvement in the college culture. Basically, they are reduced to being consumers.
But Kenyon is not like that. At Kenyon you have been taught a skill, and it has been taught to you in a silent way and not in the classroom: it is the skill of how to be a producer. You are the producers — unlike the vast majority of college students in America — you produced your campus culture. If you did not like something you created an alternative. If you felt a need you created a solution. I am not talking about the students who took drama classes. I am talking about the students who created their own plays, or who acted in those plays or directed those plays. I am not talking about the students who submitted papers to classes, but the students who submitted papers to campus magazines and newspapers. Or who created their own magazines. I am talking about students who do volunteer work that had nothing to do with their GPA, but just did it. Or who served on committees making things happen. I am talking about the clubs and the sports and the meetings and the committees and the student recitals and the poetry readings.
You created this culture. You did not buy it.
And in the process, you were learning an important lesson — things are possible. You can change things, make things, do things, join things, create things. If we know anything we know this —if you want to live your life well, be a producer — not a consumer. Remember you come from a truly unique institution — one that has taught you how to create your own life. And it is not by observing others living. it is not by being passive and disengaged, it is by acting, joining and doing.
Some students leave Kenyon and have amazing lives. Some do. And some don’t. But the ones that do — don’t have amazing lives by being passive. Nothing happens if you don’t try. Nothing happens if you don't push yourself.
We know this because you are not the first generation of students to graduate from Kenyon. We see how things happen and we see how things don’t happen.
Don't wait for something to happen. If you do — you will spend your life waiting.
The vast majority of college students experience college as dehumanizing. As belittling. My dorm had almost as many students as Kenyon College. If you didn’t make an appointment with someone for lunch, you would eat by yourself. At the University of Texas at Austin, the dorms have their own zip code. Michigan State University used to have the world’s second largest dining hall, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, it had the world’s largest. The University of Mexico has its own subway system.
Students from big universities are taught nothing is possible. They are taught that they are small. They are taught they don’t make a difference. All you can do is consume other people’s work.
Remember who you are and where you come from. When you leave Kenyon, many of you will enter dehumanizing environments: big cities, large corporations, large institutions — where it will seem to you that you have no power, where it will seem to you that you have no say, where it will seem to you that you are being pushed about. When you leave Kenyon — the world will be telling you — nothing is possible. Don’t believe it. It is not true. You will meet people who believe nothing is possible. Don’t believe them. They are not right. Remember who you are and where you come from. If Kenyon teaches you anything — let it be this:
Treat the world as if it is Kenyon.
Treat the world as if it is Kenyon — where things are possible.
The Kenyon truth is that you can make things happen. That anxiety and worry you feel is telling you something. Something important: this is your life and you are the one that has to make it work. The truth is — that anxiety is not a bad thing — it is a good thing. It gets you off your ass. In fact, it would have been better if you felt that anxiety earlier. In fact, you should regret that you did not feel it earlier.
You should welcome it and not be paralyzed by it. Sure things are scary.
How can they not be scary? But instead of being frightened — you should run toward it and not from it. Remember who you are and where you come from.
Use this experience. Don’t think of yourself as leaving Kenyon. Think of yourself as going to a different Kenyon, where you have to create your own clubs, edit your own magazines, organize volunteer work, direct your own plays, form your own organizations.
Treat the world as if it is Kenyon.