May 15, 2014
Wendell Berry’s commencement speeches
by Claire Kelley
Wendell Berry is a writer with a reputation for defending virtues like sustainability, community, frugality, and reverence for life. He’s currently 79 years old, and over the past forty years, he has given commencement speeches that reflect the themes of his writing. But don’t be lulled by his mild manner and Kentucky drawl—Berry’s words to graduates are challenging. They offer warnings about what the future might hold—especially when the American higher education system is intricately linked to a disastrous economy.
Dana J. Nicols has written about Southern writers and their commencement speeches, and in her chapter on Wendell Berry, she begins with his remarks to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky in 1978:
When he took the podium, he acknowledged the trite tradition of commencement remarks but also recognized the benefits of such a custom, saying, “the same truths are told in one form or another to every generation. Inexperience doubts them as it must, as perhaps it should, and experience proves them true; the benefits being that the old truths thus remain fresh, and each new generation thus learns something about humility.” The “old truth” that Berry conveys in this brief speech at Centre College’s 1978 graduation is “the inescapability of connections and of dependences,” emphasizing that we are all part of a divine order “that we did not make, that we cannot finally comprehend, that includes and sustains our lives, and that we cannot too radically change without destroying ourselves.”
At Northern Kentucky University in 2009, Berry urged students to “major in homecoming” rather than “upward mobility.” Higher education shouldn’t be about job training or servitude to the corporation, he said. It should be about responsible adulthood, citizenship, and how to be “human in a living world.” An academic focus on “homecoming” would require students to answer questions like these:
What has happened here? By “here” I mean wherever you live and work. What should have happened here? What is here now? What is left of the original natural endowment? What has been lost? What has been added? What is the nature, or genius, of this place? What will nature permit us to do here without permanent damage or loss? What will nature help us to do here? What can we do to mend the damages we have done? What are the limits: Of the nature of this place? Of our intelligence and ability?
He says the answers won’t be easily realized, but they can come out of a cross-disciplinary conversation. This type of education would be a change from a system dependent on the American economy—what Berry, in the speech, calls “a financial system based on easy credit, cheap energy, over consumption, insupportable development, waste, fantasy, bubbles and sometimes on nothing at all.”
In 1989 at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, Berry recited a litany of hopes for graduating students:
Beware the justice of Nature. Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature.
Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else.
Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour.
Make a home.
Help to make a community.
Be loyal to what you have made.
Put the interest of the community first.
Love you neighbors—not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have.
Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us.
As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household – which thrive by care and generosity – and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.
Find work, if you can, that does no damage.
Enjoy your work. Work well.
And finally, at Bellarmine University in 2007—remarks I first discovered here—Berry offered more questions that students should be asking themselves as they venture into the world:
What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean “home” as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know — and know how to do — when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? Will you be satisfied to live in a world owned or controlled by a few great corporations? If not, would you consider the alternative: self-employment in a small local enterprise owned by you, offering honest goods or services to your neighbors and responsible stewardship to your community?
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.