May 14, 2006

to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down notions

Harvard's English Department invites Rebecca Solnit to give the commencement address this year. Solnit begins her talk with a look at what kind of abilities are required in a rapidly changing world. Read the whole thing at TomDispatch:
What does it mean to be born in 1984, the ominous year that hung over humanity for 36 years after George Orwell made those four numbers a synonym for totalitarianism; what does it mean to be born atop the high wall at the end of the grim future of the imagination?

I thought of that as soon as I was invited to give this talk, thought about the enormous gap between when Orwell, on the beautiful isle of Jura in Scotland, wrote this bleakest of anti-utopian novels in 1948, and the actual 1984, as well as the no less profound chasm between 1984, real and imagined, and the present moment. To contemplate those chasms is to recognize, in the most literal sense, just how utterly unpredictable the future is. To recognize that is to realize that a rapidly changing world requires an ability to appreciate uncertainty, and what in books we call wild plot twists, at least as much as the wobbly gift of prophesy.

I thought of these things with the tools with which we English majors graduate into the world -- not the tools that enable you to splice genes, cantilever bridges, or make piles of money, but those that enable you to analyze, to see patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down notions; those that enable you not to make a living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian of educations prepares you to make sense of the world and maybe to make meaning; for one way to describe the great struggle of our time is as the endeavor to become a producer of meanings rather than a consumer of them -- in an age when meaning as advertising and marketing, as others' definitions of pleasure and terror, is daily forced down our throats.

To make meaning, to change the world, or just to read it thoughtfully (which can itself be insurrectionary)… And never has our world been so overloaded, so rapidly changing, and so full of surprises that require us to change our minds, rethink possibilities, and then do so again; never has it required such careful reading. In my own case, the kind of critical reading I first learned to do with books, then with works of art, turned out to be transferable to national parks, atomic bombs, revolutions, marches, the act of walking -- a skill transferred not only to feed my writing but my larger path through the world.

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