“Three Suggestions” by
Dr. John A. Howard, President Rockford College – Rockford Illinois
Commencement Address Wayland Academy – Beaver Dam Wisconsin
May 29, 1976
Some years ago Bob Hope received an honorary degree at a college commencement ceremony. In acknowledging the award, he noted it was customary on such an occasion to offer a bit of advice to the graduates. He said that as he thought about the problems of economics and crime and international relations and so on which the students would encounter as they were to go out into the real world, the best advice he could offer was not to go.
Most of you, of course, are not confronted with that option at this point in your lives. Most of you have a cushion of some more years of formal education before you have to take upon your own shoulders the full actualities, both the profoundly rewarding ones and the cruelly frustrating ones, of twentieth century living. The years immediately ahead of you, however, will probably be the most critical ones of your life, for during college, many young people fix themselves into one basic pattern or another, either committing themselves primarily to a fun and games life-style or to a mature and willing acceptance of the opportunities and responsibilities of civilized living. In part the scales will be tipped toward the one or the other by the character of the college in which you enroll, but to a greater extent it is for you to choose whether you turn out to be a perpetual adolescent or a person whose life is regarded by many people as a blessing.
Your generation has been characterized as the television, rock music and comic book set by some critics. To the extent that these are dominant influences in your lives, the blame lies far more with parents, churches, schools and the entire adult leadership of the society than it does with the young people. Even so, I never cease to be amazed each September by the wisdom and stability of a number of the entering college freshmen whose priorities are sound and workable although they have grown up in a nation which seems to value sparkle more than substance, to prize sex more than marriage, and wealth more than peace of mind.
Still, there are more and more casualties. You have seen victims in your own ranks this year who forfeited their right to attend this school by indulging themselves in activities prohibited by campus regulations. My guess is that many of their fellow students sympathized more with those who were dismissed than with the school authorities who, I assure you, suffer and agonize whenever they are faced with a question of dismissal. To the extent that I have correctly surmised the student reaction to those incidents, what I have to say in the rest of this commentary is of even greater importance than it would be otherwise.
What I offer today is three items of plain unvarnished advice. Because I first became a college president twenty-five years ago this spring, I am clearly one of the ranking fossils of my profession and I, therefore, choose to exert one of the privileges of seniority by sharing with you some thoughts I wish someone had provided to me before I entered college.
In addition to the years I have spent in college work, I submit, by way of credentials as an adviser, two other important training experiences. One of them was a period of eleven months in combat with the First Infantry Division in World War II. I would not wish such an experience for anyone, but I can assure you that an individual who lives with the daily possibility of his own death and actual combat deaths of a number of very close friends must either close his mind to reality or must think long and deep about the meaning of life and sort out for himself very clearly what is really more important than what. One is forced by combat duty to sort out the basic priorities. The other training experience was two years of service on the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. During that period we visited with literally hundreds of young Americans including some in prison in foreign countries. The number of young people who have permanently compromised their lives by serious problems deriving from drug usage is one of the great tragedies of our time, and the saddest part is that most of them are not the dummies of this world, but quite often they are bright and sensitive people. The long conversations I had with young drug users opened some doors of understanding that may not be available elsewhere.
The first item of advice is that you put some joy on reserve. Joy is becoming a scarce commodity and it won’t hurt to set some aside for when you need it. Someone has defined a psychiatrist as a professional who can help you to be unhappy more intelligently. In a similar vein, it has been noted that with a good education the graduate becomes qualified to worry about problems all over the world. In our time I fear there may be more truth than humor in that view of the college experience unless, of course, the college or the student recognizes the hazard and makes preparation to neutralize or counterbalance it. I suggest you make such preparation.
Many years ago I chanced to become acquainted with an elderly scientist who, although he had been retired for a long time, possessed one of the liveliest and best-informed minds I have ever encountered. He also carried with him an aura of cheerfulness and serenity that marked him as a very extraordinary human being. One day I asked him how he managed to remain so calm and hopeful in a world that seems so combative and so confused. He replied that it was his friends who sustained his good spirits, and with a gesture he indicated that his “friends” were the books with which he had surrounded himself.
“You know, John,” he said, “from time to time I have come across a book or an article or a quotation which spoke very directly to me in a positive way, an anecdote, an analysis or a poem which had an inspirational or regenerative influence, or which distilled some basic bit of wisdom. These I have kept and arranged on the shelves according to the particular tonic which they offered to me, much as the pharmacist organizes his remedies according to the sickness to be treated. There is no piece of news so depressing, no individual loss so devastating, no personal success so inflating but what I have a dozen literary medications to set it right.”
His prescription is available to everyone, but it is of course necessary to know the meaning of joy. Joy is not fun. It is not pleasure. Both of those experiences are desirable and have their proper place, but they are usually of short duration. Joy, on the other hand, is a sense of well-being. It is the happy opposite of depression. It has a philosophical dimension that has more depth and permanence than just the sensation of pleasure. It can be kept available, as my friend suggested, by anyone who takes the trouble to identify and keep and treasure those books and articles and quotations which provide him with reassurance and inspiration.
Item number two let us call acceptance. Our society received many deep wounds from the turmoil of the sixties which first erupted on the Berkeley campus. Some of those wounds are now mercifully healed over with scars. Some of them have festered and are still infecting and contaminating the life-stream of our society. Of the latter, I believe the most troublesome and one which could even prove fatal, is the glory that has come to be associated with the act of challenging everything. Confrontation for the sake of confrontation is widely regarded as an act of virtue. Innovation is the in-thing. He who can out-innovate the next guy is thought to be on his way to success and stardom. The counter-culture is, of course, the embodiment of this tendency in its most extreme form, rejecting on principle all the customs, traditions and institutions of society.
If the American establishment uses booze, the counterculture uses pot. If the establishment prizes short hair and neatness, the counter-culture prizes long hair and slovenliness. The list is endless. Marriage, morality, private enterprise, working for a living, saving for the future, courtesy toward others and all the other mores of civilized living which have, through trial and error, come to be recognized as helpful to people living and working together, have simply been rejected in favor of doing one’s own thing.
Well, I will let you in on a very well concealed and closely guarded secret. Doing one’s own thing is the actual definition of a barbarian. That is exactly what a barbarian is, a person who does whatever his whims and passions dictate without any regard for anyone else. The barbarian lives in dog eat dog circumstances where those who have the greatest brute strength or the greatest talents for deception and treachery survive. Any civilization, by contrast, has as its foundation some system of restraints upon the conduct of the individual, restraints which operate to the benefit of the group. Some of these restraints, like manners and pride in one’s personal appearance, are simply efforts to make life a little pleasanter for everyone else, serving the same purpose, for instance, as putting the trash in the litter bag. The individual makes a small sacrifice so that living can be a little more livable, for everyone. Other restraints, like the laws against stealing, are required if the people are to be able to do anything other than stand guard over their belongings. Still other regulations are needed in order for any group to operate as a group and carry out its group purpose. People cannot live together in a household if somebody insists on closing the stopper in the washbasin and leaving the faucets on. It makes no difference how much pleasure he gets in seeing the water run down the hall. There simply must be a restriction against that activity.
So it is that a family or a friendship, a business or a college, a city or a nation, learns by experience and by applied good sense, that its members need to do certain things and must not do other things if it is to carry out its group purpose. Thus I propose to you that instead of assuming that rules and laws, customs and traditions, are just roadblocks on the path to happiness which some darned fool has constructed for no good purpose, you should make the contrary assumption that there probably was a good reason for doing things according to these codes, and the reason may still be valid. This does not mean the unthinking acceptance of everything as it stands, it simply reverses the probabilities, asking you to give the benefit of the doubt to the procedures which exist and to the people who are responsible for carrying out these procedures.
Most of the young people I mentioned earlier who trapped themselves in the drug culture seemed to be motivated by a strong unthinking rejection of the institutions of society and of all limits and obligations that are the natural requirements of those institutions. If such unthinking rejection continues to spread, whatever civilization we have left will continue to crumble until we have made it all the way back to total barbarism.
Suggestion number three is to choose altruism. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness. It is the commitment to be helpful to others. Let me illustrate the point with a true story. During World War II, the allied forces had moved swiftly across France to the German border and had to slow down there to wait for supplies of food and ammunition to catch up. On Christmas Eve the Germans mounted a last desperate counterattack, committing all their remaining armored divisions and their best infantry troops in an onslaught that came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. It very nearly succeeded in capturing the huge supply depots in Belgium which probably would have meant victory for Hitler.
I was serving in a tank battalion that found itself on the north flank of the German attack. On Christmas morning the snow was thick on the ground and there was a chilling, heavy fog through which we were straining to see the first massive German tanks of the Panzer Divisions leading the assault. The uneasiness of the situation was heightened by the report that hundreds of English- speaking German soldiers in American uniforms made up part of the attack force. They would, of course, be indistinguishable from the many retreating foot soldiers of our own army.
It was an hour of tension and great fear, punctuated by blasts of mortar shells, artillery fire and machine guns. I was standing in the turret of the tank with the gunner, our eyes barely above the level of the hatch, when the gunner put his elbows in my ribs and said in a startled voice, “Look at that!” I whirled to see a girl, nine or ten years old, approaching us. She came to the side of the tank and asked if we had any food. She said the residents had all left the town, but she had stayed behind with her grandfather who was bedridden. She was hoping we might give her something they could have for a Christmas meal. When her comments were relayed to the crew inside the tank, they quickly passed up all the rations we had as a gift for her.
Placing the cans in the makeshift basket of her skirt, she looked up with a smile and said, “God bless you. It is a beautiful Christmas after all.” And the remarkable thing is that all the members of the tank crew thought so, too. There is a strange kind of upside-down, mixed-up unchanging law that the more you give away, the more you receive. One way of phrasing it is that you make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.
There is another very extraordinary aspect of altruism. Nobody can ever take it away from you. If you build your dreams on bigger and better things and pleasures for yourself, all those hopes can be shattered in an instant by disease or accident, by a tornado or an earthquake, by an economic collapse or the mischief or mistakes of other people. You must always worry about safe guarding and protecting the things you want for yourself. By contrast there is no sickness, no imprisonment and no misfortune that can ever prevent you from finding some way to be kind to other people. The person who makes kindness a major goal of his life has a type of security which is disaster-proof and, furthermore, which blesses him or her in all relationships with other people, whether as spouse, parent, neighbor, employee or citizen. It is a sure formula for friendship. It is a sure formula for peace of mind.
We do live in troubled times, but so has everyone else who has ever lived. The big difference between our era and those that have come before us is that we have deceived ourselves into thinking that life can somehow be made safe and secure and comfortable. It cannot be, and never could. The challenge to every person is simply to determine the best way to meet the circumstances of his own life in a way that will provide genuine and lasting satisfactions from whatever situations may arise.
I have tried to suggest three clues to help you attain those lasting satisfactions: to set aside and reread as needed your own carefully chosen collection of literature that speaks directly and affirmatively to you; to give the benefit of the doubt to tradition rather than assuming that all requirements are bad; and finally, to seek out ways to be helpful to others. If you can appreciate and accept any one of these three suggestions at this point in your life, you will, I believe, be way ahead of almost everyone else of your generation.
Congratulations to all of you for completing your course of study.
May each of you have a rich and rewarding life.