A Commencement Message for English Majors

I admire you. I admire you for having the courage to major in English. While your friends in other departments have been pestered these past weeks by recruiters from Boeing, Bechtel and IBM, you have been left free to complete your studies in peace and to consider your future in burger flipping. It took courage for you to choose English and it took more courage to stick with it, so I congratulate you. You have chosen the word as the focus of your studies.Language is our greatest achievement. While there are many forms of language -- mathematics, music, gesture -- only the word, written and spoken, combines the precision of mathematics with the immediacy of gesture. It can even aspire to possess the beauty of music.We who live by the word know how powerful it is, know that it can corrupt and destroy as much as it can edify and enlighten. To make sure that we use the word for its highest purposes, we must obey three conditions.We must be humble. The words we use are old and powerful. Most of the words we use in everyday speech can be found in Chaucer. We must never refrain from using a word merely because it's old.Old words are often the best words, more precise than current slang, more powerful than jargon. Old words are powerful -- they are words we grew up with and that stir us most deeply. A study of Winston Churchill's "We will fight them on the beaches" speech showed that more than eighty percent of the words were from the Anglo-Saxon.Of course, we should also have the humility to welcome new words such as fubar, cyberspace and interface. These words fill the gaps in the language and allow us to express ideas we didn't know we had.We must be honest. Whenever I hear the dishonest use of words in a commercial or a political speech, I say bullshit. I say bullshit as emphatically as I can because there is a part of me that believes everything I hear.I've found that if I don't say bullshit, that part of me will take it in and I will become polluted by lies. It is easy to detect the bullshit in a jingle or official euphemism for murder, but the difficult part of this condition is that I must apply it to myself.I must keep my bullshit detector on when I say or write that I'm a good person who only wants peace and justice. Bullshit. I'm also a greedy person who wants a snazzy computer and a place in the country. I'm a demanding person who wants a clean environment, safe streets, and lower taxes. I'm an impossible person who wants instant nirvana, heaven on the cheap, sainthood in ten easy lessons. Perhaps you know people like me.So all of us had better watch ourselves before we start criticizing the transparent lies of public life. Such self-criticism will keep us sensitive to the bullshit all around us.We must be grateful. Of all the creatures on this planet, only we have been given this subtle and marvelous gift of the word. When we are grateful, we will be happy and happy people feel less need to lie, less need to think they invented words.In the Christian Bible, The Gospel According to John says, "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." I quote this to show you how important the word is in the West. We identify it with your highest concept.Let us remember how close these two ideas are, God and the word. Let us show gratitude through the words we speak, the songs we sing, the poetry we write.I am grateful to you for attending to my words today.

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