Brand Blanshard was only 92 years old when he delivered Boston University’s 111th Commencement in 1984. Titled “The Habit of Reason.” I came across this magnificent piece here. I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon it and so should you since you are reading this. Appropriately the piece is thoughtful since he urges the students to think.
The piece resonates deeply with my own feelings about the goals of education. He says, “Life is a succession of big and little crises, and one main aim of education is to supply us with the strategies necessary for dealing with them. Furthermore, dealing with them thoughtfully may become a habit. Indeed, my thesis today is that if you have acquired that habit of reasonableness, you will have acquired the best thing that an education can bestow.”
Here are the concluding paragraphs of his address.
I have been speaking of thought on practical problems, but we must remember that the great masters of thought had access to two worlds at once, the world of eternal truths and the world of common sense. The founder of that line was Socrates, who first showed to the race what condor flights of speculation the human intellect could rise to, and yet, homely as an old shoe, was a stonemason himself, at home with soldiers and sailors, farmers and carpenters.
The modern Socrates was, I think, Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was three men: one, the man with an old sweater and baggy trousers who stood on a Princeton street corner eating an ice cream cone or helped a little schoolgirl who had heard that he was good at figures; two, the physicist who pursued to the end of that revolutionary trail of thought that ended in the tiny formula E = MC2, energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light; and three, the postwar Einstein, who dedicated himself to saving the world that he saw his formula might destroy. His argument was simple and, I think, unanswerable. Nuclear knowledge is spreading in a world of international anarchy. In the past such anarchy has always produced war. It will again, and this time it will destroy civilization unless the bomb can be contained. It can be contained only in one of two ways, by its agreed-upon destruction by all nations that own it, or by its agreed-upon consigning into the hands of a world government. Einstein did not know whether reason would outrun death; he did feel sure, according to report, that if there were a fourth world war, it would be fought by savages with bows and arrows.
Men like Socrates and Einstein are what William James called “quarto and folio editions of mankind.” You and I are paperbacks. Still, paperbacks vary in quality. When William Howard Taft was once addressing a graduating class, he said: “Some of you, I notice, are graduating cum laude, others magna cum laude, a few summa cum laude. I graduated mirabile dictu.” All of us could say, like Taft, that we graduated “wonderful to say”; it is not our doing that we were born in a land where a university education was open to us. But with this degree in hand, new worlds are possible, and whether they will be realized depends on you. Each one of us is unique, and life is one long experiment in self-discovery.
Be your unique self. Leonard Bernstein has said: “The great danger threatening us . . . is the takeover of mediocrity,” and Bertrand Russell has added, “Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.” Democracy and distinction are subtly at war with each other. The pressure of the media and the shrinking of the world are casting our minds into molds. The route to escape is through thought. By taking thought, we can choose our own media, select our own music, create our mental environment; we can surround ourselves with the best that has been thought and said in the world. I don’t mean the best sellers, which may be here today and gone tomorrow, but the classics, defined as “works that are contemporary with every age.”
That is why my last word to you is: Whenever you choose a vocation or a spouse, a party or a candidate, a cause to contribute to or a creed to live by—Think!
PS: Read another essay by Blanshard about growing old. Quote: “In my philosophy of value, developed in my book, Reason and Goodness, the only thing in the world that has value is consciousness or experience, and the only experience that has value in itself is one that fulfills a felt need of our nature. If the felt need, the want, the interest is not there, the mind lacks yeast and will sag like a lump of dough, even if surrounded with stimuli. The rich minds are the yeasty ones that never stay put, not even at 70, or 80, or 90. Goethe was an example. “He achieved anyhow the greatest of all triumphs,” said Lowes Dickinson, ‘‘Which is continuing to live to the last moment instead of dying prematurely at 40 and then lingering on as a rather malicious and destructive ghost, as most of us do.” His last words were “More light!”