Watch or Read the 2014 Commencement Address
Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the Smithsonian’s
National Museum of American History
St. John’s College Eastern Classics Alumnus
St. John’s College President’s Council, member
First of all, you must be having the same reaction as I am, which is, “Why is someone who dropped out of St. John’s now giving you, graduates, the commencement talk?” Well, I was surprised to be asked and I am not sure now why I said yes—except, who can appreciate what you have done, other than someone who has not graduated?
But, thank you President Peters, St. John’s Board of Visitors and Governors, tutors, fellow students, Johnnies, and friends.
Yes, I am surprised to be invited back after I took a job to avoid my Sanskrit class. Surprised because I did not graduate and because I am a drop out from this college. And even more surprised when I think of what my challenged tutors must think of me. You see—having spent my life communicating, writing, and thinking—I knew I was all set for St. John’s intellectual life. Feeling smug, I turned in my first paper, which I had greatly enjoyed writing, when my wonderful tutor asked to meet with me for coffee. I expected a stimulating conversation about my ideas, and her first question was, “Did you outline the paper before you wrote it?” I said “yes,” and then she said, “Maybe someone should read your next paper before you turn it in.” I then retreated to 5th grade and went home.
Then there was the seminar practice of conversation. I had already developed the skill of exclamation, that is, in any discussion in business or politics, I would carefully and purposely construct the argument to win, which forcefully ended the conversation, by giving no room to my opponent to refute my brilliant logic. In our seminars, I quickly learned how limited my exalted skills were, because at St. John’s there is never an end. At St. John’s to win an argument is to lose it.
But this story starts before that first paper; it really starts when I was reading books and trying to avoid working after college. I was more interested in knowing the truths of the world than finding something to do. Back then, I believed that there was a vast difference between Knowing and Doing. And back then, I did not like what I saw as the Doing—that is the kind of life that was in the Doing—and I believed, or I knew, that none of those people who were Doing were also people of Knowing. Or, maybe I just was scared to find out.
Part of the issue that I faced, and we all face, is that we assume there is a difference between Knowing and Doing. Of course at St. John’s they always ask a question that better not have an answer, but I think I answered a question that I had never even asked myself: “Is there an actual difference between Knowing and Doing?”
I made wonderful friends during the year I was here, and had many great conversations over coffee and tea in the dining room. We rarely, if ever, discussed the future. No one said, “I want to be a banker,” or “I want to run the World Bank.” The future was to be avoided. Reading great books was better than anything else you could ever do. The Knowing was so much better than the Doing.
The uniqueness and glory of St. John’s is not about the outside world or our next steps, it is about a life absorbed and obsessed with books, ideas, and the importance of those who thought and wrote before us. But the question remains, even if unspoken, “What are we going to do, and from your perspective as a graduate, why?”
First, I don’t think you can avoid the “Doing” in the outside world, no matter what. Surprise, surprise, you graduated.
In reading the Eastern Classics here, the arguments about self or no self, nothing or emptiness, and the discussions about understanding the reality of our body, our mind, our senses, were fascinating, essential, and more than a little mind twisting.
But I had had these same questions and discussions with myself as a banker. That is, as a person, what was my relationship with a bank, not just as an employee doing a job, but being defined and using that definition of a banker to become someone? How true as a thinking person, was I as a player in a world of non-thinkers? I then found that economics was fascinating, and for me, a basis in which to frame behavior, so I studied economic theories in order to do a good job, and it helped me frame my work, to make it more valuable, more interesting, and yes, it made me better. Was that framing of theory and context different from the practice of the work? Was there a difference between Knowing and Doing? Didn’t the people I worked with know what they were doing?
I then got a great gig in Washington working on both the policy and financing of small business. Good policy or not, successful businesses or not, it became more and more obvious that the Knowing of theory and practice, and the Doing of lending and teaching were completely interrelated. Even in politics, that painful parade of human frailty, I came to see that how one behaves is the result of how one thinks.
Secondly, in the Mahabharata we argued over fate. Why did Arjuna enter the battlefield with his charioteer, Krishna, to destroy the world? That particular war was a horrible thing, with destruction beyond measurement, and it ended the world. The battles were horrific in execution and horrific in the resulting deaths. But the end of the world, for whatever tortured reasons, was inevitable. So was Arjuna's role—his life—which had meaning only as a warrior, doing what he simply had to do. The warrior could only do battle; nothing else was meaningful, more eternal than battle. Even Arjuna’s corrupt and false enemies had no choice but to war. The value of their lives was not determined in the outcome; the value was in the Doing, and in this case: to be a warrior.
Now this is a simplification, and tutors, once again, please forgive this condensing of thousands of pages of text and meanings into a few minutes. But, to me, the meaning and value of life for Arjuna and Krishna came from Doing what they had to do. That was their fate, no matter what. They knew what they had to do, and they did it. In that moment, there was no difference between Knowing and Doing.
Thirdly, and this is a harder thought for me to confidently express, is that Knowing is the way in which to make the Doing have Value—value as measured by creating more value through better work, but also value by understanding or attempting to understand human nature and human history, so as to really make a better world.
So much of what we read in Eastern Classics, and in Western Classics as well, is how to function as a being within society. And framing any action within a deeper understanding of the world is a good thing. That is, according to Confucius, and others, good intent will yield the proper outcome for that action. And if it does not yield the expected result, we still know how to frame the question of “Why?” within a much larger framework of understanding—and, that is in the Knowing.
Finally, I would argue that TO DO effectively and successfully you have to have great skills of the mind and of the heart. The ways of thinking, of analyzing, of weighing ideas, arguments, and constructs, are essential in the Doing. You now can put your ideas into practice, and just as importantly, you can assess other ideas by broader standards of history and thought that you have studied. Socrates, as he set up a dialogue in Gorgias—about the use of philosophy over rhetoric—both reasoned and tricked you into the understanding that rhetoric alone is not the valuable act. That truth, as searched for in philosophy, was what mattered, expressed by rhetoric, rhetoric being the Doing, philosophy being the Knowing. Once again, the Doing and the Knowing are fundamentally intertwined.
In everything that you will get to do, you have to make choices, sometimes between good and evil, sometimes, psychological, sometimes with no context other than your own reasoning power, and you will confidently fall into the St. John’s way of Knowing and of Doing. You have to know in order to do, and I do believe that you cannot know without doing.
So I say to our tutors, I will be back, I will graduate, and you need to know how much I have already learned from you. And to each of you St. John’s graduates, many respectful and envious congratulations. There now remains something that you cannot learn at St. John’s. That is, how much more fun life is in the Doing when you have the Knowing.
"The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts."