Nelson Sends Off Class of 2017

May 22, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

President Chris Nelson delivers the commencement address for the Class of 2017 at St. John’s College.

When it came time for the St. John’s College Class of 2017 in Annapolis and Santa Fe to select their commencement speaker, both classes settled on one name: Chris Nelson.

Nelson (SF70) is retiring in June after serving for 26 years as president of the college’s Annapolis campus.

On May 20 in Santa Fe and May 14 in Annapolis, Nelson delivered a speech titled “Fit for the World” in front of more than 200 graduates, their families and friends. He was the 50th commencement speaker in the history of the Santa Fe campus.

Nelson’s speech, altered slightly for each campus, focused on comments made decades ago by former Dean Scott Buchanan, who began the New Program in 1937 with former President Stringfellow Barr.

Highlights from Nelson’s speeches, including links to the full texts, as well as audio from Annapolis, are below:

  • “The mysteries of the human heart, and of the soul within you, are every bit as wondrous as the mysteries of the political and the natural worlds. And so you have asked questions of the world, in part because it is your nature to wish to know, in part because you wish to know your place within that world, and in part, I dare say, because it is your world and you are bent on loving it as you love yourselves. It will be your love of the world that will bridge the divide between you and it.”
  • “Your world needs you; it needs your desire to understand it, your openness to what it has to teach you, your acceptance of its imperfections, and your sincere wish and best efforts to be useful to it because you care for it as it has cared for you, however unconscious that care may have been.”
  • “Nonetheless, what you have learned you have freely learned (it is your learning, not a learned professor’s or someone else’s.) That freedom has helped you develop an adaptable mind, equally open to tradition and to progress, one that gives you practice in the art of inquiry, in asking the questions the human race has asked since mankind first began to speak. They are questions arising from the depths of wonder; questions revealing the vast extent of your ignorance about the world and about yourselves; questions demonstrating a startling truth: that your ignorance is the source of your greatest strength. For it is ignorance, not knowledge, that will propel you forward. It generates the desire to know, which draws you expectantly into the unknown.”
  • “(Barr’s) observations about Buchanan—about Buchanan as a kind of Socrates—these observations may help us understand how Buchanan saw the world in general, and that only misfits were well fit to recognize the world as it is and the world as it is meant to be … and then to make the effort to do something to close the gap between the two.
  • “It is now your turn to take the gift of your education out into the world, which needs the open, thoughtful, loving stewards, critics, and visionaries you are capable of being. May you fare well and find happiness in this endeavor!”

See the SJC Digital Archives for the full text of Nelson’s Santa Fe commencement speech on May 20, as well as the text of Nelson’s Annapolis commencement speech and an audio recording of the Annapolis address given on May 14.