Personal Reflections on the Influence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Commencement Address Two Months Before the 1963 March on Washington
In 1991, I was asked to deliver my own commencement address at Western Washington University as that year’s recipient of the university’s teaching award. The address gave me an opportunity to think about the nature of such speeches and their purpose. I decided to take a different approach from the traditional ones that are delivered at most commencements. Rather than viewing my own commencement address as an event in time and space - a talk given on the morning of December 14, 1991 in a small university town, I chose to treat it as a conversation that occurs through time - from Dr. King's words to me at my graduation - filtered through my life's experiences over the years – then to the young audience of new graduates as they embarked on their own journey and continued the conversation with their own generation. It was in a sense a conversation from one generation to the next about the questions that are central to why we educate - questions about the kind of persons we become - and ultimately, questions about the kind of community we create. It is a conversation, I might add, that is sadly lacking in the public debate of our time. One has only to listen to the media each night to see how far we are from a true conversation on these questions.
I remember first talking about the nature of an authentic conversation and ways that it differs from the many false versions of it, for example, political conversations that have been increasingly reduced to a manipulation of the voter through effective 90 second sound-bites over the airwaves where issues become mere vehicles for projecting images rather than the source of concerned social debate. I remember talking about the way conversations about public education in this country have become increasingly articulated in a language in which impersonal, technical thinking dominates -- generating an educational ethos in which ethics as a category of discussion is largely suppressed. The liberal language of social action and social critique has been more and more reduced to a language of social control. But even those conversations which seem to affirm human agency and assert liberal values become emptied of their content when they are used inauthentically. The same words that can be used in a genuine, meaningful public debate can also be used to silence. Earlier in the last century, the American philosopher and educator, John Dewey expressed this concern when he wrote:
Even when the words remain the same they mean something very different when they are uttered by a minority struggling against repressive measures and when expressed by a group that, having attained power, then uses ideas that were once weapons of emancipation as instruments for keeping the power and wealth it has obtained. Ideas that at one time are means of producing social change assume another guise when they are used as a means of preventing further social change.1
I pondered with my young audience about the nature of a more authentic conversation. For one thing, a conversation is not something that can be received or transmitted from one person to another; it has to be entered into; it has to be engaged in. Furthermore, it establishes a certain kind of relationship between us and the other - a relationship in which both remain as subjects and neither are objectified and dehumanized by being made into an object for the other. Essentially, there are two features I distinguished:
First, to enter into a true conversation requires us to really hear the other. We often listen but we seldom really hear. To understand the world of the other, whether the other is in the present or in the past, is to understand the ways the other has come to give meaning to our common experience, to understand the categories and concepts that shape its sense of social reality. It means to see the other, as much as is possible, from the inside - from a different reference point from our own. As the philosopher, Cora Diamond describes it, "Coming to understand a conceptual life other than our own involves exercise of concepts belonging to that life. When I understand what you say, I am using concepts internal to your thought."2 It is to appreciate what it means for persons or cultures to have such concepts as live notions governing their being in the world.
For example, only now are many of us beginning to comprehend our fragile relationship with our planet as the ozone slowly depletes and our rivers and lakes pollute. Our 19th century optimism about progress, science and technology, our dominion over the earth left us with a language and a conceptual framework that blocked us from seeing another way of relating to the earth. But ironically, it is a way that Jamake Highwater, of the Blackfeet Nation, talks about in his book, The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America.3 When one enters into his world, words like "wilderness" take on a whole different meaning. Indeed, Highwater talks about the alienation he felt in seeing the way certain ideas he had grown up with found their way into English words. When thinking about what is implied by our word, "wilderness," he writes, "After all, the forest is not 'wild' in the sense that it is something needing to be tamed or controlled and harnessed. For Blackfeet Indians, the forest is the natural state of the world. It is the cities that are wild and seem to need 'taming.' For most primal peoples the earth is so marvelous that the connotation of it requires it to be spelled in English with a capital 'E.' How perplexing it is to discover two English synonyms for Earth - 'soil' and 'dirt' - used to describe uncleanliness, soiled and dirty. And how upsetting it is to discover that the word 'dirty' in English is also used to depict obscenities!"4 What does it mean to see the world with the conceptual framework governing Jamake Highwater's vision of the world? By entering Highwater's world, I see a different way of relating to the earth - a relationship characterized by awe and respect rather than ownership and exploitation. In a film featuring Jamake Highwater, he talked about taking his mother to New York City for her first visit and he showed her all the usual landmarks including the famous Central Park. Central Park is like a little oasis in the center of Manhattan with all the huge skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle of the city surrounding it. When he asked his mother what her impressions were, she thought for a moment and then said, "I see they even put their trees on a reservation." In all the years that I lived in New York, I had never really thought of it that way.
But an authentic conversation requires more than entering into the world of the other for I could simply use that new understanding to exploit the other, or perhaps, more benignly, to simply bring the other within my own framework of understanding rather than expanding my understanding to include the other. I'd like to suggest that to enter into a true conversation, I must be willing to allow the understanding that I gain from that encounter to question my own conventional and habitual ways of seeing - to expand the horizon of my understanding by rendering aspects of my own world problematic as a result of that encounter.
In a very real sense a true conversation allows us to see ourselves for the first time. We are all born into a world that acculturates and socializes us into certain ways of seeing. Indeed, even the language we learn contains within it the structures and categories that give meaning to our experience. Our culture provides us with the lens - or the pair of glasses - that we use to make the world intelligible to us. But that same pair of glasses can also trap us from seeing the world in other ways. It becomes our frame of reference and begins to be taken for granted to the point that its control over our perceptions of the world is no longer seen. It becomes what we see with but cannot see through. In fact, it begins to be experienced as natural, as part of the natural scheme of things, rather than as a human and social construct. In an authentic conversation with the other, the hidden assumptions and cultural categories that have been largely taken for granted can suddenly be brought to the surface and revealed to our consciousness as only one of many possibilities. It can reveal ourselves to ourselves, but unfortunately, this self-revelation is not always comfortable as any proponent in a Socratic dialogue was soon to find out.
In fact, history has shown different responses that we make to conversations that begin to strip the fabric of the selves that we have created, that begin to question the certainties that we have lived by, that begin to make our conventional ways of seeing no longer tenable for us. One response is to go into denial - to deny the truths that are slowly coming to the surface of our consciousness - to deny that which makes us feel uncomfortable. Another response is to withdraw -- to retreat from the conversation completely. A third response, and one that unfortunately happens with too great a frequency, is to become defensive and to attack the other. But a fourth response is possible also, if we have the courage, if we have the concern, if we have the wisdom. There is the possibility for us and the other to reconstruct and reconstitute a new social reality which encompasses our new understanding and provides the conditions for a more ethical and humane existence. Indeed, the philosopher, John Dewey equated education itself with a continuous reconstruction and reorganization of our social experience - a reconstruction of the conditions of our lives.5
In many ways, the notion of a conversation can be a very powerful metaphor for the process of education itself. For education is an invitation into the conversation of life. It is something that cannot be merely received; it must be entered into; it must be engaged in; often it must be reclaimed, especially, those voices that have been neglected and silenced in the past. It is a conversation not merely about making a living, but a conversation about the kinds of lives that are worth living and the kinds of society that can make those lives possible.
Unfortunately, education can only invite us into the conversation; it cannot guarantee that we accept the invitation. Too often we can go through the motions of life without really engaging in it. We can easily begin to see our education, for example, as an accumulation of university credits without ever asking ourselves what we are becoming as result of our education - what we are allowing ourselves to be influenced by. Even in the darkest moments of our own history, too many people and too many institutions remained silent when they should not have. Even universities offered little moral resistance to the barbarism that engulfed much of our world in the last century. I remember a haunting passage in George Steiner's book. Language and Silence.6 Unlike writers like Matthew Arnold who could assert confidently that our education, especially our education in the literary and philosophical traditions, could humanize us, Steiner was less convinced as he recalled how easily people educated in what he called the "culture of traditional humanism" could read the poetry of Goethe and Rilke the night before they sent others to their deaths in gas chambers.
That was the conversation that Dr. King had with my generation as he struggled with the injustices and the inhumanity of his time and called upon us to face the moral blindness of our age and to fulfill this nation's dream of social justice. It left me with the questions that I shared with this new generation on that commencement day. I asked them to think about what our education demands of us? Is it enough to have some knowledge of society but not feel its injustices? To know some science but not care about the uses to which it is put? To become technically proficient and yet be blinded to the moral context in which our technical expertise will affect the lives of people? To understand something about economics but not care that huge numbers of our children are now living in poverty in this country? What is our responsibility in continuing the conversation? What is our responsibility in awakening others to these questions? What is our responsibility in making the institutions we enter more responsive to human needs? What is our responsibility in elevating the public debate in this country by raising the quality of its arguments and deepening an understanding of its moral significance?
I told my young audience that morning that it was their conversation now --- if they chose to enter into it -- if they chose to engage in it. I wished them well on their journey and on the choices they would make in their lives.
One of the unknown consequences of our words as teachers is to never really know whom we reach. I do know how I was reached that day in 1963 when I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. at my own commencement. This journal and its blog are a testimony to that witness.
1. John Dewey, "The Future of Liberalism," in The Collected Works. Later Works. 1934, pp. 255-277.
2. Cora Diamond, "Losing Your Concepts," Ethics 98 (January 1988): 276.
3. Jamake Highwater, The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America (New York: Harper and Row, 1981).
4. Ibid., p. 5.
5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: The Free Press, 1966).
6. George Steiner. Language and Silence: Essavs on Language. Literature and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1972).