Convocation Speech by Hal Holladay

Every year during Family Weekend Simon’s Rock students and families celebrate student achievements during Honors Convocation. Before students were recognized for their accomplishments, Hal Holladay, the College’s Emily H. Fisher Faculty Fellow, reflected on the state of the country, his belief in a broad based interdisciplinary curriculum, and the optimism his students have inspired.

Dr. Holladay is a Renaissance scholar with a particular interest in Shakespeare. His interests also include classical Greek literature, medieval studies, postcolonial fiction, modern British fiction and poetry, Southern fiction, and Buddhist thought. In addition to his work on Shakespeare, Dr. Holladay has published articles on the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, William Goyen, Peter Matthiessen, Margaret Atwood, William Gay and others, as well as essays on such diverse figures as Thomas Becket, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen Hawking. He has served as the scholar in residence for Shakespeare & Company's Institute on Teaching Shakespeare, and in a variety of positions at Simon's Rock, including coach of the men's and women's basketball teams, Dean of Students, and Admission Counselor.

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“Since Dean Ruhmkorff who invited me to give this talk is a professor of philosophy, I thought I would begin with a reassuring quotation from a philosopher—reassuring that is to me in this situation. Ludwig Wittgenstein (Lut vic Vitgen sstarn) is the philosopher, His words: ‘Don’t for heavens sake be afraid of talking nonsense.’

“When I was asked to give this talk, my initial inclination was to decline for several reasons: I am uncomfortable in the role of lecturer, I feel that the real reason for this occasion is our acknowledgement and celebration of the accomplishments and the promise of the students honored here tonight; no one, least of all the students, really wants to hear another lecture by a professor; and finally whenever I am asked to speak on occasion such as this (graduations, weddings) I feel that my words are if not doomed by the occasion to be positive in a predictable and banal way at least encouraged to be so. Although it would be very easy to be negative and pessimistic given the state of the world, not to mention of the economy, I promise to yield to that tradition and be predictably positive before I finish.

“On the morning when I was asked to speak tonight, I was looking over the poems of William Butler Yeats, and as I thought about what I might say, two of his minor poems kept asserting themselves as likely material for my talk. Yeats was after all infinitely more skilled with language than I am.

“The first Yeats poem entitled ‘On being asked for a War Poem’ was written in the turbulent and war torn world of 1915 in response to a request by Henry James that he write a poem in favor of neutrality. Yeats did not feel up to the task; I share both his reluctance to do what was asked of him and his sense of inadequacy.

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right:
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

“Although I too have no gift to set a statesman right, silence is clearly not an option for me in this moment. Like Yeats I am a meddler but my meddling does not involve indolent youths or old men; rather I attempt, as my colleagues do, to inspire young women and men to be their best selves. You will not be surprised to hear that I believe that a broad based inter- disciplinary liberal arts education, exactly like the one offered here, is increasingly important not only for success in the work place in our rapidly changing world but also for the cultivation of a sense of responsibility to a good greater than one’s own and a cultivation of the intellectual honesty, tolerant and informed world view, and emotional empathy so desperately needed in the public domain.

“We do live in a troubled time and we are at a crucial juncture not only in our country’s history but also in the history of the world. In just a few days, the voters in this country will make a choice that will have a profound impact on our future; I wish that all of those voters were graduates of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

“Years ago in a convocation address I spoke of the necessity of resisting what other would make of us. I quoted Camus’ variation on Descartes’ famous line ‘I think therefore I am’ Camus’ version was ‘I rebel therefore I am.’ I was arguing that we only become our true, authentic selves by the radical and deep seated refusal of that which others have made and would make of us, and I was suggesting that both teachers and parents exist to be grown out of. Later in his life Camus altered his assertion because he had come to appreciate the value of group action as opposed to that of an individual; the cult of the individual arguably has become a dead end. People who say, as did Shakespeare’s R III, ‘I am myself alone.’ are scourges and menaces on the face of the earth as the conduct of many in the realms of high finance and politics has so amply demonstrated in recent years and months. I think that Camus’ revision of his own words is quite resonate in this moment: ‘I rebel therefore we are.’ We must rebel against the impulse to value our country or religion or ethnic background or comfort more than we value the environment or tolerance or justice. It seems to me that we have reached a point in world history when individuals, families, communities, corporations, nations must stop putting self-interest first.

“I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s and was an active and committed participant in the great political/social movements of the 60’s & 70’s: civil rights, the Vietnam protest, women’s rights, environmental reform. I was confident that my generation would shape a better world: more just, more peaceful, more loving, less polluted, less materialistic, etc

I was, of course, wrong. My generation has clearly failed—our world is more troubled than it was 40 or 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago.

“This semester I have the privilege of teaching a BA seminar, that is a seminar designed for juniors and seniors, with Professor Joy Lapseritis, a graduate of Simon’s Rock, and two less distinguished but fine institutions: Smith College, and MIT. Joy is a young and vital professor of Biology. The course is called FATAL PROGRESS, FACT & FICTION; we study novels dealing with such issues as global warming, pollution, genetic engineering, and pandemics and examine the hard science underlying the issues raised by the novels. I would like to read you excerpts from two of the students’ response journals; each is responding to THE SHEEP LOOK UP a disturbingly prophetic novel about ecological and moral disasters caused by American greed and solipsism written by John Brunner.

The sense of powerlessness Peg expresses has been a frequent sensation throughout this course. Hearing about incident after incident of environmental degradation, I slip into a feeling of powerlessness and insignificance. And I notice that when my primary belief is that I am unable to change my world for the better in part because the issues involved in ecological change are so complex that it would be a challenge simply to determine what “positive” action would consist of, I drift towards apathy. In fact, I was struck by the thought that perhaps not existing would be more beneficial for the planet than actively trying to promote change.

When I reflect on the first 60 pages or so of THE SHEEP LOOK UP, I start to Ask myself whether it is moral for my generation to reproduce. Contaminated Food and water, climate change refugees, global food crisis, wars, over population, rampant abuse of the environment, unchecked over indulgence, financial and moral bankruptcy, are these to be our gifts to the next generation?

“Perhaps a purely rational and pragmatic person would agree with the dark vision of these students. Certainly they point out undeniable facts about the world we have created. But I decline to accept our failures as determining the future of our children and their children. In spite of the overwhelming evidence, I still have faith in the human spirit and in human intelligence. I still believe that working individually and together we can defeat the plagues of pollution, intolerance, greed, solipicism, and sectarianism which poison our world and our lives. My faith in the future of our world is renewed each time I walk into a classroom and confront the self-confidence, youthful idealism, and merciless intellects of your children.

“The second Yeats poem that came to mind is entitled A PRAYER FOR OLD AGE—so a prayer for me but also a prayer for all of us to be passionate and foolish enough to endeavor to shape a better world for future generations across the globe in spite of the growing difficulty of accomplishing such a task. Yeats speaks in this poem of his desire to sing a lasting song—a song for Yeats was both a true utterance and an affirmation of life and it came from the heart as well as the mind.

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone.

From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised by all;
O what am I that I should not seem
For the song’s sake a fool?

I pray—for fashion’s word is out
And prayer comes round again—
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.