Commencement Speech by John McWhorter '83

John McWhorter '83 speaks at the Bard College at Simon's Rock 40th Commencement ceremony on May 16, 2009. (Transcription below.)

I want to thank Simon’s Rock for having me here to speak today; it’s been such a long time. What a beautiful campus this is, I don’t think I noticed that 26 years ago. But I wanted to give a short message, because I think at these Commencement addresses I’m supposed to give advice -- at 43, I suppose I’m supposed to be the age where I can give advice to younger people, so I’m going to try.

Here’s a little bit of advice: in Lythrodonto, in Cyprus, they make these jugs, and on these clay jugs, there are these lumps. You put two lumps on a jug, that’s considered decorative. Now if you dig in the ground in Lythrodonto in Cyprus, and you go back to to the stratum that represents 500 B.C., then you find that the jugs are in the shape of a female person. It’s the same jugs as today, except it’s clearly supposed to be a woman. And where the lumps are on the jugs today are something in between the woman’s neck and stomach - that’s what it is in 500 B.C. Now if you ask one of the jugmakers today in Cyprus, “Why do you put those lumps on?” then they’ll tell you, “we don’t know, that’s just what we do here in Lythrodonto, a jug has lumps.”

Clearly, what has happened is that over the years, what started out as a very concrete action, this sort of double decoration that you would put on the jugs, has just become this kind of gesture, it’s been imperceptible, and now people just do it. So, nowadays it’s just a gesture, it started out as something concrete, and nobody knows why. That’s a general process. I’m not going to bore you with why a keyboard today on your laptop has the QWERTY letters, but if you think about it, it makes no sense whatsoever. There’s a story, it’s because of something in the late 19th century that no one cares about now, and now we just deal with it. It’s awkward, but we have other things to think about.

There is a name for that kind of process, it’s called skeuomorphy. So much that we deal with in life is really the result of kind of throwing salt over the shoulder, you’re just doing it because it’s been done and you’ve never seen it done any other way.

I study language, and language is like that. Our language, what I’m doing right now, it’s full of skeuomorphies. And so, for example, “good bye.” What in the world does that mean? What’s a ‘bye?’ What’s good about it? Have you ever really thought about it? It’s just a gesture. That goes back to “God be with you,” that’s how it started. People would say it quickly, because usually they were trying to get away, and so it’d be “Go’be wi’ye,” or “go’d b’ye,” “good-bye.” In the original folios of Shakespeare plays you can see “good bye” written with apostrophes in it, showing that they were still processing words as missing. It’s skeuomorphy that we say “good bye,” there’s nothing good about it, and ‘bye’ is not a word, you just do it.

Now if you’re wondering why I’m talking about this, it’s because all of this does start to relate to life as we know it. Here’s an example: on this campus in the spring of 1982, Larry Wallach, the music teacher, did this wonderful course. It was on music, and there were three mini-courses in it. One of them was on Don Giovanni, the opera; one of them...wasn’t – I don’t remember what that one was – and the third one was on Scott Joplin. Specifically, it was on Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha.” In the early 80’s the country was still coming off of a ragtime fad that had started with the 1973 movie The Sting. So this was the tail end of that. I didn’t know about ragtime, I didn’t care about ragtime, and all of a sudden we’re listening to these Scott Joplin records – there was a device we used then to listen to music, it was called an “LP” – so we were listening to that, and I thought this stuff was just dandy. You could get a great music education at Simon’s Rock then, as you can now. I played cello, and I was playing stuff that was over my head, and it was fun and you got to do that because there were only so many people on campus, it was wonderful.

The cello is still in my closet, but the point of it is that there was this ragtime; I went crazy over it. I don’t know if it exists now, but down in the classrooms, one of the rooms had an upright piano. For some reason, on the stool there was this book of Scott Joplin’s rags, all of them, or most of them. I don’t know whose book that was, I...kind of…acquired that book, I still have that book, (We all do it...) I was reading from it the other day. So, I got into ragtime. Got my AA. Did this. I don’t remember the tent – I don’t remember anything – but I know that we did do this. Got my AA, and then I went to Rutgers, and I was the guy who was always downstairs playing piano in the dorm. There was a guy who liked that sound because it reminded him of Broadway music; he was into Stephen Sondheim. And he and I became friends. And then, he found out that in New York, there was a bar where they play Sondheim and show tunes all night. And he said, “We’ve got to go to this bar.” And that didn’t sound like much fun to me, but he really insisted on it, so one night we went up to New York and we went up to this bar. I liked it! He was bored immediately; I thought this bar was fantastic. That was 1985, and any time we went to New York after that I would keep going to that bar. Moved to New York in 2002, went to that bar. There was someone sitting next to me. She kept talking to me. I didn’t understand why. After a while I started to enjoy it, and now she is my wife. So the only reason I’m married to her is because Larry Wallach was interested in ragtime.

So life is skeuomorphic. And if you look back on your life, so much of it is that. Remember at the end of freshman year? You’ve got your friends, and you think, “why am I friends with Kaitlin? Where did I meet Justin? Why am I friends with Brian?” Then you think, well it’s because “we were in this class and we ran into each other,” or “we were both sick one day,” or something like that. It’s often chance, and you can’t really help it.

But I do worry sometimes that it’s easy to let your whole life be a skeuomorphy. I know people who their entire lives are just based on chance things that just happened to them while they were just sort of banging around. I’ve been trying to not be that way. A part of the reason is because I’ve been teaching at Columbia lately as an adjunct – they pay me so little, I can’t even pay one month of my mortgage on the whole year’s pay, so I’m really only doing it for the love of it. I’m teaching the Great Books, and John Stuart Mill had a quote that struck me, so I put it on the final exam. He said:

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is to such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable in order to break through that tyranny that people should be eccentric.

They can’t be eccentric all the time - it’s annoying - but the truth is you should try to do something different, just once. And I don’t mean going on a hike in Bhutan for two weeks or something like that, I mean a real choice about your entire life. Often, I find that the things that help you avoid the skeuomorphy are things that are hunches; kind of like your first answer on a test is right, or Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink, it’s usually something kind of sudden.

Like for me, for a long time, my hunch – and I’m glad I didn’t follow this one, you don’t want to follow all of them – I wanted to be ‘the neighbor’ on a sitcom. That always looked fun. Not the star, because then you have to work too hard, but I wanted to kind of knock on the door and come in and say things. It didn’t happen. I can’t act, is the problem. On this campus I had a roommate who dragged me into this production of The Importance of Being Earnest. I forget why. It was at the Arc – I guess now it would be at...Daniel? I don’t know how these things work, but it was at the Arc and that’s where things like that were done. There was a picture of me in the Berkshire Eagle then, and it’s clear that I couldn’t act, so I didn’t do that.

But I did do this: I was studying languages, and when you’re taught about languages and you’re supposed to be a language scientist, there is a truism. You’re told that all languages on Earth, all 6,000, are equally complex. It’s not just that all languages are complex, which they are, but they’re all equally complex. That didn’t ever make sense to me; I would teach that, I wrote papers claiming that, but it didn’t feel right. It felt wrong, and an undergraduate would ask me about it and I would say that that’s the way it was, and I would always feel a little bit soiled because I just knew that that was not true. If any of you have studied German, for example, silverware in German. What is it? The spoon is a man, and the fork is a girl – woman – and the knife is neither one of those things, and you just have to know. We don’t have anything like that in English. German is just harder. It’s not just because it isn’t English, but if you actually compare the two, it seemed to me, that some languages are more complex than others, and there’s a reason. So I went on a hunch, I thought instead of being a linguist and studying the same stuff everybody else does, why don’t I have a little fun and start saying what I think everybody knows, which is that some languages are harder than others and that there’s a reason. So I started saying that and you know, it might surprise you, it made some people angry in the world of linguistics to say that. I mean viscerally angry, it was like, you’re not a good person if you say that.

I knew that was coming, but to tell the truth, at least it wasn’t skeuomorphic. There was no chance reason. I didn’t decide to start studying that because I went to a piano bar; I didn’t decide to start studying that because I happened to have a plaid pair of pants or something like that. It was really just taking a leap. And, you know, I wasn’t alone. After I started saying that, people started joining in, and there’s now a whole school of thought. A lot of us came to this together, and now we work on it, the school of language complexity. It ends up leading to new things.

There’s an island called Flores. Flores is the size of Blodgett. It’s in Indonesia. It’s so small, there are maybe two and a half people on it. I was looking at the languages around the world, and noticing that some of them were strangely simple. This was part of my research. For some reason, on Flores there are these languages that have many fewer of the bells and whistles that we would expect. I was looking around at that – this was in 2004 – and then it turned out that there were remains dug up in a cave in Flores of these little people, it’s these “Hobbits.” If one of these Hobbits were standing on this podium, they would really only be about that high. And yet this is in the modern era; nobody had ever found anything like this; they’re not children; it’s pretty clear at this point that they’re not deformed in some way – it’s a new species of human being. And I was thinking, “isn’t it interesting that these little people have been found exactly where these languages are so different from any of the other ones in the world?” I’ve been working on that lately; I’m in touch with people in Flores. Who knows where that’s going to lead? But it wouldn’t have happened if I’d just kept studying what all of the other linguists told me.

That has lead to an interest in Indonesia. Now I’m going to an Indonesian conference in June. Those people have no reason to care who I am, but I want to study this sort of thing. (You know, Barack Obama speaks Indonesian. I just wanted to get that out. This is a sign of our – Barack Obama actually speaks the Indonesian language; I think that’s fascinating, because the last President who had that kind of foreign language competence was Martin Van Buren. Martin Van Buren, when he got upset he would start speaking Dutch and he’d have a little bit of a Dutch accent. But that was the last time, and he’s...dead.)

So the point is to at least once let your life take some sort of detour so that it wasn’t all just an accident. And what that means, finally, is also to avoid something that one teacher I had told me to avoid. And that’s to realize that just because something is old, that doesn’t mean that it’s lesser. What that means is, get a sense of how new things came about, and get a sense of how skeuomorphic they are or how skeuomorphic they aren’t. Just little things one might do.

See a silent film, if you haven’t gotten around to it. Go into a big dark room and there should be somebody playing an organ – this will usually be in a big city – not a piano, an organ, and watch a good print of a silent film. I mean, a film from year one. And not some long, boring, glum German one that feels kind of like a lot of our movies now, like the new Batman series, see one of the ones that people really liked. See Douglas Fairbanks flying on a carpet...you can see the strings hanging, but still, that’s just their version of special effects. Go see a Chaplin film in a good print. Read the comic strip “Krazy Kat,” I highly recommend it. It’s much less trivial than it sounds. It’s about a gender-neutral cat that walks around on, it’s bipedal, and you don’t know what gender it is, but it has an Ellis Island/old Yiddish accent. There is a mouse named Ignatz, and Ignatz likes to throw bricks at Krazy Kat and knock Krazy Kat out. Krazy Kat really enjoys this, and Ignatz is really dedicated to it, and they make dates to do it. Ignatz is married with children and nevertheless is doing that. Then there’s this bulldog officer that is in love with the cat, although you don’t...really, it’s insane. It’s from the teens and the ‘20s and ‘30s and it’s this strip that just goes on and on and on, and it makes no sense, it’s surreal and thoroughly enjoyable. You should read that as well as “Dilbert.”

Or, if 1997 is old (and for some of us here that might seem to be the case), I highly suggest a book that does not get around enough, and that is Leon Botstein’s – who you know – his book, Jefferson’s Children which is all about basically advocating exactly what this is. It’s long been one of my favorite books, I’ve given it as a gift often. It talks about what an education really should be. It talks about the kind of education that I’ve benefitted quite a bit from here, and it spreads a gospel that I hope will be spread more.

Leon…scared me in 1981. He gave a talk when we first got to campus – I was in some sort of striped shirt, and designer jeans, and that was normal then – and Leon made this speech about what we were to expect, I think it was at – it was at the Dining Hall. Leon said that our job was to learn how to be “lucid,” and I think that was the first time I’d ever heard that word. I was afraid that maybe I wouldn’t be able to be lucid, that struck me as a major challenge. I have been trying to be lucid ever since, and the most lucid thing I know is that one might try to make it so that your life is not just one long accident. It works out better.

There is a quote that I’m going to use to sum this up. It’s interesting; I dug this up the other day. I have this collection of quotes. It’s, blah blah blah, David Hume. Blah blah blah, Nikki Giovanni, blah blah blah, my mother. For some reason, in the quote book - which goes all the way back to Simon’s Rock, actually - I didn’t write down who said this. I Googled it and apparently nobody important said it, but it was said very well. That quote is this: “Live before or after your time, but beware the shallows of perfect contemporaneity.” Those are my words of advice at this Commencement, and congratulations.