Embrace Your Inner Nerd

Graduates of the Class of 2019, faculty, staff, family, friends, alums, trustees –please join me in thanking all of the many people who created these Commencement events and contributed to today’s setup on Hartman Green—we are so fortunate to be outside to celebrate this joyous event on Hartman Green in the heart of campus!

We welcome and are grateful for our distinguished honoree, Bebe Miller, a bold artist whose dance and choreography explores the human condition and opens mind and soul to new ways of interpreting the world around us through movement.

And, of course, for our distinguished honoree and speaker, Dr. Rahel Nardos, who found her life’s calling during her four years at F&M. After graduation, Dr. Nardos boldly stepped out into the world, driven to make a difference. Her contributions to medical science and women’s rights both inspire and amaze, and she is a shining example of what it means to claim the name.

Over the last few days, I have observed our Class of ’19 strolling across campus with their loved ones. There has been a poignant mix of emotion on everyone’s faces– nostalgia, excitement, regret, and perhaps a little apprehension, along with fatigue, intelligence and a new awareness. That wave of feeling occurs as each of you begins to see through the eyes of a graduate rather than those of a student. I empathize! Families, friends, loved ones, you have invested so much, for so long, in so many ways, in these wonderful young people and their hard-earned passage through a fine institution. They have learned, they have matured, they are ready to go – whether they know it or not – and while they did the work, while they grew and found their voice, you have been the network that helped launch and sustain them. I applaud you and I thank you for entrusting your children to us and for helping keep them here.

Graduates, I ask you to recognize all those who helped you get here – whether they are present here today, watching at home, or with us in spirit, all those whose love and support has been the mainstay of your life, your education, and your success. Please stand, salute this crowd, and give the loudest thanks that you can muster!

Now, as is customary for Commencement speakers, I have a small nugget of wisdom to offer. It begins with a brief, self-revealing anecdote. I am a scholar of the Middle Ages, and have spent a considerable amount of time at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), the French national library. Beyond its unmatched collection of books and manuscripts, the BNF is notorious for its inhospitable architecture and bureaucracy. Obtaining a reader's card there is somewhat akin to the quest for the holy grail. It is not for the faint of heart; only the stalwart, well-prepared, and persistent walk away with a precious card that is the passkey to a treasury of resources.

You’re entitled to laugh when you hear that the day I obtained my reader’s card was one of the most exciting days of my life. But, I wasn’t surprised. I had realized long before that moment that I am a total language and literature nerd. For me, that card represented a kind of life blood, the chance to receive, understand, and create knowledge that fascinated me and contributed to the storehouse of what we know about the world.

There are not too many circles in which I can tell this story with any hope of an understanding audience. But my guess is that you might be a nerd, too. In the best possible way, of course.

Graduates, you have a very generous measure of academic talent, and to that innate gift you have added the catalyst of persistence, discipline, a great work ethic, and a certain humility that motivates you to look deeper, and push your understanding ever further. I would bet that you, too, have had moments of triumph like mine – in the field, classroom, library, lab, practice room or studio. Moments when you made a discovery or found a tool, however large or small; when you put together a compelling argument and convinced someone older, more experienced – a teacher, perhaps – that your point of view was plausible, even if that other person didn't agree. What you found at F&M is an environment that encouraged and rewarded intellectual engagement, that fed your intellectual curiosity, and allowed you to hone, continuously, your skills and your appetites.

That won't always be the case. We are surrounded by anti-intellectualism, in the media, in popular culture, and in politics. As you may have found out early in life, it isn't always cool to be smart.

Granted, anti-intellectualism can be funny. It’s at the heart of a lot of sitcoms and movies that trade on often genuinely amusing stereotypes of both the smart and the not-so-smart, portraits that hold a grain of recognizable truth.

But anti-intellectualism can be nefarious, too. It lives in the refusal to question, in blind obedience, in rigid thinking, in a failure to engage – all habits of mind that allow repressive systems and institutions to flourish. They perpetuate racism and bigotry of all kinds, reinforce oppression, stifle diversity, and equality.

So, what can an intellectual do in face of the all-too-common refusal to think critically, and the all-too-common scorn for things smart?

Here’s my advice: No matter what, keep that intense light of inquiry and excitement shining bright! Let it define you, never with arrogance, but with modesty and humor. Intellectual curiosity and intelligence are their own reward. But you can also integrate them into every strand of your lives. Put it to use for yourself, your loved ones, and your community.

Learn for the sake of learning. Keep reading! Dig into what fascinates you. Be proud of your undergraduate education. Whether your start was in the lab or the library archives, trust that your four years here has rooted you in a firm intellectual foundation from which you can grow in any direction you choose. Be open to new knowledge, interests, and passions—they may have nothing to do with your major and yet they may be the most rewarding experiences to come.

Share your love of learning. When you choose a partner, make sure it is someone with their own life of the mind, someone who loves you for your intelligence, abilities, and character, someone with passions, who will hold a good conversation with you over tacos or a burger, with a beer in hand. Stay in touch with classmates and mentors. Our intellectual engagement flourishes best in relationship with others. We need each other to challenge ideas, push boundaries, and stimulate critical thought.

In your place of work, resist the routine. Use precise language, articulate your thoughts with care. Help improve systems, bring new thinking, improve on the tried and true.

And teach the next generation the same values: show them the value of literacy, help them realize their potential, don't let them settle for the lowest common denominator.

What's the bottom line? Fight anti-intellectualism by helping, always, to raise the tone, to probe your own and others’ assumptions. Don't put your intellectual curiosity on the shelf with your old textbooks and lecture notes. Feed it, and encourage it in others. It is far too precious, you have worked too hard, to let it slide. Make your life one of constant learning and creating, using all the tools you have strived to acquire.

What am I saying? In short, embrace your inner nerd! Wear those cords and tassels with pride. Take the creative power of a good mind with you into whatever worlds you choose to enter. I applaud you on your success so far, I exhort you to keep up the good work, and I invite you to tell me about your accomplishments. I will be watching with great interest as the F&M Class of 2019 takes on the world.