The Life of the Mind

2004 Brown University Graduate School Commencement Valedictorian,

Published Brown University News & George Street Journal

A few years back there was a question posed by a Brown graduate student on an internet forum, a simple question almost out of place during the normally polemic chatter of the time, which then centered predominantly on the Union debate.

Someone asked, “what was the best movie about graduate school ever made?”

I was mostly thinking of the madness and swirl of ideas and anguish that accompanied my first year, but the movie that I felt best exemplified graduate school life was the Paper Chase, the classic film about first year law students at Harvard.

I know it is about Law School (which of course ends after 3 years and so is maybe not directly relevant to the decade or so that many of us have been in graduate school.) But to anyone who has seen the film there is, at least in part, a raw optimism that pervades the experience of our Hero, James Hart, the law student who struggles to wade through the morass of ideas and the conflicts of his intellectual and emotional life that first year, and succeeds with the help of the close and intense relationships he develops with some members of his first-year cohort and the daughter of his mentor Professor Kingsfield, played by a stentorian John Houseman of whom he is in awe.

When I made that application to Brown oh so long ago, I fancied how as a graduate student I would run around like MISTAH HAAHHRT as Professor Kingsfield calls him, having it out with colleagues over fine, weighty, esoteric philosophical points and pints and challenging and learning from a Kingsfield–like mentor. In my imaginations at the time, I ignored Hart’s slow disillusionment with his life of the mind and in my own first year chose to focus only on the possibilities.

Yes well, I will tell you, that wide-eyed way didn’t last very long.

Oh it lasted for a bit, I can still remember the first comment I ever made in a graduate seminar, timidly raising my hand and speaking, the fate of the known world hinging on my ability to formulate a response to the posed question about Alexis de Toqueville’s formulation of “equality of opportunity” in America.

By the end of my qualifying exams that first year, I had a decidedly different view of graduate school. I didn’t quite understand what that was until a friend from my cohort, one of the smartest people I have known, James Conley (who left after two years to work as a waiter in a restaurant, not that that is necessarily relevant) the night after our exams were done, had our cohort over for dinner.

Full from a satisfying meal and exhausted from having finished our first year, James insisted we watch just a single scene from another film: the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. It was the part where John Goodman goes running down the hallway of a crummy 1940s motel, shotgun in his hands which he fires off intermittently as the building is devoured by fire around him, roaring to no one and the entire world as he runs...

“YOU WANT THE LIFE OF THE MIND I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!!!!!!!!” chik chik pkow... chik chik pkow.... Shot gun blast after shotgun blast, smashing into walls that were crumbling to ashes anyway.

James slumped back on the couch as the scene played as if he were holding the shotgun, my entire cohort looking at him, thinking he had gone mad. “Yes,” his smile echoed the words on the screen.... “you want the life of the mind, I’ll show you the life of the mind.”

As our entire slightly unhinged cohort looked at him on the couch I wondered, is he right? Has the idealistic Mr. Hart in me been blinded to what my friend saw as the futility of the pursuit of the life of the mind?

And today I wonder, all of those seminars over the years, all of those books, the deadlines, this paper and that grant application. What did it come to?

Over the past few years, I have sat and waited, like the old guy in the nursing home, rocking back and forth, watching my friends finish their dissertations and leave, as I stake out my spot at the staring window waiting for my turn to move on.... As friends and family have gotten married, I say, “married? Big deal, what did you, uh, date for like two years?” I have been at this for a decade pal.... that is commitment....

But what has that commitment brought?

I mean, when I first started graduate school, man, you should have known me, I was so well-rounded. I could talk informatively about just about anything, and now, what? I learned more and more about less and less, and today I can only talk to about a half a dozen people who have any idea of what I am saying... Is that the life of the mind?

Undergrads have come to me for advice as they are “thinking about going to grad school.” I look at them, My face goes blank, the rolodex in my mind turning over in whir until it stops to click on the right card and the oft repeated mantra starts: “there a number of considerations if you are thinking of going to graduate school. Be certain to make your selection, not based on the reputation of the university but rather the quality of the particular department in which you wish to study, be sure there is someone on the faculty of that department with whom you share a theoretical and personal affinity, there is nothing more important in grad school than the relation between you and your advisor...... “

My mouth continues to move, but rattling in my head, the interior monologue shouts in silent despairing admonition... “NOOOOOOOO don’t do it, do anything, become a plumber, study air conditioning repair, become a professional poker player, anything but graduate school!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Is this what the life of the mind has become? Am I that far from the idealistic first year who felt that ideas were all that mattered? And despite all this, the thing is I finished didn’t I, we all finished didn’t we?

The fact that we are here in this field means that we may have understood him, and maybe frequently felt like he was on to something, but ultimately we did not slump to become too comfortable in our place on the couch as my first-year friend did.

No, none of us would be here today if all we believed we were doing was firing the shotgun of the mind into crumbling walls of ash.

We may have been frustrated, and may have had to work through extraordinary personal and intellectual obstacles to be here, we certainly didn’t do it for the money—some of my friends in econ and computer science excepted (and you know who you are)—but here we are.

And believe me, there have been many things about graduate school and the academy that I have found draining, which have not made things easier.

Even as I have been grateful for my training, I have been frustrated by a system that doesn’t always value graduate student contributions to the day-to-day life of the university.

I have been frustrated with certain trends in the academy to apply the “business model” to what we do, as if ideas somehow should or even could be boiled down to a bottom line. It seems that creativity and intellectual endeavors are increasingly controlled by how well they sell—the triumph of commercial viability resulting in a dehumanizing corporatism. It is nothing new to talk about this trend as it exists in the world outside of Brown, but alarmingly this approach has crept its way into the university. Places like Brown should not succumb, they should be oases from which to escape from that kind of thinking, something to be said for the naked pursuit of ideas in and of themselves.

I am not naïve in this, but as I try to understand what brought me through, despite what may sound like an apparent cynicism, my heart constantly returns to the thought that what we do is essentially a spiritual endeavor.

There is a part of this experience that has made me feel like we are in some way monks, and I don’t mean to use monks or spirituality in a religious way, but rather the other thing. I am talking about the true life of the mind.

Sequestered from the world, we keep knowledge alive for our own and future generations, we continue to talk and learn and develop ideas in what is increasingly an intellectual dark age about us, the guardians of sacred knowledge. If the ideas of a forgotten past have any future, it is because the words of those that came before us live on in our thoughts.

Even as we create new knowledge, we are the living embodiment of the old academics. Where would they be without us? We carry in our minds the words that they wrote; they would cease to exist were it not for us. We are the living extension of an intellectual tradition that extends to the beginning of thought.

The ideas that we hold alive may lie dormant to the outside world, even as we constantly talk to and learn from each other. Intermittently that world beyond the academy wakes to realize that what we do is necessary even as that world too often fails to listen to our warnings. And I believe that we have this responsibility not only to keep ideas alive, but also to try to engage the world beyond the academy. A need that becomes increasingly apparent when we witness, for example, politicians manipulating scientific findings for political, rather than intellectual, ends. What is the point of having a class of learned scholars if the benefit of that scholarship goes unheeded? We have a responsibility to speak.

And as I wonder about what has gotten me through, I think also of how I have gotten to know many of you closely, as we have laughed and learned from one another over the years—that one sub-cellular research with applications for cancer; this one an answer to the question of how ordinary people can rise to extraordinary acts of selflessness; that one examining the tension that exists between the written word on the page and the performance of the stage. And I may not understand it all, but I understand your passion, because I have felt that passion myself. We have laughed, we have complained, we have directly and indirectly fought on the same or opposite sides in any number of battles, intellectual and practical, but I stand here in awe of your abilities, in awe of your commitment to and passion for ideas.

This is no small thing to have passion for ideas: this is the spirituality that I mean. It is an aspect of the academy and my experience in graduate school that has brought me pure joy. It is something that has ultimately, I believe, brought us all under this tent today.

And in this I don’t mean to imply something so simplistic as “our idealism has gotten us through a cynical world.” Because that is not it either. Former Brown President Vartan Gregorian once characterized undergraduates in a conversation with some graduate students, saying, “the thing with Brown undergrads, is they are all cynic, all want to be cynic, but they are cynic without ever having been idealist. How can this be? You are first idealist, the world breaks the ideal and then you become cynic. But how do you become cynic without ever being idealist!!?”

I don’t know what Vartan would have said about graduate students. But in my mind, what saw us through to the end of this arduous trail is that we are comfortable with shattering simplistic Manichean opposites—we are at once comfortable with both idealism and cynicism, we can sit on the couch and mock our own work and yet keep on writing; we can be both critical and curious; rejecting and accepting; romantic and realist and seemingly all at once, with passion in the spiritual endeavor of ideas.

I wish I could have a chat with the fictional Mr. Hart, to find out how things went with him when he finally finished law school. I would tell him how graduate school has changed me, how I don’t see the world like I did anymore in the beginning of that first year. The thing is, I am sure that Hart would tell me that neither did he.

And to my first year friend,

who left grad school so many years ago to pursue other interests,

as any of us could have done at any point before finishing.

I tell him:

You want the life of the mind my friend,

The people in this field here today,

We’ll show you the life of the mind...........

Thank you and congratulations to you, to your families and to your friends. Love you all.

#BrownUniversity #Commencement