“Giving Thanks for This Moment:” Dr. Joshua Shaw’s Address to Spring Graduates

Joshua ShawPenn State Erie, The Behrend College, ended its 2012-2013 academic year with a commencement ceremony at Erie Insurance Arena on Friday, May 3. The college conferred 671 degrees.

Forty students earned graduate degrees. Sixty earned associate degrees. Another 571 earned bachelor’s degrees.

“Yes!” said Michele Chereson, of Erie, clutching her nursing degree. “This feels so good!”

It is a commencement tradition at Penn State Behrend for a faculty member to address the graduates and their families. Dr. Joshua Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy, shared the remarks below, titled “Giving Thanks for This Moment,” at the ceremony. Shaw holds a doctoral degree in philosophy from Indiana University, a master’s degree in humanities from the University of Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Bard College. His research interest is ethics in a range of contexts; Shaw has published and given presentations on the philosophy of humor and the ethics of joke-telling, feminism, parenthood, the Holocaust, and ethical dilemmas in gaming and game design. 

Shaw also is the author of the book “Emmanuel Levinas on the Priority of Ethics: Putting Ethics First.” His current research focuses on the concept of family responsibilities and on ethical dilemmas raised by family relationships.

Chancellor Don Birx and Council of Fellows Chairman Kurt Buseck offered remarks at the ceremony.

“Finishing an associate, undergraduate or graduate degree is one of life’s great undertakings,” Birx said. “May the pride this achievement inspires fill a deep well of confidence you can draw on as you build new lives beyond Penn State Behrend.”


Commencement Address: "Giving Thanks for This Moment" - Dr. Joshua Shaw

Welcome family, friends, and, especially, the class of 2013.

It is an honor to be asked to speak to you. To be honest, I have been waiting a while for this moment. You see, as a philosophy professor, I spend most of my waking life writing speeches in my mind in which I give incalculably valuable wisdom. The problem I face is getting anyone to listen. No one takes me seriously, and in some cases—i.e., my wife—I have been told to stop talking altogether. So, you can imagine my delight when I was asked if I would like to have thousands of people locked in a room and forced to listen to me give a speech. 

But then I faced a problem. What you are supposed to do in these speeches is give some uplifting advice to the graduating class—a nugget of wisdom they can take into the real world. That’s where I faced a problem: I am probably the least qualified person in the room to give advice about the real world. 

First, I’m a philosophy professor.

Second, college was such an amazing experience for me that I never left. After I finished my B.A. I got my master’s, and after I finished my master’s I got my Ph.D., and I went from my Ph.D. to my job here at Penn State.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m not sure what the real world is like.

This makes it tough to give advice on what you should do when you get there. So, for a while, I thought about titling my speech something like: “The real world, huh?  Good luck with that.”  Or: “Did you know that Penn State Erie offers several affordable graduate degrees?  You’re welcome to stick around.” But you deserve a better speech. You worked hard to get here: I owe you some enlightenment. 

Here is the thing: I don’t think you need my advice.

Around 240 students pass through my classes each year. I have met many of you. I can assure you that you’ll be fine. Your life will not be easy after you graduate. You will face challenges, tougher ones, I suspect, than what I faced when I graduated. No advice I can give you will be adequate to prepare you for them because if there is one thing that’s true about life it’s that it is always more complicated than the advice we give about it. But that’s okay because if there is one truth about people, a truth you’ve shown over the past few years, it’s that we are more resourceful than the challenges life gives us.

Think about who you were when you arrived at Behrend. Try to recall who you thought you would be at this moment. Chances are you are vastly different—more complex but therefore more interesting. I can promise you that will keep happening again and again in life. (Or at least that’s what I think right now. I may have a more complex but more interesting view in a few years.)

Here is the point: You’re talented. You’re ambitious. Life will force you to do great things, whether you like it or not. When I think of you, the graduating class, I feel the best type of envy. You will achieve things that put my achievements to shame. You will make me jealous, and that’s great because I cannot wait to see what you do.

So I don’t have advice for you but I don’t think you need it. What I want to do instead is to get philosophical, to do what philosophers love to do, which is to ask the big question: What’s the meaning of this moment, right here, right now? 

I have this theory about college graduations. My theory is that they’re not really about the people who are graduating but, paradoxically, about the people who are not graduating. Let me explain.

I was the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college. It was a big deal to my parents that they could give me that gift. I’m pretty sure that from their perspective it was as if some alien took over my body when I left home. The person who returned dressed and talked differently. He had different values and lived in a different world, no longer his small, rural hometown but a world of internships and research fellowships in faraway cities. These changes intimidated them but they valued them, too. For them, college was a gateway to a world they never had a chance to enter; so it was oddly reassuring when I came home acting strange because it meant I was experiencing opportunities they had never received.

What I remember most vividly about graduation was how their joy exceeded my own. My college had relaxed rules about graduation. It was outside, and families could bring blankets and picnic where they wanted around a tent.

My family is pretty down-to-earth, and they interpreted this invitation as basically a chance to do some tailgating. They brought along Champagne and politely partied their way through the speeches. My college flew in celebrities and gave them honorary degrees but the picture I kept from that day is a photo of my family—parents, sister, aunt, uncle, cousins, grandmother—dancing in the sunlight, grinning, toasting the camera with plastic champagne glasses while I, off-screen, collect my diploma. 

For me, this image symbolizes one of the values of higher education and the role graduation plays in honoring it. There has been lots of discussion of late about the value of a college degree. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to pin college down to one goal or outcome, but one thing we do is link communities to their own possibilities. A community sends us its daughters and sons, its parents and spouses, in the hope that we will help them realize their latent potentials—to become the next generation of entrepreneurs, artists, and researchers, or simply worldlier, more reflective citizens.

Graduation, I think, is about honoring the hope these communities place in us. For my parents, sending me to college meant sending a fragment of themselves off to participate in a world they would never get to experience. The life of this fragment became a mystery to them, but graduation honored its presence in my life. It let them walk the stage through me. 

I have a new appreciation for this idea of graduation. A year from now—knock on wood—I will be at this ceremony but seated somewhere I never expected: the audience. Like many Americans, my wife lost her job in the recession, and, like many, that has meant returning to college to make a career change at a time we never expected—after we had achieved professional success, when we thought we could relax, turn our attention to raising to family. I cannot wait to be sitting where you are sitting today, watching someone I love and admire cross this stage, celebrating her accomplishments, but, in doing so, celebrating our accomplishment, the struggle a family makes to send a piece of itself on to a new future.

In preparation for this speech, I tried to imagine what I would say if I could go back and give myself a piece of advice on my graduation day. I often hear people say that they have no regrets but I have tons of them, and I’d love to pass along some warnings to my younger self: 

Do more! You’ll regret the things you didn’t do way more than the mistakes you made.

Do not get your hopes up about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl in 2007-08.

Brace yourself to end up living in a part of the country where you will probably be mocked in a commencement speech for referring to the New England Patriots. 

But, really, if I could go back, I’d let myself have that afternoon where his family basked in his accomplishments, and he basked in their pride, because honoring the role graduation plays in a family’s and in a community’s hopes for themselves seems more important than any advice I could give. Rather than give advice, I decided to use this speech to give thanks—thank you to all of the people in the audience who sent us these fragments of yourselves who have accomplished so much over the past several years. 

Thank you for this moment.