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May 14, 2012

2012 Baccalaureate Speech

By Dr. Vince Redder
Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities

Graduates and parents, members of the Board of Trustees, President Duffett, Provost Novak, my colleagues of the faculty, and students: good morning.

I suspect that there is quite a bit of activity at your house, hotel room, or dorm room today.  Friends and relatives are no doubt congratulating you, shaking your hand, clapping you on the back, and handing you rolls of twenty dollar bills. You have much to be proud of: you have negotiated a perilous path past the BEP and the PEP. You have enjoyed and laughed through some classes and groaned through others, but you have in all cases learned something.  At this point, then, in your college career, it behooves us to reflect on what you have learned and what you are obligated to do with it.

Before I begin, I want to relate my first experience with a college graduation. It was my own at the University of Dallas. The university had granted a doctorate in philosophy to a loquacious gentleman, and they made the mistake of letting him talk, and he did, for an hour and 15 minutes. My family, who had never been to a college graduation before (I was the first in the family to go to college), came and went, and finally some of them went and never came back. To this day my family has an aversion to graduations, which they blame on me. So, when I told my mother I was giving the baccalaureate address, she said, “Don’t you talk for an hour and 15 minutes like the guy at your graduation.”  I told her I wouldn’t — I figure an hour is enough.

Now, just because I will be speaking for an hour does not mean that what I am about to say will be complicated — it won’t, in fact, it will be fairly straightforward.  I must begin, however, with a couple of definitions, lest you mistake what I mean by the terms “education” and “payment.”  Here is why definitions are important: you may understand one meaning of the terms I use when in fact I mean something entirely different. Here is a good example: I like to collect and repair old watches and clocks, and one of the tools we use is called an alcohol lamp — it is used to heat metal to bend it and to heat shellac to melt it as glue for jewels. When I finally got one of these wonderful lamps on eBay, I told my daughter, who was about fifteen, that it had come in the mail. I was excited — in my mind I was already melting shellac and bending metal. My daughter’s response, however, was disappointing: “Great, Dad, now you don’t have to drink in the dark anymore.” Her response makes sense from someone who knows nothing about watch repair, so in order to avoid being accused of drinking in the dark again, I wish to define a couple of terms. We will begin with “education.”

Some people erroneously equate education with a mere list of courses taken at some point, making a diploma or degree nothing more than a testimony that these courses were passed. Almost nothing could be farther from the truth. What those people are thinking of is something more akin to a certificate of training. An education, on the other hand, is much deeper and harder to attain.  It includes not only the courses you take, but all the experiences you have outside of the classroom as well, whether musical, theatrical, club-oriented, ministerial, or service-related. It includes Humans vs. Zombies, hypnotists, and comedians, too.  It includes also your reflections on your experience, which in turn becomes part of the experience. This is your education, not merely the classes you take.

And this experience is, to quote our own website, “transformative.” In other words, you become a different person through your experience here. You graduates can all perhaps remember when you first stepped foot on our campus two, four, or, for some of you, even six years ago. This transforming is a part of growing up. I myself was once young and unknowledgeable. But then I grew up. Maybe I am not such a good example of transformation, but I have others.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples (the word means nothing more than “learners” in Latin) are often confused about Jesus’ words and actions.  Here is one example from chapter eight.

They had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.  He enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”  They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread.  When he became aware of this he said to them, “Why do you conclude that is because you have no bread?  Do you not yet understand or comprehend?  Are your hearts hardened?  Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?

In the section immediately preceding this passage, Jesus has just rebuked the Pharisees for demanding a “sign,” saying that they were too wicked to get one. Leaving the wicked Pharisees on shore, he retreats in a boat with his beloved disciples, those with whom he has shared his life. These were the people he depended upon to carry his message to the world after his death.  I can see him pointing across the lake to the now-diminishing Pharisees and saying to his disciples, “beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” Since leaven makes bread rise, it reflects the puffed-up nature of the Pharisees themselves. It is a good and apt bread analogy.

It stands to reason that the disciples at this point would respond sympathetically, and perhaps even expound extemporaneously on the topic, as other disciples had been known to do. They do not.  In fact, they have no idea what Jesus is talking about.  They think he is angry with them because they forgot to bring more bread for the sea journey. I think they probably started to accuse each other: “I thought you were supposed to bring the bread,” “No, I brought it last time, it’s Judas’s turn.”  Jesus must have been flabbergasted at this lack of comprehension from men he had lived with for the past three years: after all, he’s given a brilliant lecture and now the students don’t remember or understand a thing.  I feel his pain.  He is obviously frustrated: he asks, “why are you talking about bread?  Do you still not understand? And then, like any good professor, he does what I would do-- he decides to give a pop-quiz. He says, “When I broke the loaves for the 5,000, how many baskets were left over, and when I broke the loaves for the 4,000, how many?” They come up with the right answers, but fail to see the symbolism behind the numbers or the miracles themselves. Their education is not yet complete; they have logged in some hours in class, but still don’t have the big picture — the total experience escapes them. When they do finally understand, they make the step from being disciples to apostles, the “ones who go out.”  The completion of their education brings with it the responsibility to spread the gospel to the world.

And Jesus himself is transformed and demonstrates this transformation to his disciples in Luke’s Gospel at Emmaus and John’s Gospel in the closed room. Although at first skeptical, the disciples recognize him and accept his presence. Jesus is transformed and now glorified, but he is not unrecognizable to his disciples.  He is still Jesus — to prove he is not an apparition or ghost, he even asks for and eats a piece of fish in at Emmaus and shows his friends his hands and feet in the closed room. This transformed and now glorified Jesus is ready to take his rightful place and to urge the disciples to become apostles.

You yourself have been transformed through your experience at this university. If you believe, however, that this transformation has been for this moment alone, you mistake the meaning of the word “graduation.” The word means “step” in Latin — the ceremony you will go through in a couple of hours signifies by no means that you are finished with thinking about transforming, but rather that you must begin to pay for it.

And so it is time to define our second term, “payment.” No doubt you would love for me to tell how to pay off your student loans in six months, but I am not able to do that — I am after all only an English professor, not business or math.  The payment I speak of is best summed up by Theodore Roosevelt in his essay, “The College Graduate and Public Life,” written in 1894.  Although he speaks only of men, since the graduates of his time were all male, the sentiment will apply to all graduates of today.  He says,

It is proper to demand more from the man with exceptional advantages than from the man without them.  A heavy moral obligation rests upon the man of means and upon the man of education to do their full duty by their country.  On no class does this obligation rest more heavily than upon the men with a collegiate education, the men who are graduates of our universities.

In Roosevelt’s day, of course, only males of means were able to receive a college education and were likely to consider themselves a caste apart from regular working men and women who did not possess those means.  Although he does not use the exact word, the future president exhorts them to use their education to transform the country and the world. This is the payment of which I speak when I talk about how you will pay for your education.  Jesus agrees, as he says in the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: “From those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” Is there a higher authority than this? Certainly not Roosevelt nor anyone else who has spoken on the subject warns us in starker terms of the consequences of pretending that everything that we have learned is for our use alone.  The real payment for our education, then, comes not in dollars, but in service to others.

You may be saying to yourself, “But alas, I am but a poor college graduate going out into the cold world alone.  What can I do?”  If you are saying that, first I say, stop it, and then I say, there is plenty you can do.  You have learned to seek and recognize the truth; continue to seek it and when you have found it, defend it, because there are many today for whom truth is relative; it is useful only to serve their ends. You have learned to communicate; continue to communicate and build bridges where some may tear them down. You have learned to be socially conscious, culturally aware, and service-oriented; continue to give time in your community to help those in need; poor though they may be, they are your neighbors.  You have learned to avoid zombies, although I’m not sure how that fits in here. If you are looking for a study guide, take a look at chapter 25 in Matthew’s Gospel: there Jesus reminds us that, on the Day of Judgment, we will be held accountable for our actions toward our fellows. Whether we clothe the naked or not, whether we feed the hungry or not, whether we visit those in prison or not will be the only things that matter on that day. 

You may ask how one graduate from Dakota Wesleyan University can make a difference in the world, and yet among our alumni you will find George McGovern, who has made a life out of using his knowledge and experience to bridge gaps and feed the hungry. And in 1946 he, like you, was waiting to receive his diploma from this institution. You, like McGovern, have acquired much during your time at DWU, and as the passage from Luke’s gospel suggests, much will be expected of you. 

You will notice, I am sure, that I assiduously avoid saying anything about climbing the corporate ladder, gaining an insight into the market, or becoming a millionaire before you are 30 — those things are best left to another address dealing with the other type of payment.  But even as you make those other payments, remember the injunction in the Gospels give back from what you have received.

You have accomplished much thus far, and your professors and the administration at DWU salute you for it; we hope likewise in the future to stand in awe of your selfless lives of service in the many communities into which you will scatter tomorrow. Remember what you have learned here, and give back appropriately.


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Last updated: 5/14/12