Knowing Other People: A Commencement Address

Editor’s note: As a faculty member, I attend graduation every year and hear a lot of commencement speeches. This one below, from the Humanities Commencement Ceremony of Brandeis’ School of Arts and Sciences on Sunday, May 22nd just stopped me. The author is an English and European Cultural Studies Major who took a few introductory Greek classes with me. Read through to the end. – JPC

The Speech

Dear fellow students, families, friends, and faculty, hello, good morning, and congratulations. In lieu of a conventional speech, I offer a short narrative, and invite you to indulge me:

He was surprised when they asked him to give a speech at the graduation, for he was never the speech-giving kind of student, whether in his own country or abroad elsewhere. Speeches were supposed to be given by other people – by the better, more perfect specimens of scholarship and society: people who can stand on podiums with big confident smiles and talk about the democratic values of a humanistic education. He was not one of those people; he felt satisfied to sit in the audience.

“So, what’re you gonna say?” she asked. It is midnight. He sits on a sofa outside his room. She is somewhere in Liaoning. They met on WeChat. They have never met in person. There is no one else to talk to at this hour.

“I’ve no idea,” he texted. “I’m reading speeches from last year. One of them quotes Shakespeare, another Shelley. I feel like I should do something different, maybe quote Confucius? I’m flipping through a translation of the Analects right now, but I can’t find a good passage.”

“What do you want to say?” she asked. “What is your message?”

He stops. Is it so simple? To say something, to have a message. Outside, a car arrived in the lot, a shadow with a suitcase approached the vehicle – someone is heading home for summer.

“Some speeches from the past touch on politics,” he texted. “North American politics, of course. Nothing unusual. Do you think I should go in that direction?”

“Do you have something to say in that direction?” she replied.

“Well, I can say something like: ‘Today, we live in an age of global nationalism and international mistrust, in which it is all too easy for people to perceive and prejudge each other, perhaps unconsciously, according to the country they come from, or some other group identity, thus enacting a totalizing discourse of group impressions. These are times when the value of the humanities become especially pertinent, because the humanities teach us to behold one another’s differences intimately, to confront each other, to engage the Other, in the words of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “face-to-face”, on an individual basis. The kind of knowledge that the humanities impart us consists in precisely this ability to open up to the Other, and by doing so, ultimately, know ourselves.’”

He sends the text and waits. She does not reply. He feels hypocritical. In his three years at Brandeis, he did not do what he had just preached in that very text he had just produced, neither did he feel like it was possible. In his actual experience, people always hanged out with their own, no matter what they think they believe in, almost as if they could not help it. When he attempts to break into a different territory, its local inhabitants quickly remind him, by confused looks and bored expressions, that he is an outsider who does not really speak their language or share their jokes. It matters little if these people have read Shelley or Shakespeare.

Perhaps, he thinks, true learning is not about believing that you have become a better person, that you are that better person, but in knowing that you are not, and that there is much, still, to be known.

She does not reply. He waits. In the silence of the night, he detects a strange humming sound, as if there is a machine hidden in the darkness. He flips through the Analects. A message appears on his phone. It is from her – it is a quote:


“‘The Master said: Do not worry that other people do not know you. But be concerned that you do not know them.’”

Zhongzhi Chen is a recent graduate of Brandeis University. He plans to attend an MFA program this Fall. He was inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s Nobel lecture for this piece.

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