Hillsdale College senior class president Josh Andrew delivered the class of 2014’s graduation speech Saturday, May 10. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the Collegian has obtained a video of it and typed up the transcription below.
Josh Andrews majored in English at Hillsdale and moved to the greater Detroit area after graduation to participate in Teach for America. He will soon marry his beautiful fiance Kaleigh McCormick, a fellow Hillsdale graduate.
“Thank you to Dr. Arnn, the platform party, parents, friends, enemies, and all who join us today. Greetings and congratulations to the Hillsdale College Class of 2014. Say it ain’t so: we’re graduating.
In preparation for this, I Googled “Giving graduation speeches for dummies,” myself being the dummy and not all of you. And I was instructed to greet the guests, to avoid inside jokes, to strike that perfect balance of humor and sentiment, and to be myself. But the instruction to which I returned over and over again with all of these searches was this: to avoid drunkenness both before and during the talk. Truly, I cannot promise to meet any of these requirements, except that I am at least sober, and will struggle to remain so throughout the remainder of this brief speech.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at Hillsdale, it’s that I have not graduated yet, and that, in the words of our president, “Son, there’s a lot of people, with a lot of power, who can keep it that way.”
Before we proceed any further, it’s important that you all know that the senior class officers usually hand over their duties to the rising officers in a ceremonial passing of the gavel at spring convocation. We never did this. And, after speaking with my fellow class officers, we find this to be a perfect time to announce that we are coming back for four more years.
I’ve thought much over the past few months about what I ought to say on an occasion like this, and I’m still not entirely sure. It’s strange, but I find that the people I love most in this world are the most difficult to commemorate. It’s as though there exists a love that is quiet, and sure, and almosts resists explanation. And so you must all know that this place has meant more than I can tell you. And you must not judge our time at Hillsdale College by what I find words for.
I have often reflected on our first parents weekend together in the fall of our freshman year, that time when my parents learned that I hadn’t been doing my Spanish homework, and I began to wish that Hillsdale took governmental funds, so that I could exercise some bizarre privacy clause and withhold this information. I recall watching, though, how differently we all interacted with our parents compared to each other. There was an easy joy, and grace, and laughter, that we had not yet learned to offer to our peers, as we remained conscious of things like SAT scores and AP tests, and held on to suspicions that our roommates took such long showers because they wanted us to be late for class, and kept the room so dirty because they were trying to mess with our mental cycles.
Meanwhile, the parents who taught us to clean our rooms sat across the table from those who taught us about eudomonia, or happiness, that activity of contemplation in accord with virtue. And those who forced us to attend our older siblings’ basketball games because, in this family, we support our siblings, sat across from those who tell us that we are in the business of beholding beauty, of wondering at it, and that this education we are doing is hard, and requires sacrifice.
For me, these worlds were distinct, and now they were impinging upon each other. And I can remember thinking that they were not made for one another. What I was doing here seemed wonderfully abstract, and even comfortably so. And besides being a greal deal of fun and having direct implications on my professional life, I was unsure of any greater significance. Yet for the sake of this college, my parents had hugged me, and said goodbye to the boy they once taught to ride a bike, and throw a baseball, and love his sister. And for the sake of this college, my professors welcomed me, and shook my hand, and advised me of the responsibility this education would demand. I trusted them. We trusted them. And now we are here, and it is our turn to say goodbye.
This whole process strikes me as bizarre. For any sensible, rational creature would resist subjection to this cycle of believing, participating, and departing. So here’s something that I think is true: that a few weeks from now, we will all return from our first day of work to a place that we do not know, and do not yet love. And we will enter a room whose walls are white and barren of posters, and the place will have that smell that says that no one lives here. And we will continue through all the rooms in hope of seeing our friends, but the beds will be still, and the house will be quiet, and the fridge will be empty. And we will remember the experience of seeing the faces of our friends after summer and Christmas break, and we will know that we are apart.
And this brings me to a question, and it is one that is worth asking, even at the risk of sounding overly earnest and dramatic: was it worth it?
For we will find ourselves gone from our home, and distant from our family, and feeling the loss of all those cliches that we once said couldn’t possibly be true, because they are stupid and cheap and reserved for sitcoms and pulp fiction. And though we will know that God is near, and that there is such a thing as home, there will be a sense that we are wandering. And we will know why people weep when loved ones leave, because we will weep as loved ones leave. This will happen this afternoon. And I will wonder with you all if it was worth it.
And all of this is true because we listened to our professors and watched our parents. Because, as unwitting freshmen, we made a choice that appeared sensible at the time, and whose ramifications we did not understand. And that was the choice to love. To give ourselves to each other, to do this education together, transient and permeable as we are. And here we are as unwitting seniors, forced to proceed once more upon the promises of others, and faced with that same choice: will you do it again?
This is test of our education: If you will look upon the reality of separation and suffering and reject it as meaningless, embracing once again the possibility of love. Will you look upon what we had, know that it was worthwhile, and proceed once more. Here, the liberal arts becomes more than teaching you how to think. It begins to instruct you on what to love, and how you ought to love it. Your education will determine the things for which you sacrifice, even knowing that they are finite, and moving forward nonetheless. As Marilyn Robinson reminds us, “There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance, it is only a glimpse, or parable, of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all, because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”
So this is the choice that we have: To seek comfort in distance, or allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to offer ourselves to be hurt by that for which we care. For though the movement of life demands departure, we may choose to love in the meantime. So think about your family here, your home here, your education here, and ask yourself if it was worth it, because your answer will change your life. The words of Dostoevsky are good here, when he says that “Perhaps, in love, we are better than we are I wish you all way more than love. Thank you.”