Words Simple and Commonplace


By DR. MONROE E. DEUTSCH, Acting President of the University of California.

Delivered at Commencements, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, June 23 and 24, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 664-666.

ONCE more in our whirling war-time calendar commencement arrives; once more the University sends forth a group of young men and women whom it has been educating or training for a series of years. It is always a time of mixed emotions—of congratulations on the completion of the race which you have run, of pride on the part of your parents, and of regret at leaving these friendships which have been made here, and mingled with it are eagerness and uncertainty at the future you are facing.

On such an occasion, it seems to me that what is said should be addressed to you, for it is your day. Often speakers at these times have in mind not the graduates the general public, and the university audience is hut, were, the sounding board which sends the words forth to the outer world.

You might be urged to make good use of the education you have received here, and we all trust you will. Sometimes one is a bit discouraged at the effect of university education, when he sees so many college graduates who in their speech, and far more their thinking, show no signs of the training

they have received and imitate those about them in the community who have not had their advantages. The value of a university education is tested above all in the lives of its graduates—and if you really wish to bring credit to your Alma Mater (for which in your songs you say you are willing to die), all you have to do is to live as befits university graduates—honorable lives, but at the same times lives that reveal the training and the attitude of educated men and women.

At a time like this you are doubtless thinking of success in your careers. In olden days graduating classes chose from among their number prophets who predicted the careers of their fellows; one was usually to become president of the United States, another a supreme court justice, a third a world-renowned poet, a fourth a famed general, a fifth a powerful industrialist. How few, how very few of these predictions were realized. And on the other hand, not infrequently in later years some more or less obscure graduate became one of the best-known members of his class. The gift of prophecy, you see, has its limitations; despite the multiplicity of departments and courses in our colleges, we have not yet assumed that we can train prophets. And if we could, like Cassandra and those who saw so clearly the impending European conflict, they doubtless would not be believed, if they predicted things unpleasant.

So do not let your hearts be set on the attainment of this thing called success. You will discover that your journey is like the climb up the mountains—each hill reveals a yet higher peak ahead; and even if events are propitious, you will find that you have failed to reach the final or ultimate peak. But if you should reach even that goal, it would prove by no means the alluring spot to which you had looked forward; you would find yourself lonely there and exposed to the biting winds of jealousy and envy. To abandon the figure, you would find that all too often you would be sought for what others might secure from you; you would be regarded as a well or a mine, valued for what it yielded.

And along with your success would go a host of responsibilities, heavy ones too, and often you would envy those who can really control their own lives.

So instead of this selfish striving for success and yet greater success, seek to order your lives on the basis of those old virtues, old and yet never tarnished or out of date.

Judge people for their own qualities—not for the offices they hold, the uniforms they wear, or the degrees they have received. Weigh statements for their intrinsic worth—not because a president or a general has said them. Indeed at times a president or a general is soon forgotten, but words of wisdom abide. If you list our nation's presidents how few of them will be placed in the world's true Hall of Fame! And yet poets and statesmen, artists and inventors, will rightly hold a place there. Often men of letters and their works abide long after the holders of public office in their day have been forgotten.

When some of us were young, we read in our Freshman courses in English Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. For those whose Latin is rusty or bright and shiny because never used, the title means The Tailor Retailored. What Carlyle sought to develop was that if you strip a king or an emperor of his gorgeous robes, his decorations, his medals, he becomes a pitiful figure, having lost everything that set him apart from other men. Carlyle wished us to judge men and women for what they are—not for the coverings that encase them, the things that in very truth are superficial. The superficial is something that, like a veneer, covers the true being. You probably recall the story of the man whose breast was covered with medals; he was asked how he obtained them. He replied: "I got the first by mistake; and the others came to me because I had the first." Beneath such coverings we must all of us look. In public life the superficial appears in many forms; the candidate who can "wisecrack" or who kisses the babies does not in the slightest prove thereby that he will make a good public official. It is for us to get behind the mask and seek the reality which it conceals. As George Soule put it1: "The challenge to the young of today is not merely a challenge to express themselves and act, it is above all a challenge to be critical and wise. It is a challenge to see through the deceit of cheap and easy slogans, to beware of the trappings, of the pomp and bluster with which those who need their aid for interested ends will try to enslave them."

What is the quality that is most important in life? It is sincerity, the quality which tells us that what the man or woman says to us he will say to others and will not like Janus show a different face to different people.

Education and training are highly valuable, but when used by those deficient in character they are curses—not blessings—for they give such men keener tools with which to injure society. Good as education and training are, their true value rests wholly on the foundation of character.

Sincerity is certainly an essential element in this foundation—and its absence is revealed in so many ways. The speech written by that unseen being termed a ghost, the pretense of knowledge on the basis of a sentence or phrase picked up in conversation, the "bluff" which is used to make the less appear the greater—these may seem harmless but they are steps leading easily to far more serious breaches in sincerity. An excellent companion to sincerity—and indeed an essential one—is courage. If one really has well-considered views to express, however much they differ from those of the majority, he should speak forth; if courage does not accompany sincerity its influence becomes weak and feeble. How many of the great tragedies both in the lives of individuals and of mankind, have been due to lack of courage! Compromise is of course often necessary to reach a solution of problems, but compromise is far removed from appeasement. The dark cloud of Munich burst into a storm that overwhelmed countless cities and myriads of innocent men, women, and helpless children.

When in 1840 Charles Francis Adams was elected to the legislature of Massachusetts, his father John Quincy Adams, wrote him as follows: "Let me entreat you, whatever may happen to you of that kind, never to be discouraged or soured. Your father and grandfather have fought their way through the world against hosts of adversaries, open and close, disguised and masked; with many lukewarm and more than one or two perfidious friends. The world is and will continue to be prolific of such characters. Live in peace with them; never upbraid, never trust them. But—'don t give up the ship!' Fortify your mind against disappointments—acquam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem—keep up your courage and go ahead!"2

You may not attain the pinnacle of success on such bases but—far more important—you will retain your own self-respect. You recall the words of Cardinal Wolsey: "Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies," Or in the everyday words of wise old Benjainm Franklin: "Don't pay too much for your whistle." If you do, you willfind the happiness you take in its possession will be tarnished by a recollection of the means employed to reach it.

Now to be more encouraging, we do want you to succeed, to attain positions in which you can fully use your powers and training, but we only desire it if your success if gained on an honest basis; for then we should feel more secure as to what you will do with that success. If it is won by "bluff' and insincerity, it will not alter its nature on attainment; the leopard does not change its spots, nor does the politician who has gained office by pandering to the crowd, suddenly turn into a courageous statesman who acts as seems best without reference to pressure groups. For such public men I have the greatest of respect. Yet, in fairness, we should remember that the qualities of insincerity are not confined to any one field of human activity.

And so I give you a simple injunction—to judge men and women on the basis first and foremost of character.

What I have said is old-fashioned, I realize; I have not discussed the United Nations Conference nor post-war employment, nor the punishment of war criminals nor educational reforms. I have said very simple things, as commonplace as the water we drink or the food we eat. But the old things are not necessarily out-dated because they are old, nor is food less nutritious because we have always partaken of it.

Let us strive ever to hold our ideals before us: are we going to continue to repeat the words of the Bible in church and those of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg address on national holidays, ignoring them on other days? Mankind has only moved forward through the ideals thus enunciated; the man on the street will perhaps sneer and say enlightened selfishness is the only patch to pursue. But selfishness opens the door to wars, to brutality, to misery; it opens the door to cheating, to robbery, to murder. The foundations of a life are weak indeed if they rest on the slippery sands of selfishness.

I suppose I shall be dubbed an impractical professor, an unrealistic academician. But I wonder how far the world would have progressed, had it not been for its idealists. The goals they set forth have, to be sure, not been realized, but these prophets and seers pointed out the road and on it humanity has been moving forward. There have indeed been numerous retrogressions, of which the present World War is a hideous and glaring example. Despite that, we must push forward on the road to a good life—a worthy life, a life recognizing the dignity of each human being, a life seeking decent living conditions for all—in housing in employment, in education, and in standards of life. You should keep your minds open but remember that neither the old nor the new is good because of its age on the one hand or its novelty on the other. Test each proposal with the minds that has, we hope, been developed here; but try with all the strength you can muster to reach your conclusions without being influenced by selfish considerations. If in all our dealings in life we were only to set our eyes on the words of our Constitution "to promote the general welfare," how different an attitude would there be in human relations!

There are many virtues of men and women. I am only bidding you to set the course of your lives by the three stars—sincerity, courage, unselfishness. From these flow a host of other virtues. I even dare to say that he who follows them and does not seek success, will attain the highest type of success, that which lies in the esteem of those among whom he dwells.

Today life offers a long, long road before you—but as we, your elders, can assure you, the years to which one looks forward always seem longer than those through which he has passed, and even as during one's visit to another city or another land the first weeks and the first months seem long but each succeeding period flies on speedier wings, so in life every decade spins by more rapidly than its predecessor.

Your University will welcome you back as young alumni, tasting the first fruits of your professional training, as middle-aged alumni when dignity and avoirdupois have settled on you, and in your old age when you come back, your active lives lived and the debits and credits all entered in your account book. But whenever you come and whether in the world's eyes successful or not, you will be welcome here at this home from which you set out on your race.

The University family is not confined to those who have studied in these halls; there are also those who have taught you here and held high the torch of learning. The faculty is the permanent part of a University; students come and students go but the faculty itself gives its life and not merely a few fleeting years to this institution.

And each year a number of these scholars reaching the emeritus status step aside from the current of active University life, turning over their responsibilities to others. The emeriti of 1945, who have devoted themselves to this University for a large segment of their lives—in some cases forty years—now look forward to the relief from the harness of daily routine to enjoy the freedom so well earned. To these, our retiring friends and colleagues, we wish length of days and that peace which is the dream of all men. We who salute you and thank you in behalf of Alma Mater, will many of us join your company in a few short years.

On the graduates we have enjoined sincerity, courage, and unselfishness. From these roots inevitably springs that fair flower, loyalty. Be loyal to your University, be loyal to your community, be loyal to your nation, and serve her wdu And that injunction has deep meaning at this time. It involves a readiness to meet all hazards for the sake of that for which this nation stands. Among you who go forth today are those who receive commissions in the armed forces. This government and its people put their trust in you; you will, we know, be faithful to that trust and serve our nation's cause with all your hearts and your whole strength. You and all of us must remember Goethe's words: He only deserves freedom (and life too) who must daily win it." May you and all your comrades speedily bring to a close the struggle in the East even as that in Europe has been so magnificently ended and return safe and sound to give our nation the service she needs in days of peace.

May I command to you the work of Josiah Royce, one of our country's greatest philosophers and graduate of this University, entitled "The Philosophy of Loyalty"? I shall take the liberty of reading a single quotation from it: "Loyalty means giving the Self to the Cause. And the art of giving is learned by giving. Strain, endurance, sacrifice, toil,—the dear pangs of labor at the moments when perhaps defeat and grief most seem ready to crush our powers, and when only the very vehemence of labor itself saves us from utter despair,—these are the things that must teach us what loyalty really is . . "Loyalty is the will to I believe in something eternal, and to express that belief in the practical life of a human being."

And it is precisely this loyalty to our nation that is the cement binding firmly together the widely scattered sections of our land and the folk of many ancestries that inhabit our soil.

We lay our hands upon your heads and pray for each of you lives which will fulfill your highest hopes.

1 Editorial in the New Republic, July 11, 1934.

2 James Truslow Adams The Adams Family, p. 277.