I’m posting this entry on June 10th 2013. Today is the 4oth anniversary of my graduation from college.
It was both a good day and a challenging one; it signified a big accomplishment, yet it was also the end of a central part of my life and the start of a long, uncertain period known vaguely as “the future,” which held nothing certain. Even the things I considered certain were — big surprise — not. I echo a note I’ve just received from a former classmate of that day: I certainly had utterly no vision of myself or of what life might be like forty years later. Myriad graduation speakers have remarked that the ceremony is called a “commencement,” which, in many ways, it is, but it also was the ending of many things.
The ceremony was indoors, in the school’s arena. We graduates — there were something like 2,000 of us — sat on folding chairs on the basketball floor, and the proud parents sat in the seats, where many of them had previously sat for the freshman orientation program, or maybe to attend a concert for one of the Parents’ Weekends — Bill Cosby had been the headliner for one of those. On the stage sat all the dignitaries, presided over by the school’s much-admired president, Phillip R. Shriver. Dr. Shriver had come to Miami after beginning his career at Kent State University. In an irony almost too bitter to bear, he had to preside over unrest on our campus in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State in 1970, which also brought an early end to our school year. To this day I thank him for not overreacting and having the National Guard on campus. They were ready to show up. I was in a crowded, rowdy lecture room a couple of years later as anti-war protests were disrupting the school again, on an evening when Dr. Shriver met with the “leaders” of the protest and displayed his balanced, charismatic leadership and good judgment with a calm, reasoned argument for keeping the peace. Coincidentally, eleven years later when I again sat in the basketball arena to receive my master’s degree, the speaker and honorary degree recipient was none other than Dr. Shriver — “Uncle Phil” to all of us. That was a glad moment. He died just two years ago, having served as president of the school until 1981, and continued teaching history there until ’98. It was a privilege to receive one degree from him, and an even greater one to have him as a member of my class for the second.
Our speaker on that long-ago June day was John Hope Franklin. Already a well-established scholar when he spoke to us in 1973, his long career was filled with accomplishment and recognition, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, and being named one of the 100 greatest African-Americans in 2002. Dr. Franklin did not come to our happy occasion to deliver bright, uplifting words of hope and joyful aspiration. He took us, the school and our families to task for what was obvious as he looked out into that crowd of faces around him: nearly all of them were Caucasian. Our school, though a public institution supported by the state of Ohio, had only a tiny minority of “minorities.” Dr. Franklin admonished us sternly for being part of an institution that clearly wasn’t doing much to be what we would call today, “inclusive.” It was not a pleasant lecture, and one could sense the unease emanating from the families gathered in the hall. Dr. Franklin told us that if we were truly going to help make a better future, we’d have to adapt to a world in which not everyone was a middle class white person. Those were stern words. When I taught at the school a dozen years later, there had been only a slight increase in diversity, although that was mostly created by the presence of many more foreign students than were present in my undergraduate days (almost none, then). Today? Um …. Wikipedia has this daunting sentence in its entry on the school: “Despite attempts by the University, Miami is known for its low level of diversity; the student body is 85% Caucasian.” Yeow. Sorry, Dr. Franklin; not one of your more successful attempts to inspire change.
I’d completed my degree in the standard four years and I learned a lot. Looking back, though, I didn’t focus on learning a large number of things I should have. More than anything, I should have been more curious about the world outside my courses and the people I met in them. To this day, I maintain an acquaintance with only a tiny handful of the hundreds of people I encountered in my undergraduate years; that’s a big failing. I took the usual run of “common curriculum” courses — intended to expose me to a variety of the world’s disciplines and knowledge. I enjoyed some of those and still know some things I learned there, although not as much as I should have. For example, there were these cats taking courses abbreviated with the course code SAN (my degree, English, was ENG; Psychology was PSY; etc.) What in the world was SAN? I figured it was Sanskrit — honestly, I did — although I couldn’t figure out why there should be so many courses in Sanskrit. Well, of course, that was actually “Systems Analysis.” Those people were learning about computers. You’d see dudes and dudettes carrying around these big stacks of punch cards, the use of which was a mystery to me. What they were doing was learning to program a big ol’ IBM computer in the basement of one of the buildings (I don’t even know where it was). My lack of even the smallest bit of curiosity about something that would soon reshape the world doesn’t reflect credit upon me.
My biggest failure was the plan: the plan I didn’t have, that is. Standing there, diploma in hand, silly flat hat on my head, I didn’t have the vaguest idea what to do with knowledge I’d spent four years acquiring. I kidded myself that I did, but it was foolishness. Well-educated? I had the degree to prove it. Smart? Nope. 40 years on, I see it.
Eventually, thanks to the help of many people, I figured out a way to put what I’d learned to work, and so, in the long run, it paid off. It took a long time, though. I’d like to thank my parents, who encouraged and supported me and paid for most of the education, which I treasure as something not everyone can have. It’s an enormous gift that I can never repay. I regret that I’ve been such a slow learner. Finally, after many years, I’m a writer, and maybe a smarter person. Commencement? I still feel like I’m just beginning.
Copyright 2014, Brad Nixon