Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Graduate

On My 21st our wonderful eldest granddaughter, Sophia Elizabeth Fleming-Benite, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Her field of concentration was Cognitive Science.  As they did not pass out bumper stickers, I have to do my bragging on-line.  Her professors had noted her extraordinary achievement by awarding her departmental honors in that subject, and of course she was the recipient of “general university honors” in recognition of a high grade-point average as well.  I say “of course” not because this outcome was foreordained or easily achieved, but because I had been the intermittent eye-witness to the energy, determination, and luminous intelligence with which she had pursued her work of the last four years.
documentary evidence from photographer Cora Louise

            The root of the word “graduation” is the Latin gradus, a step or a ladder-rung, and graduating from college, though a very important step, has had steps before it and will have steps after it.  Though born in California Sophia was destined by parental fate to be a Gotham rather than a Valley Girl.  That same convenient fate compelled her to spend her four high school years in Paris, where she pursued and obtained her international baccalaureate.  As for future steps, we share an awareness that the economic situation in our country is far from robust, even for highly qualified graduates.   Hence we are particularly pleased (though not particularly surprised), that Sophia landed a challenging job in a rather glitzy cybernetic field in which she will apply in imaginative but practical terms some of her theoretical training in brain science. 

            The world is full of bloggers, true, but how many of them can (like your bloguiste) claim semi-professional expertise on issues of academic ritual?  I was for seventeen years the Chief Marshal for University Convocations at Princeton, where pomp is matched only by ceremony and spit is ever redeemed by polish.  It would be invidious of me to make adversarial comparisons among distinguished American universities; so I must let the facts speak for themselves.  The Hopkins Commencement ceremony was held in the football stadium during three hours of determined, cool drizzle.  We were midway up the bleachers on the opponents’ forty-yard line.  This might have been enough to tax the average parental patience even without the president’s superfluous observation that he and the other big shots were seated snug on a covered stage.

            The Commencement speaker was one of the honorary degree recipients, Edwin E. Catmull, the President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.  Dr. Catmull is the winner of no fewer than five Academy Awards, as well as the much-lauded author of a highly successful business book entitled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.  His theme was once again “Creativity” and, protected by an overhanging arch that shielded him from the precipitation, he pursued it at some length.  The young no doubt are more familiar with the intricacies of computer-generated animation than am I.  Perhaps they also follow with greater attention than I the rise and fall of start-up empires and the complex rhythms of Silicon Valley mergers and acquisitions.  It was a little hard for me to concentrate.  The forces that were standing in my way were neither unseen nor unfelt.  I was distracted by the slowly dawning realization that the left-side fringe of my suit jacket was gradually becoming soaked and heavy as it sponged up the water first deflected by my plastic surcoat and the funneled by it onto my bleacher seat.  I wanted Up but seemed temporarily trapped in Monsters University.
            Yet like everyone else in that large transparent-ponchoed crowd our pride in, and happiness for, our graduate conquered all physical discomfort.  The marathon aspect of the Hopkins graduation is an inevitable result of one of its nicer features: every single graduate is called out by name.  This is done quite briskly, reducing the statutory envelope of fame from fifteen minutes to something closer to 1.5 seconds; but that it is done at all for such a large group is remarkable.  The graduates sprint across the stage as summoned, their academic perp-walks captured by camera and largely magnified on twin Jumbotrons flanking the presidential platform.  Among their many other advantages, Johns Hopkins graduates thus enjoy credentials confirmable by Instant Replay.

A distant mirror: Sophia scores on the Jumbotron

            Johns Hopkins is in Baltimore.  Baltimore is a complex and variegated city.   It has serious problems involving poverty and race.  Some of its chronic pathologies are on permanent local display, but this year they claimed national attention at the end of April when some serious rioting and looting accompanied community protests.   Johns Hopkins is an elite, highly selective, expensive educational institution.  Like other such institutions it is brim-full of life’s winners.  A certain sense of irony might have hovered over its Commencement jubilations had some obvious contrasts or contradictions not been brought to mind.

            But they were, and thoughtfully, as was appropriate for a great center of learning.  University President Ronald Daniels made them the principal substance of his remarks.  It happened, furthermore, that Representative Elijah Cummings, one of the leading members of Congress, and certainly one of the most eloquent, was another among those receiving honorary degrees.  He, too, made a brief but powerful speech.  And while speeches do not solve problems, they may help inspire dedicated people to try to solve them.  And we saw a lot of dedicated people in that football stadium.   Our own lovely granddaughter was but one of many thousands of graduates throughout our land who, we have sound reason to hope, will put their fine educations to the work of leaving our troubled world a bit better than they found it.

 The Graduate with proud grandparents