Remarks by William R. Brody
1999 Morning Commencement Ceremonies
Thursday, May 27, 1999 / 9 a.m.
[Prepared text; not checked against delivery.]
To our honorary degree recipients and our new members of the Society of Scholars, to our Trustees and alumni, our faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, but most of all, to our brand new graduates, I offer greetings on behalf of all of Johns Hopkins University.
I had an interesting conversation recently with the president of a prestigious and well-known northeastern university. It seems at the last minute this president was notified that his commencement speaker would have to cancel. There was literally no time to find a replacement, so with some fear and trepidation, he stood before the graduating class and announced, "I regret today we shall have no commencement speaker."
He received a spontaneous standing ovation.
"And it went on for five minutes," he said to me.
Oh, I said, but at my university I am the commencement speaker.
Oh, he said. Good luck.
With that thought in mind I will stay close to the kindly advice once offered to me by the president of my own alma mater: Be upbeat if you can, profound if you must, but above all be brief.
First of all, let me convey my congratulations to the students who have worked so hard to arrive at this day; to their parents, families and friends who have supported them on their long journey; to the faculty who have taught and mentored them, and to the Trustees who have shepherded the resources and provided the stewardship that enabled our students to learn and discover new knowledge at Johns Hopkins. This is a glorious day for us all.
My brief message today is based upon some homespun advice I heard recently. Advice that I think has universal appeal.
Jerry Schnydman is the former director of the Hopkins Alumni Association and now secretary to the Board of Trustees. A Hopkins graduate himself, Jerry first became a presence on this campus as an undergraduate in the 1960s, when he twice earned All-America honors on the lacrosse field and helped lead the Blue Jays to a national championship in 1967. Since then, he has continued to be a friend, guide, mentor and role model to succeeding generations of students.
Recently Jerry talked about the five rules of life he had been raised with. These rules came from Florence Schnydman, and as such they might have been known as Flo's Rules. But being as Flo Schnydman was Jerry Schnydman's mother, they were known instead to Jerry as Flo's Five Commandments.
They're a simple list, really. The first says, "Good manners never go out of style." The second, "Never go to someone's house empty-handed." Number three: "You can't buy a good name, you earn it." Four, "Give respect--get respect." And finally, number five, "Bring home a winner."
It's a common sense guide to courteous behavior, a handy packet of ready-made rules to win friends, gain respect and achieve success. In short, it is just the sort of sage advice any mother would want to offer her children.
And like most advice we get from our parents--especially common sense advice--Flo's Five Commandments are wonderful to recite, and all too easy to ignore. After all, in our mothers' words, common sense is the thing that most often "goes in one ear and out the other."
They can be ignored, I should say, until one day we have children of our own. Then the clear need and compelling logic of Flo's Commandments suddenly shine forth.
Common sense has a way of doing that. It's the most fundamental learning we do, the simple things we get at our parent's knee. Maybe that's why we're so quick to dismiss it. It is after all, simple stuff, and it often seems commonplace, drab and ordinary against the alluring glitter of the ambiguous and complex.
Common sense is common; you don't need to be a rocket scientist to have it, or use it, or offer it to others. In fact, there is a long-standing suspicion in our society that our rocket scientists, literary theorists, medical doctors, Ph.D. recipients and advanced learners of every stripe actually have less common sense than their friends and neighbors who lack such high-powered credentials. Said one 19th century American after an encounter with an Oxford don: "From such as I could see, he'd had the common sense educated clean out of 'em."
Perhaps this was so. We've all heard stories of the famous mathematician who arrived at work in mismatched shoes, or the absent-minded professor who found his ham sandwich on the dissecting board and wondered what became of that frog. In the popular imagination the brain is an either/or receptacle: as it fills with advanced and esoteric learning, common sense seems to slip between the convolutions of the cerebrum and disappear forever.
Of course we all know that a lack of common sense is hardly unique to the educated classes. Said Voltaire: "Common sense is not so common."
Rare it may be. It is, nevertheless, essential in a self- governing society such as ours. We rely on the common sense of the people as a breakwater against the riptides of hysteria that periodically surge across our newspapers and out our television screens. Events of recent times offer ample evidence of the modern media's tendency toward hysteria. The fact we have come through them all relatively unscathed tells us something about the reservoir of good common sense that continues to reside within the populace as a whole.
For all that, common sense is a characteristic more often bemoaned for its absence than celebrated for its abundance. Call it the paradox of diminishing common sense returns. We can observe that the amount of common sense perceived is directly inverse to the distance between the parties involved.
Ask any and all about common sense and they will admit it is a virtue they themselves possess. But, they will candidly tell you, common sense is something their family members and neighbors often fail to employ; something that society in general seems to have lost; and something judges, juries and the political class as a whole never had to begin with. "Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense," wrote Emerson, by which, presumably, he meant the discovery of common sense in others.
Yet undeniably, common sense serves its owner well. I am reminded of the many anecdotes of the Nobel laureate Richard Feynmann. Though he is best known for his contributions to theoretical physics, it is his practical side that serves to point out the power of common sense.
Once Feynmann accompanied his wife on a tour of Incan ruins in Mexico. When he inquired about the basis on which the hieroglyphics on the wall were translated, he received an erudite, but very complicated explanation. Everyone in the tour group nodded in agreement - everyone, that is, except Feynmann, who believed that such a complex explanation offended common sense.
Feynmann went home to Caltech and worked out a new theory for the translation of the hieroglyphics - a theory that is universally accepted and used today. It turns out that the complex explanation was just that -- complex -- but wrong!
This morning it is my privilege to stand before the largest and most accomplished group of graduates Johns Hopkins has ever produced. Any university in the world would be proud to claim you as its own. That you have done this much already in your lives promises that even greater things are yet to come.
But today as we celebrate advanced academic achievement, let us take just a moment to tip our hats to the enduring power of those lessons learned not in classrooms and textbooks, but in our families, among our friends, and sometimes through hard painful experience. "Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for your upper chamber," said the eminently practical Oliver Wendell Holmes, "so long as you have common sense on the ground floor."
Flo, you see, was right: good manners never do go out of style. And if you show up at someone's house, no one will think you anything but worldly-wise if there are flowers, or a box of chocolates in your hands. Your good name was your parents' gift, and you have to earn it anew every day. No team of lawyers or pot of money will ever do it for you. The tragedy of our day exemplified by recent events in Colorado and Georgia schools is young men mistaking fear for respect and thinking it is something that can be produced at the end of a gun barrel. Flo would tell them that the people who win respect are ones who start by respecting other people.
To that rule I would add the sage advice of the famous physicist and former president of MIT, Dr. Karl Taylor Compton, who advised students to "leave each campsite in better condition than when they encountered it."
And then we get to Flo's Fifth Commandment, "Bring home a winner." That one had me a little puzzled, because it sounds like Florence was telling her son to marry well. So I asked Jerry if that's what it meant.
Jerry said, "I did marry well! What mother would tell her child to do anything else?" But what it means, he explained, is to come home a winner--that is, bring yourself home as a winner. It means that you should work as hard as you can and be successful at whatever you are doing.
Parents and families and friends of our graduates: today I am addressing a group of people who have done just that. They have devoted their hearts and souls and minds to this task. It wasn't easy, they had no guarantee of success. But they had faith, and determination, and grit, and--thanks to you--good common sense. Today they're coming home winners. And what a happy day this is for us all!
Congratulations graduates. May you all fare well on the journey ahead.
Thank you, and godspeed.
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