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Sons and Daughters

Ernie Holsendolph '58
Robert M. Rosencrans   '49
James P. Rubin '82
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A More Meaningful Paradigm

Brandon Dammerman ’00 is one of only 31 Rhodes Scholars selected from the United States for the 2000-2001 academic year. A native of Lancaster, Pa., Dammerman majored in mathematics and biochemistry majsor and tutored for the Double Discovery Center; he intends to use his Rhodes to pursue a master’s in mathematics or neuroscience. In his valedictory address on Class Day in May, Dammerman wondered about his class’s place in the wider world.

Brandon Dammerman '00

Aside from the cultivation of academic skills, I believe the most important thing imparted to me by the Core is a perspective on the development, definition, and continuance of culture. Through its chronological study of major works, the Core, at its best, imparts a sense of unity to seemingly disparate times and ideas. We can trace the evolution of cultural and artistic values through these works to learn that greatness and excellence are rarely the brainchild of isolated genius but rather the product of addressing time-honored ideas through the lens of contemporary insights. Hopefully, we have come to realize that our culture, though scientifically and technologically more advanced, is confronted with the same moral dilemmas and existential mysteries addressed by the great works of antiquity.

Now seems an ideal moment to ask what role we are going to play in the society we’re leaving here to lead. Well, I ask you, what role have we played heretofore? When I asked myself that question, the answer I arrived at was a little unsettling. We’ve been, for all intents and purposes, parasites. We’ve consumed much, living in relative comfort and eagerly draining the minds of celebrated academia for our self-betterment. In our studious idleness, we’ve produced nothing essential to the functioning or improvement of society. About a thousand of us, in the prime of our lives when our backs were the strongest and our minds the sharpest, lived for ourselves at the expense of everyone else. This seems a tremendous luxury; yet, as odd as this may seem, society really demands nothing in return. We are not required to perform any community or political service, and no matter how many flower beds some of us have planted in Harlem, we should be in great debt. But we’re not. Instead, we are free to do nearly anything we want and will have degrees to use as passports into those futures. True, we could all leave here and start orphanages in Calcutta, but we could just as easily sit in a room and study our navels for the rest of our lives; either way we would be acting of our own volition.

Now I haven’t mentioned our privileges to try to make you feel guilty. Any reader of Nietzsche, as we all are now, knows that blessings should be celebrated, not apologized for. I would like to initiate a discussion of what contribution we could or should make once we leave here. Feel free to insert you favorite message of social responsibility at this point. As for me, I think attention must be paid to how our age will add to the cultural legacy of Western civilization. I didn’t mention the Core earlier merely to endear myself to the administrators here on stage. After all, with diploma nearly in hand, it’s a little late to get any mileage out of them now. In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, [Thomas] Kuhn argues that science cannot progress in the absence of a paradigm: a set of principles taken as axiomatic from which all subsequent principles are derived. I think the Core’s implicit lesson is that the same applies for culture: that certain moral values and intellectual methodologies define a particular age, and cultural development cannot occur without them.

What, then, are the moral values that define our time? Several possible answers present themselves. Some might say that ours is the “Age of Science and Technology.” While it is true that we know more about our universe and physiology then ever before, science can never be the driving force for culture. Science can reveal truths, certainly, but it does not tell how things should be nor does it tell us what things we should hold dear. Science is by nature descriptive, not prescriptive. On the other hand, some may argue that this is the “Age of Diversity and Multiculturalism,” meaning that we should embrace as many perspectives and morals as possible when defining future culture. I find this view equally dissatisfying. After all, the establishment of a canon and the definition of culture imply some decision-making. Certain ideas are included because they are deemed more worthy than ideas that are excluded. Any culture ranks some values over others and is intolerant to those values it has rejected. Therefore, calling ours the “Age of Tolerance” would be a warm and quaint, but ultimately dubious and meaningless, label.

Another description of our times occurred to me while I was watching the millennium celebrations from across the world this past New Year’s Eve. The first city I tuned in to was Moscow, where Red Square stood as a monument to the Russians’ attempt to build a society around the ideals of socialism. Next came Egypt, where the great Pyramids memorialized the religious beliefs and cult of the dead, which defined great civilization. Eventually we came to New York, the quintessential modern city, and I hoped that the defining elements of our civilization would be illuminated. In Times Square (the “crossroads of the world”) the first thing that struck me was not some great monument or cultural icon, it was the smoking Cup-a-Noodles sign. Admittedly, it’s neat that the sign actually smokes, but it does suggest that culture nowadays is often little more that empty consumerism. Though I’ve exaggerated a bit — but only a bit — I would like to suggest that our greatest burden entering the world is that of creating a more meaningful paradigm for culture in the coming century.

I won’t bore you with further pontificating, but I feel compelled to leave you, as all Commencement speakers should, with an inspirational quote. Gunter Grass, in his Nobel Prize winning work The Tin Drum, writes, “All dreamers are gluttons.” Well, that’s not all bad. One should dream gluttonously so long as one does not dream only of gluttony.

Best of luck to all of the graduates and congratulations to you and your families.

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