There is something to be said about the string of themes that come out of commencements. When large groups of people are brought together, be it for recognition, celebration, or anything else, the speakers are usually well-prepared to deal with a large audience. Naturally, the speaker does not want to be caught off guard and look foolish in front this aforementioned audience. So he/she would do ones best to represent oneself well, just as the program leaders would do their best to select an individual who will take the job of speaking seriously.
Many things are spoken about at these gatherings. For example, speakers can focus on bettering yourself, finding your passion, building the community, and taking risks. It is a chance to offer advice, and to send a message that might need to be heard. The success of a group of people and the direction they are headed in is vital. So in short, there is no right subject to focus on, which is why the themes that connect together are so important. Action is one of those themes that are seen over and over. While it may not be as cliché as “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” it is found all throughout. However a huge advantage to this theme is the timelessness it presents, and the never-ending importance it demands.
“Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.”
In 1977 Adrienne Rich attested to these points in her speech, “Claiming an Education”. It was a call to action for the women at the college. That they are not at the college to receive an education, but to take and claim it for their own. Rich calls out the staff, which is mainly white and male, then proceeds to call out the books and materials students are learning from. Rich says “What you can learn here… is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history,” which Emerson has indirectly responded to in his speech.
“The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of the Past, — in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed”
As Rich explains, receiving an education isn’t enough. This would qualify an individual to be labeled as the “bookworm”, and it would leave the women at Douglas College with a plethora of information provided by men about the world we live in. Emerson and Rich both know that it is not enough to get by on the information taught alone. Acting on one’s education, the texts that were read, and the lectures that were heard is necessary. No change will ever come in the world unless something is acted upon first.
“The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, — so entire, so boundless.”
And here is how nature begins to change. Emerson claims that “there is never a beginning, there is never an end,” and this is true for “the education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action”. The action that has been taken in the past, changes the nature of our world. For example, if no women ever pursued an education, Adrienne Rich would never have had the opportunity to give her speech. But women did pursue higher education, and because of that the nature in the United States has changed. For me it was not a question of if I could receive higher education, just a question of if I wanted too. Soon I will be faced with the question of what to do with the knowledge I have.
This is because someone questioned the norm, they stood up, they spoke out, and they acted on their surroundings. Terry Tempest Williams advice of “Question. Stand. Speak. Act,” reflects Rich’s claim to take action and not just accept the views thrown upon oneself. Rich’s speech reflects Emerson’s of “The American Scholar”, to learn by nature, books, and action.
Fortunately the world has changed. Human beings are smarter, more efficient, eco-friendly, and more compassionate. We hear the voices of people like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes who put their knowledge to use to express their world to those who do not understand, and while the world is far from perfect it is making progress. So just as Emerson says “each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding,” each generation must take its own action to make changes for the following generations in the world.