Matriculation talk: "In a Clear and Full Light" by Jon Butler
Jon Butler, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, addressed the new graduate students at Yale University.
In a Clear and Full Light
What a wonderfully brilliant, expectant day this is for you and for us. Your presence in this beautiful auditorium constitutes achievement itself, the proof that, yes, you are now graduate students at Yale University. Your desire to come from so far away, and your route from so many different circumstances now is realized, and yet only just beginning.
For us, you turn out to be exactly who we thought and knew you were. We are as excited and as expectant as you are. You exemplify the vital secret of a great university–a university is about its learners, the women and men in whom the quest for knowledge, thoughtfulness, and truth is embodied.
Above all, the secret of the university is about the privilege of study. Quietude lies at its heart. When the rush of settling into rooms, the confusion of finding courses, figuring out where you can locate the “Phelps Hall Classics Library” on something termed “Old Campus,” or where the lugubriously, but utterly truthfully named “Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building” possibly could be located, and after you have your books and lab manuals and instructions from faculty and you begin to read and observe and figure out and feel mystified–after all this, a wonderfully evocative quietude will settle across your mind. This is the special moment when you really will know the meaning, in part of this place, but especially of this opportunity, this opening, this gift to pursue ideas for themselves.
It was the quietude I eagerly loved as I began my own graduate study in history, now admittedly a long time ago. I was a kid from a Minnesota farming town of 1200 people and a high school class of 44. Yet there I was, sitting on the floor in the book stacks at the University of Minnesota Library, hunched up for hours without interruption reading seventeenth-century Virginia records that unrolled the fateful changes overtaking Europeans and American Indians at what must have seemed the edge of the earth. For me, the experience seemed like heaven.
Quietude stood at the center of Isaac Newton’s revolutionary work, and Newton knew it. As the wonderful science writer James Gleick explains, Newton was remarkably aware of his own absorption and attentiveness. Newton openly acknowledged how his great discoveries stemmed from the special capacity Cambridge University gave him for “silence and meditation.” It was quietude that allowed Newton the ranging space simply to let his mind roam. “I keep the subject [I am studying] constantly before me and wait ‘till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.” 1
“Into a full and clear light.” What a wonderful phrase.
For much of the world, the light is not full and not clear. This reality underlines the exceptional privilege we all have in universities–you as students and we as faculty–to pursue and largely realize the quietude that epitomizes the privilege of study.
By privilege, I do not mean a wrongful sense that academics or scholars or researchers are better than others. We are not. Nor do I mean that being privileged, we are freed from obligations common to all men and women, or that should be our common responsibility.
Quite the opposite. I mean a humbling privilege, a gift. I mean a privilege that, however much earned by our endeavor or yours, rests in an opportunity many, many others never will have.
This is not because they have never dreamed or endeavored. Often, they have dreamed and endeavored at least as insistently as we have. Indeed, often they have dreamed and endeavored desperately, because the realities of modern wars, disease, racial and religious hatred, and simple meanness have sucked the breath of aspiration from their mouths.
But you also receive a second privilege, one indelibly linked to the quietude that stands at the heart of graduate study. It is the privilege of giving. In an ideal world giving would be widely and equally shared. But the quietude and freedom conferred in the life of the mind you pursue here – the life that, I hope, will lead each of you to your own “full and clear light,” imbues you with a special capacity for giving, and for giving gifts directly suited to lifting the vulnerabilities of the many who live so far beyond the quietude we enjoy.
The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing in 1802, explains the uncanny impetus of this progression from privilege to giving.
“We receive but what we give, and in our life alone does Nature live.” 2
Receiving and giving are reciprocal, not divorced from each other as though they had no relationship. And the world depends on this relationship of giving and receiving for its upward bound: “in our life alone does Nature live.” We are not only scholars, but guardians of the very world we have come here to study, and we cannot, and should not, escape our trust.
This morning the opportunities for giving may seem far away. Yet we know that like your Yale predecessors in the Graduate School for over a century, and like those who hold advanced degrees from all the world’s great research universities, in five and ten and thirty years you will indeed advance your many fields in innumerable settings–colleges, universities, corporations, non-profits, government, business huge and tiny, and in every nation. You will shape policies, large and small, by which potential students not yet born will, or will not, bring their dreams and their aspirations into a clear and full light– decisions about opportunity, conditions of work, law and human behavior, medicine and health, about what simply is right and what simply is wrong, whether for war or peace or for one family far, far from notice.
And the fulcrum for receiving and giving in every setting already is present here today in this auditorium as you begin graduate life at Yale. It rests in what we do for each other, in the meaning of single acts.
In our hearts, we already know this. Almost all of you as new students, all of us as faculty and staff, every parent and spouse and partner and friend who is here with you today–all of us could very likely name the exact person who turned each one of us in the right direction, who gave us courage to push when we hesitated, who had faith in us when we weren’t sure ourselves. Their single human acts have led many of you to your place here today as beginning graduate students, just as they led so many of the rest of us to our own defining moments.
And these diminutive acts travel far beyond their first boundaries. The power of the single act is described in many different sources. I am drawn to a very old one, an aphorism in the Mishna, the Jewish rabbinical teachings codified almost 1800 years ago, which eloquently explains the power of only one gift, one act: “if any man saves alive a single person, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved alive a whole world.” 3
Look around you–so many different individuals, so many different circumstances, so many different worlds. You, and we, are in this place today because, without speaking, we have shared aspirations about creating a quietude that brings each of us as inquirers and each o four questions “into a clear and full light.”
Now your aspirations and the gift of quietude–of “silence and meditation,” as Newton put it–have converged. Their encounter may not always be perfect. But it will be substantial and envied. I hope each experience supports every intellectual ambition you carried to Yale with so much anticipation. I also hope aspiration and quietude will propel each of you to enlarge the possibility, in settings intimate and public, that others not privileged can some day share the extraordinary opportunity you are about to realize.
And I hope that what all of us discover and create here at Yale–indeed, in every place students and faculty engage the privilege of deep study–is not simply for ourselves, but for a world whose nobility will be realized only when every individual is the recipient of the remarkable privilege we enjoy, when every individual can stand and live in a “clear and full light.”
1. Quoted in James Gleick, Isaac Newton (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), p. 38.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dejection, An Ode (1802).
3. Adapted from The Mishnah, trans. Herbert Danby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 387-388.