2016 Summer Commencement Address by John Beckford
Summer Commencement Address
August 13, 2016
John S. Beckford, Professor of Music
“What You May Not Have Found in the Furman Curriculum”
Thank you Provost Shields, and thanks to President Davis for the invitation to be your commencement speaker. And congratulations to all of you receiving degrees today, including our large class of Master of Arts degree recipients.
So what might a former dean offer on such an auspicious occasion as this? I’m reminded of a sign that was placed on a hand dryer in a restroom at the University of Texas, “For a short lecture by the dean, press button.”
After 40 years at Furman, perhaps President Davis thought I might have a perspective that only nine other current professors have experienced here at Furman. Let’s go back to 1976:
I was hired when state-of-the-art educational technology was the overhead projector.
A full-year tuition at Furman in the fall of 1976 was $2,392, room and board $856.
A postage stamp was 13 cents, a loaf of bread 30 cents, a gallon of milk $1.42, and a gallon of gas was 59 cents.
And salaries – well I learned through a University accreditation report that my initial salary was the lowest of all faculty at Furman in 1976 at a whopping $9,750. But then again, I also recall renting a three-bedroom apartment for a mere $175 a month.
So over the last 40 years I have witnessed nearly 25,000 students graduate from Furman, and along with those commencement ceremonies I’ve heard 40 years of May and Summer commencement speeches. Consequently, when President Davis invited me to be your commencement speaker you’d think I’d be well prepared for this assignment. On the contrary, to craft a meaningful message remains a daunting task for anyone. At Furman I’ve heard successes and failures from the dozens of previous speakers.
As a musician, I was especially fond of the commencement address given in 1997 by Maestro Robert Shaw from the Atlanta Symphony, urging the graduates to forever embrace the arts so that the human spirit would always have a voice.
Author Pat Conroy kept us in stiches when he regaled us with stories about the Citadel and Furman rivalries.
And of course, our most notable commencement speech was by President George W. Bush in 2008. The weeks leading up to this commencement were filled with some of the most contentious exchanges within our campus and with the Greenville community at large. It would be his last commencement speech of his presidency and given at a time in which his popularity was at an historic low for a sitting president.
However, that evening, President Bush, broke the ice by offering the following observation while he looked at the silent protestors standing within the Furman faculty: “I, too, am a believer in free speech;” he began, “and to prove it, I’m about to give you one.”
The remainder of his speech was filled with advice that was quite pragmatic and too often neglected when reminding students entering independent adulthood. He called on the graduates to serve others while being accountable for their choices, “live within your means—don’t max out multiple credit cards” (incidentally, moms and dads applauded the loudest at that one); he also asked the graduates to adopt a culture of responsibility by contributing to our civic life; to become citizens, not spectators.
Tonight’s ceremony recognizes the outstanding education you’ve received. But what are the values you will carry forward once you have this degree in hand? It’s around that theme—of personal values—that I’d like to address tonight.
Beyond a curriculum designed to impart information and to achieve learning objectives, college is a time of discovery, much of it about oneself. Throughout most of my life, the Golden Rule, which is articulated in some fashion in nearly every religion in the world, has served me well. Perhaps you as well. Yet too often I’m disappointed in the actions of others that seem insensitive to the consequences of their selfish behavior. The answers to respectful behavior are, however, often quite simple.
In 1988 Robert Fulghum wrote the best-selling book, All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. Of course, this was not a plea to abandon college aspirations, but a reminder of a number of principled behaviors that should never be dismissed throughout your life:
Put things back where you found them
Clean up your own mess
(How I longed for more of these to be followed during my years as a dean.)
But Fulghum went deeper to ask that we live a balanced life, just as we did in those pre-school classes where we made time to learn, time to drink, to draw, to paint, to sing, to dance, to play, and to work.
He also referenced the Dick and Jane books that were used to teach us to read. Recall that one of the first words we learned was “look.” In this day and age, we should spend more time looking and less time talking. We will never understand the wants and feelings of others if we don’t pause to “look” and attempt to understand the other side of an argument, the practices of communities different from our own, the deepest sentiments of another human being.
At our recent Commencement in May, Dr. Randy Eaddy, an African-American and 1976 Furman graduate, now a successful attorney, implored the graduates to see life “with your eyes wide open” and examine the “issues of relations among the diverse peoples of this world.”
Dr. Eaddy was asking us to “look” with our eyes wide open. He went on to say, “We can work to understand the perspectives of other people who appear to be different from us, recognizing that such understanding is the gateway to empathy and respect for all people.”
As informed citizens, we must take on the responsibility to be empathetic and self-aware of the consequences of our behavior. Who do you see when you look in the mirror every day? Have you looked deeply into the lives of others and know how your behavior may influence people other than yourself?
Let me move on to focus on two qualities not found explicitly in your master’s or bachelor’s curriculum. Two qualities that are not steeped in academic thought, but may personally serve you well throughout the next phase of your life.
I’m speaking of “patience” and “courtesy.”
As to the first, let me urge you to become a patient person. All of you have been learning how to be more productive, to put forth an enormous effort to complete assignments and meet goals and expectations. You’re very good at this, and your Furman degree is one example that shows you understand the importance of effort. But how good are you with the “patience” that is often required to be successful?
I have had to learn patience because of my profession. As a percussionist, and I think this is true for most musicians, patience is essential. Yes, you’ll often see the percussionist scrambling from instrument to instrument—sometimes stealing the show with all of this activity—but believe me, there are times you sit for longs spans before you finally make your entrance for all to see and hear—such as the single climatic cymbal crash, yes, only one crash, in Anton Bruckner’s one-hour and seven-minute Symphony No. 7.
Or think of the patience required of both musicians and audience for any of Richard Wagner’s interminable operas. As an example, he forecasts the deliberate pace and large proportions in his last opera, “Parsifal,” by consuming a full three minutes to announce the very first musical phrase from the orchestra (note that most popular songs are done and over with in three minutes). Without that requisite patience, you’ll never make it through this glorious and profound five-hour opera.
Perhaps my understanding of patience has been further informed by growing up in the state of Iowa, a region dependent on agriculture where the cycle of crops growing to maturity is a part of life. For a farmer, there is no reward for impatience in that profession; you can’t hurry the harvest.
So in a world of “On Demand,” “overnight shipping,” and the instant communication of the Internet, we have a society that rewards and insists on quick results. At times the preference for patience is considered an impediment to progress, a sign of inefficiency, or at worst, indecision.
Yet some decisions require careful thought and comprehensive information, which are often not developed instantaneously but require patience in their acquisition and assessment.
Unfortunately, our society seems to be drifting more toward impatience. We see this manifested in road rage, discourteous behavior in a slow checkout lane, or the dismissal of someone trying to communicate with you in their non-native language.
We must take time to understand.
On numerous occasions while dean of the faculty, I can cite how patience positively impacted the outcome of important decisions, not just in my office but with other administrators, too. A case in point:
Last spring, the University, and the faculty in particular, admired President Davis and the patience she brought to bear when our search for a new provost was not producing a viable candidate. To her credit, rather than settling on a less than desirable solution, her patience over the urgency to fill this important position took precedence; and thus it was worth the wait in finding Dr. George Shields.
Secondly, let me offer one other personal characteristic that you probably won’t find explicitly discussed in our Furman curriculum—courtesy.
It’s a loaded word that has implications of subjectivity and broad interpretation; but the German writer and statesman, Johann Goethe, gave it some context when he wrote “There is not a single outward mark of courtesy that does not have a deep moral basis.”
To be courteous is to be respectful, empathetic to what others might be feeling, sensitive to the context of a situation, a way of demonstrating the importance of others over oneself. Without courteous behavior we have no hope for civil discourse, decorum, or simple harmony in our everyday existence. We would sacrifice “civil” in “civilization.”
Courteous behavior requires effort, a conscious and intentional effort to draw upon our better selves. I don’t think this comes naturally. One has to work at it, think about it, and have the patience to add this type of behavior in place of the shortcuts that may result in incivility.
In recent years we’ve heard much about “political correctness.” When one tries to understand the goals behind behavior and actions that receive this label, it is simply an effort for us to become more courteous, aware of behaviors that might offend others.
Well this takes effort—just as it takes effort to open a door for another, write a thank you note, or place your eyes on the person you pass while walking across the campus and offer a greeting. However, those actions that many denounce under the now negative label of “political correctness” are nothing more than actions in an attempt to be more courteous.
Individuals unwilling to adopt those courtesies represent a laziness, or even an outright unwillingness to put forth the effort to think of others. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer reminds us, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”
Your strength is needed to create a society absent of everyday rudeness. Your strength is needed to be applied to the extra effort it might take to be courteous to one another. Don’t be lazy in your behavior toward others. The rewards for being courteous are genuine.
All of you will develop reputations in life, but from what I’ve seen, in the end, you will be remembered not for what you had to do, but for what you did not have to do, and yet you did it anyway.
Your patience and courtesy will serve you well in building a positive and admirable reputation.
Today we celebrate a major achievement in your life. Apply your knowledge and noble values toward living a wonderfully full life.
Long after this evening, please remember Furman University and the role it has played in your life. As my wife says of her Furman degree, you’ll have this relationship with your alma mater “in purple-tuity.”