'You can fix that'

Marilynne RobinsonOver at Verdicts, Scott Moringiello has a fine post about Geoffrey Hill and Marilynne Robinson. Moringiello mentions in passing Robinson's recent Holy Cross commencement address, whichis, as you might expect, worth hearing or reading. (You can do both here.) In her occasional prose as in her fiction, Robinson has perfected a tone of what might be called stern optimism, a tone both gracious and unsentimental. It's the tone of someone strong and smart enough to rebuke cynicism in terms as tough as its own: the cynic is faulted not for nastiness, but for stupidity and presumption -- and above all for complacency. In her address at Holy Cross, Robinson responds to those (often on the right) who are cynical about higher education in America, but also to those (often on the left) who are cynical about the religious faithof Americans. Holy Cross graduates, she suggests, have a duty to prove both kinds of cynicism wrong. The country needs you, she tells the graduating seniors -- "and it deserves you."

A few days ago I was at Oxford University, at the Rothermere American Institute, talking with British scholars and students about American history and politics. The experience was so striking that it made me revise the remarks I had prepared for today. These people at Oxford have every kind of information and experience relevant to the question of our national character. I grant the realities of cultural difference, which do not always sharpen insight into such matters. But if these same people had made negative comments about the country, Id have felt obliged to take them seriously.Instead they proposed some interesting theories, for example that, because ours is a religious culture, Americans are exceptionally inclined to take ethical positions and to assume responsibility for them. I think I am like most Americans in that I would love to believe these things are true, and yet I feel uneasy about taking them to be true. We know our faults so well. And we feel it is naive at best to believe our country has special positive qualities, though we will grant that we have more than a few negative ones.

And modesty is a fine thing under all circumstances, except those in which it becomes disabling.... What if historical circumstance gives us a special role in the world, not in the sense that we should make any presumptuous claims, only that we should try to live up to the hopes others might have of usby learning widely and thinking carefully, by disciplining ourselves toward fair-mindedness?...

As students here you have been given a deepened sense of thoughtfulness and good conscience, which are, as I have said, the most important things you can bring to the world. We are supposed to be a very practical culture, very solution-oriented, and yet we have a tendency to fret endlessly over things that can be fixed. If, like my students, you feel as though your very good education is incomplete, you can fix that. In your years here you have been taught how to learn. If you are wary of assuming responsibilities to which you might feel inadequate, make yourselves adequate. And here I refer again to the thoughtfulness and good conscience in which you have been instructed. If you feel that Catholicism or Christianity or religion is not represented, by detractors or defenders, in ways that honor its profundity and beauty, live out its profundity and beauty. To do this is more telling than any argument.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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