Commencement 2014: Commencement Address

Commencement Address by Uday S. Mehta

Commencement Address by Uday S. Mehta

Distinguished Professor of Political Science
June 3, 2014

Good evening and welcome Chancellor Milliken, Interim President Robinson, members of the Board, the three distinguished recipients of honorary degrees, the faculty, and the families and friends of the students who are graduating. To the students who are receiving their advanced degrees, a heart felt congratulations. This is a day to celebrate your enormous achievement and hard work. It seems to me altogether fitting that in this hall, which is typically the site of great artistic virtuosity, there should also assemble a concentration of great intellectual prowess. After all it is the arts and the pursuit of knowledge that leaven our otherwise emphatically commercial republic with the virtues of the life of the mind. That is what you, the graduates of 2014, represent. Almost to the day, three decades ago, I attended my own Ph.D. commencement. My motives for attending had little to do with the life of the mind. It was just that on that occasion one of the recipients of an honorary degree from my university was my childhood idol, the incomparably graceful tennis player and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe. I felt then, as I do today, that the work of a Ph.D. was a small price to pay for getting within five feet of his inspiring presence.

I am profoundly honored to be giving this address. It allows me to say what I believe with deep conviction, that ours is a university that makes good on what is, and should be, the pledge of every decent society: to educate to the very highest levels of excellence, without leaning on the economic advantages of birth, accumulated affluence, obscene endowments, or trafficking unduly in the lure of status and prestige. We at the City University and the Graduate Center are the proud bearers of a tradition that celebrates the pursuit of knowledge as something whose principal requirements are hard work, a commitment to honesty, and a reliance on the imagination. These truly are democratic virtues and it is this public mission that embeds us at the very heart of the democratic strivings of the republic. It is something I am very proud to be part of. I hope you all feel similarly.
I said just a minute ago that you the graduates have worked very hard to get to this point. That is of course true. You have done many things over the past several years, which obviously constitute work. You have spent hours in libraries and laboratories, some of you have done fieldwork in near and distant places, and most of you have taught hundreds of undergraduates. All of that, and much more, in common parlance, is work. Yet I want to suggest to you that in its essence and moral core, the activity that you have been engaged in should not be thought of as work, but rather as a form of play.

We live today, as we have for centuries, in a world conspicuously defined by wants. Even our needs tend to be accessories to our wants. The desire to live and to live well, that is to live better and better, has been a guiding spur of our civilizational journey. Even our self-conception as Homo Sapiens, i.e. as beings distinguished by our intelligence, is elaborated in the thought that we are not defined by our needs, which are limited; but by our intelligent ability to imagine and satisfy our inexhaustible wants. It is this attitude that puts the whole world at our disposal. For the world, including the natural world, to service our wants, we must know it; only then can we master it. It is therefore not surprising that some of the best energies have been directed at knowing and understanding the world. But typically it is a form of knowledge that is linked to satisfying our wants; often it is willfully indifferent to our needs, especially to the needs of those who are precariously situated. It is useful knowledge; where both terms, useful and knowledge, are tied to the exploitation of nature and to the view of nature as merely a resource.
As a species we acknowledge limits to this attitude towards the world. Much of what we mean by morality is a refusal to letting this attitude extend to our view of other human beings – that is, to seeing them as merely material for our use. Figures like the Buddha, Thoreau or Gandhi attempted to put a brake on the wheel and focus us on a more modest conception of needs.

But in the main, our individual and collective energy has been directed at using the resources of the world towards satisfying our inexhaustible wants and shaping the desires that follow from these wants. It is a process that fuels itself. It now has an unmistakable momentum. It informs our politics and our economics with its entrenched addiction to high rates of growth. It is the dream that we have inherited and which has now become the common dream of humankind. Even religion in many ways was, and is, a spur to this dominant attitude. The first book of the Bible tells us that God gave the world and everything in it to Man for the satisfaction of his wants. The first gift we humans received came with the injunction to exploit the world for human purposes. Adam’s disobedience only modified this injunction to the extent that human beings now had to toil, suffer and “work” to fulfill God’s command.
Work is what we call this relentless activity. It is backed by a self-conception of human beings as creatures of want, who view the natural world as a possession for the satisfaction of these wants. To our collective self description as Homo Sapiens we must add the idea that we are Homo Laborans, i.e. human beings who work and who must work.

Yet there is a frustration and an anxiety characteristic of this attitude. In our own ways we are all familiar with it. Because to be a creature of wants is to be permanently afflicted with an awareness of wants not yet satisfied. To seek the satisfaction of wants that endlessly produce other wants, is to be caught in a vortex of joy and anxiety. Work, as in the Biblical story, is a curse, a punishment and yet also an obligation.

There is another form of activity it is distinguished by the attitude of play. I am not sure it is peculiar to human beings alone. That, in my mind, further commends it. It is an attitude that does not suffer from the frustrations and anxieties of work. By play I mean an orientation towards the world and the activities we perform that is not directed at the satisfaction of wants or of getting something useful out of the world, or changing the world so that it may be pliant to yet other wants. It is true that a game is often a contest, in which the winner gets a prize, but even in those instances, and even in times when the prize can be staggering, we retain a sense that the proper character of a game and of play is to experience a form of enjoyment that has no ulterior purpose. Play represents an attitude that is different from work or rest. It refers to an activity that is unconcerned with the satisfaction of wants. It recalls the idea of leisure, but in the specific sense of that which sets us free, not least because we are free from the frustrations and anxieties of being tethered to unending wants.

If this is how we understand play there are clearly many other activities, beyond games, that fall within its ambit. What is essential to play is a refusal to view the world and its resources as things that are given to us for the satisfaction of our wants, and hence, tied to the economy of joy and anxiety. Play extends the attitude of morality beyond human beings to the world itself. It is a more expansive ethic, and yet it keeps us closer to our deeper needs. Among the activities that are central to this ethic are the tasks of understanding and explaining the world, the tasks that so many of you have been involved in for several years. But understanding and explaining the world can all too easily be confused with the challenge of producing knowledge for the satisfaction of our wants. Scientists, politicians and others have often colluded in this confusion. They have urged us think of the “work” of knowledge production as being fundamentally different than the activity of the dancer, the painter and the poet. This strikes me as a mistake. Philosophy, science, history and the arts belong to world of play and not of work.

To our self-description as Homo Sapiens and Homo Laborans we must add that we are Homo Ludens, i.e. human beings who can play. Unlike the former two modes of identification, Homo Ludens has an ethic of freedom embedded in it.

In a familiar way of speaking, you the graduates are leaving school today. Yet in a deeper sense I hope that is not the case. The word school comes from the ancient Greek word Skole, which means leisure or free time. It is a reminder of a type of activity, whether of explanation or imagination or of the myriad ways in which we connect with each other, that is free because it is pursued for its own sake and thus emancipated from the limitations and anxieties of work. That is what Arthur Ashe exemplified on the tennis court and elsewhere.

So let me say once again, congratulations. Go out and work, because you must; be attentive to your needs and those of others, because you should; but play, because you can and you should.

Thank you.

Submitted on: JUN 3, 2014

Category: Commencements