Commencement Address by Bob Rice, December 15, 2012
What about Individuality?
Provost Rudenga, President Timmermans, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, family and friends of graduates, and particularly the graduates of 2012: We come to celebrate this significant accomplishment of the graduates of December 2012. Each graduate has earned a particular bachelor’s degree, and each has a major or particular area of study. All have begun and have continued to take prescribed courses that surround and frame their majors with what we call “liberal arts education.” Altogether, you’ve taken up the call to scholarship and to engage the world in which you live. And although this ceremony is the culminating episode of your undergraduate experience, we could also consider this graduation event to be connected to a long-enduring faith in American individuality.
What does this mean? In our culture, we rest in the certainty that society is comprised of capable individuals like yourselves who act, achieve, react, and seek loftier goals. To ensure the continued vitality of this American culture, we struggle to liberate individuals from real or imagined restraints that obstruct the paths before us. We assert the separateness of the individual and the autonomy of the individual; we guard the privacy of the individual; and we even praise the public virtue of the individual as well.
Through the curriculum and through every aspect of broader student development, we commit ourselves to make individuals whole. In colleges and universities across America, educators promise to guide in this transition so that their graduates will be fully prepared to participate in and to represent American culture.
What makes this faith in American individuality even stronger is that it has been nurtured throughout generations of American history. Alexis De Tocqueville noticed the prominence of individuality when he toured America on his visit during the early 1830s. His observations and reflections became an American classic entitled Democracy in America. He wrote that when he landed in America, he immediately noticed the busyness, the noise, and the activities of Americans. Across the country he found the pervasive expression of individual freedom that led toward democracy. Individuals participated in society – a society that was leveled by common education, that was accessible through the common law, and that exchanged common ideas that were the discourse of the land.
He said that in America, all were sovereign, all had rights, and all participated in this individualized democracy. De Tocqueville also pointed to the deep, unresolved problems that he thought must be solved. He noticed the inequities that persisted. But his hope was in the presence of individualized democracy.
Sociologists have continued to write about the changes in American individuality and the impact that individuality has upon our culture. But if we look closely as a Christian community can, we can discover two surprises about American individuality. These surprises give me hope because they reveal the unfolding interconnectedness of community.
What are these two surprises? First, the achievements of these graduates – and their accomplishments are significant – rest in social institutions. Their achievements are embedded in social institutions which are God’s gifts to us and which we are to use to shape and renew society. Graduates’ achievements rest in the shaping and supportive work of their families. These achievements rest in different church traditions that provide larger frameworks as graduates take up their work in the world. Trinity’s educational vision has centered these achievements as responses to God’s ways and God’s longings for His people. Your majors give current description of the development of academic disciplines such as art, biology, business, education, psychology, and theology, among many others. These academic disciplines are themselves institutions by which you have taken up your work and by which you declare that you wish to make things new.
The second surprise is that our individual achievements are faithful responses to God’s call to love God and love neighbor and to seek justice, peace, stewardship, equity, and shalom. Even though our culture offers us an alternative individualized orientation, we are not disconnected after all. We do not take up our work alone. We do not so much carry our tasks but respond through them in faithfulness to God. May we continue to take this work up together.