• Vladimir Chlouba

An Undelivered Commencement Speech

This is a commencement speech which I wrote in the months preceding my college graduation in May 2016. The speech was never delivered but it does, today as it did then, express some of the fundamental beliefs and values that, today as they were then, are challenged on what should be their home turf - college campuses.


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Connecticut College

Like trees planted by rivers of water,[1] we arrived on this hill four years ago. A few weeks into our first semester, a professor in one of my courses remarked that if all that he and his colleagues could achieve were to confuse us and send us into the world, his task would be successfully fulfilled. I am here today to tell you that Connecticut College has extraordinarily successful faculty. Just as Socrates thousands of years ago, we now know that we know very little and that there is much to learn.


Make no mistake, I have no doubt that we are leaving our alma mater exceptionally well equipped. We have seen the world, we have learned its languages and we understand that the prosperity of few cannot be redeemed by the misery of many.


I was born in the Czech Republic but subsequently spent many months and years in countries such as Denmark, the United States, Germany, and Namibia. The woman I intend to marry is Namibian (she now knows there is no way back) and between the two of us, we speak approximately eight languages. I have no simple answers to questions such as “Where are you from?” or “What is your identity?” In fact, the flags behind me suggest that I may not be the only one who has, at least for a few years, found a real home in New London. A home defined not by where we came from but by what we have learned here together.


We came from all walks of life. Members of our class go by the names Marshall, King, Sargent, Bishop, Kitchen, Potts, Beers, Bender, Winter, Summer, Bakewell, Beans, and many others. We have among ourselves an online Sudoku record-holder, a student who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and another one who swam around Alcatraz.


We are departing with a liberal arts education. We have realized that the liberal arts approach is the most precious gift because it offers something utterly different from the world’s ideologies and faiths. Rather than a specific set of ideas, a set-in-stone body of knowledge, the liberal arts are an approach, a method, not an end result. Instead of choosing predetermined truths and seeking to justify them with seemingly impenetrable arguments, the liberal arts combine the most natural sense of humbleness, curiosity, and intellectual responsibility that make them unprecedentedly adaptable. The ability to realize the conditionality of knowledge, I dare to suggest, is the first step on the long path towards wisdom.


Ultimately, however, the question is not what the Connecticut College education has done to us, the question is what we will do with our Connecticut College education. As we separate today to embark on our individual journeys, we will be asked to face the various forms of inequity that still burgeon in far too many parts of the world, including our own. We must not evade that responsibility and we must proceed with vigor. As we do so however, we must not forget that the ability to critically examine our own convictions is just as indispensable. For none of us is in possession of truth; but together, we shall search ever closer.


Let us be self-aware and humble, but let us also proceed boldly and fearlessly, for the world belongs to those who are ready to claim it. I learned that success is not the ability to eternally avoid failure. Quite to the contrary, it is the ability to continuously reemerge from the ashes of failure, to repeatedly ignore the ominous signs that things will not turn in our favor, to draw strength from the intense, recurring, and preciously humbling experience of human limits, and to continue to reassemble the broken pieces of dreams that have been shattered over and over again.


The journey ahead will not be free of obstacles. The one thing I can promise is that it will be uniquely ours. As Marcus Aurelius observed eighteen centuries ago, the whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it. Like a tree planted by rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season, we are ready to make our life what we deem it. And our season, my fellow classmates, our season is now beginning.

[1] This is a reference to Connecticut College’s motto "Like a tree planted by rivers of water (that bringeth forth its fruit in its season.)" which originates in the First Psalm.


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