Alex St. Pierre on knowledge and Star Wars

| May 16, 2012

“Even the most accomplished and eloquent of writers invoke the adage that the most effective literature arises from writing about what you know. The various pieces of regalia that I am permitted to wear today are meant to indicate that I know quite a bit. But the truth is that what I know best is in fact, how very much I do not know.

So my options for this speech were either four minutes of uninterrupted silence or to elaborate upon how, after four years, 158 credit hours and two summer courses, the most valuable aspect of my education was coming to appreciate the vast breadth of knowledge which is yet beyond my reach. I would argue, however, that it is often what we do not know that proves more important than what we are able to discern. Good literature, for example, is characterized by what we cannot grasp and allows for layers of interpretation and comprehension that ultimately avoids any single understanding of the material. Similarly, some of the best horror movies are effective because you are allowed to sit through the entire film without ever knowing who the bad guy is. Even Star Wars is made better prior to taking physics and realizing that if the films had be grounded in knowledge, they would also be silent. Which is odd when you consider that some of the franchise’s greatest fans are also physicists…

Why then, do we place so much value on knowing? We are gathered here today to celebrate how much we have learned and will receive degrees which will serve to remind us of what subject we are particularly expert in. Fundamentally, we are graduating today because over the course of four years, we managed to give enough correct answers. Likewise, I’m sure that we have all realized by now that it is only a correct answer, a knowledgeable answer that garners credit on an exam. Although I have never attempted it, I would wager to say that if you answered a question within any discipline with “I’ll have to get back to you on this one,” it would hardly be considered valid.

If there is such great value placed in the science and the art of knowledge, it is because the alternative is frightening. Ignorance is the product of a refusal or incapacity to use one’s intellect. Ignorance, thus far a characteristic unique to humans, is dangerous precisely because it is the result of failing to cultivate and to use one’s conscious and intelligence. Ignorance breeds misunderstanding and hatred and fear.

Yet knowing, or perhaps, assuming that you possess an authority over a given subject is equally as hazardous because the moment you come to believe that you know all that is needed to have mastered a discipline, you are soon after tempted by arrogance and a sense of superiority. When we assume that we know a group, an ideal or a person, we lose the ability and the desire to inquire and to investigate. We abandon the need to learn, to seek others’ opinions and to welcome alternative perspectives.

As is often the case, our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. There is no need for me to elucidate the many ways in which knowledge has served to better this world, but I would offer a few examples for consideration in how dangerous assuming that we “know” can be. Bullies operate on the premise that they know that the victim is inferior in some way and will go so far as to invent knowledge to bolster their claim. By pitting what opponents “know” against one another, politics, especially in a two-party system, functions on a system of reciprocal brutality. This practice has proven so destructive that we have witnessed continuous and steep decline in voter participation: a fundamental aspect of political legitimacy. Even wars are fought precisely because each side believes they are in possession of superior knowledge that the other not only lacks, but must be forced to acknowledge that they lack.

As a classics major, I witnessed the damaging consequences of presumptuous conclusion by investigating the evolution of the Amazon in Greco-Roman society. The ancient Greeks, these great proponents of knowledge and wisdom, were so fearful of what would result should Greek women be empowered, that they invented an entirely fictional race, the Amazons, to prove how dangerous female autonomy would be. These Amazons, withdrawing from the society of men, were said to abandon their sons to exposure, mutilate themselves physically in order to better practice the arts of war and continually threatened and terrorized the civilized city-states of Greece. Because of their assumption that they “knew” the dangers of a woman who was allowed to practice the art of war, to be powerful and independent, women remained second-class citizens for hundreds of years thereafter.

But now I want to return to a subject in which I perhaps possess the greatest expertise. So for all of you who are not Star Wars fans, these next two minutes will prove to be a formative experience.

I would venture to say that the majority of students in this audience today are aware of my fondness for Star Wars, but have you ever thought to ask why? When I was in the first grade, my grandfather, formally addressed as “Grampy,” used to walk me to and from school almost every single day. On these walks, I would chatter away while my grandfather would listen with the rapt attention most individuals reserve for the speeches of visiting dignitaries and accomplished scholars. It was an experience my brother and sister would never have the privilege to know, because our walks soon became truck rides that eventually ceased altogether, until by September of 1999, I had lost my Grampy.

What does this have to do with Star Wars? My grandfather, a fan of old spaghetti westerns and Indiana Jones, absolutely adored Star Wars and it was because of him that I watched George Lucas’ films for the first time and was, forever after, a Jedi. Every time I visited my grandparents, tearing down the block of sidewalk in my red jeep, I would ask to watch Star Wars, to which Grampy would laugh, run his hand over his bald head and go, “Again, Alex?”
And now, every time I watch Star Wars, I am reminded of the grandfather I lost at the age of nine, who never got to see me score the game-winning goal with no time left on the clock, who never got to applaud for me as I finished the last notes of “Mon Coeur,” who never got to congratulate me for being accepted to graduate school and who will not be here to say, “I am so proud of you, Alex.”

My grandfather knew me at the age of nine, before I knew anything. Before I could list the emperors of Rome, before I could arrange a four-part harmony, and before I could manage to pass a Chemistry test by studying the morning of. He loved me, because I think he knew how much I had to learn and how voraciously I would seek to know all that I could. And what a beautiful thing to love someone, not because you know them so well, but because you want to know them so desperately.

That is my hope for all of you as you go on to pursue all of the fantastic endeavors ahead. Be confident in the knowledge you have worked hard to accrue, but never assume that you know something or someone in their entirety. Never cease to inquire, to investigate, to be curious and to be adventurous. Refuse to settle for what you think you understand and continually seek a new perspective. Smile at the stranger you pass because perhaps you will be the only one to acknowledge them that day, sit down with someone whom you know nothing about and listen to their story, and always make the attempt to be kind because this will leave you open to the world.

May you always bear the rose after conquering its thorns, and may the Force be with you… always…”

(Senior class president Alex St. Pierre gave this speech at Commencement on Saturday, May 12.)



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