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Lee Bowie's Baccalaureate Address

Following is the baccalaureate speech delivered by Professor Lee Bowie for the 2003 commencement weekend.

Lies my parents told me. "Rachael, after Passover Elijah will come through the door." "Chiarra, the Tooth Fairy will leave money under your pillow." "Claire, the reason people have sex is that they're trying to 'make a baby'." Well here's another lie, one that your parents still tell you, especially if you return home with another year's Mount Holyoke mess in tow. "Kelsey," they say, or Jess, or Nandita, "being tidy, systematic, organized, is important. Messiness is bad--a sign of a lazy, sloppy, profligate mind." But to the contrary, right now as you are about to graduate, I want to leave you with the contrarian idea that messiness is a virtue--a habit to be cultivated and nurtured, a prerequisite for moral and intellectual flourishing. And I will exhort you to be more messy.

Those of you who have ever visited my office will notice immediately a sort of self-serving nature to this claim. And so I need to tell you how messiness serves not only me, but also you, and the larger social order.

In an article last year in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell discussed two kinds of people--filers and pilers. Filers use pieces of paper and then put them away. You all know one of these people--they give themselves away with their clean, orderly desks. You may even be one. Your mother has told you to be a filer; you can hear her now if you turn your auditory gaze inward. "Clean up that mess! You’ll never be able to find anything!"

Pilers put piles of paper on their desks. They surround their ever diminishing workspace with ever growing mounds of paper. The piles generally have some archeological structure that gives them significance. Polar coordinates centered horizontally on the keyboard signify topic, or importance, or origin. Depth in a pile marks evolution through geological time. And a piece of paper laid diagonally across an otherwise rectangular pile can signify--almost anything. But certainly something profound.

It turns out, and I quote Gladwell here, that "The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their heads."

You clip an article from a newpaper, and there it sits on your desk. By refusing to file it--refusing to give it exactly one topic and then put it in alphabetical order--you preserve some of its complexity. You don’t know yet whether it will link most productively with Islam, or with mountain ranges, or perhaps with chickens. So you suspend it in your cognitive and physical space; you keep its options open. You ignore the long-suffering sighs of resident neatniks. And you might even do this in the face of your father's exhortation to clean your desk.

The drive for simplicity and order is often accompanied by what logicians call a "false dichotomy", the classic being the loaded question, "Have you stopped torturing your roommate?" If you say "yes, I've stopped torturing her" then you confess that you were torturing her. But if you say "no, I haven't stopped torturing her" then you are now torturing her. Either answer is damning. There must be a third way--a way to reject the question without answering it. The question embodies a false dichotomy. Answering it creates a false simplicity.

The classic American western movie has a simple and reassuring narrative structure. There are good guys and bad guys. Hat color even tells you which is which. The good guys are totally good; the bad ones totally bad. We have seen a lot of this narrative in the wake of the attacks of September 11. On the night of the attacks President Bush told the nation that those who are not with us are against us, denying the possibility of a third way. At the same time he called the attackers "cowards", and what happened subsequently to comedian Bill Maher illustrates the tortured logic of imposing false simplicity on a complex reality. For Maher said, with a certain common sense, that whatever other things you might say about the attackers, knowingly flying a plane to one’s certain death does not seem cowardly. He saw a certain messiness in the situation--that as heinous as the terrorists were, they might also be brave. But the drive for order dictated that the evildoers must be completely evil, and could have no virtues. To find even a single virtue in the face of evil would be to defend evil, to side with it, to promote it, to commit it. Maher was fired and his show canceled by CBS.

So what am I urging here? That you cultivate in your lives a certain studied messiness that will be in tension with the order that you may hope for--the order that would make your life simpler. This messiness--of your desk, of your beliefs (political and otherwise), of your very self--will often represent what’s real more accurately than the order that you and those around you will crave.

My favorite definition of intelligence is "the ability to tolerate ambiguity". The messy desk is creative ambiguity in action. That piece of paper doesn’t have a proper place yet--it could go here, it could go there. Then just leave it, where its options are still alive. Similarly people, events, ideologies, may not admit of easy categorization, and if you can resist filing them away, keeping their multiple possibilities alive in creative tension, you may be better for it.

The creative messiness I am exhorting requires much of what you have been learning during your time at Mount Holyoke. Resist simple solutions. Sometimes it is better to reject a question than to answer it. It is better to be creatively confused than stupidly clear. These are all great clichés, and I invite you to make up your own to add to them. You may, for your own reasons, need or want to adopt an orderly exterior--hair neat, buttons straight, even a tidy desk. But you can still build a foundation for that external order by maintaining a creatively messy interior--holding contrary ideas in productive tension, letting an irritating thought linger, questioning the questions that people ask, and resisting frameworks that are simpler than the reality they're supposed to represent.

Finally, the concept of messiness is itself messy. You should resist pictures that are too simple for what they picture. Yes, you should resist even the very picture that I'm drawing for you right now. By way of helping that resistance, I add a final qualification. It's for you, but it's also for my 14-year old daughter Cassie, who is here this evening, and whose eyes are now wide with visions of a free ride on the mess in her room for the next few years. So my final word is--not all messiness is creative or productive.

Oh yeah, Cassie: Clean up your room!


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