Bowie's Baccalaureate Address
Following is the
baccalaureate speech delivered by Professor Lee Bowie for the
2003 commencement weekend.
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!
Youll 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
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 havent
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
dont 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 ones 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 whats 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 doesnt 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!