Editor’s note: The following is the text of the Commencement address Eva Brann delivered to the graduating students of Zaytuna College during an online ceremony on May 23, 2021.
Hello to the about-to-be alumni of Zaytuna College! How I wish I could be with you face-to-face and hear your individual accounts of the education you’re completing today.
But, of course, that last phrase, about completing your education, is just nonsense. This ceremony you’ve so kindly invited me to share with you is not called “commencement” for nothing. As a solemn formal celebration, it is some sort of culmination. You receive a degree, a term which comes from the Latin word gradus, a step, a step up; you can now put “B.A.,” Bachelor of Arts, or “M.A.,” Master of Arts, after your name. But as an acknowledgment of substance, it’s just the opposite: you’re a certified candidate for admission to a life of learning. For learning, being educated, is one of those strange experiential activities: the more you engage in it, the more of it you’re ready for. The more you’ve learned, the more you both want to, and are prepared to, learn. I’ll give you my favorite example.
I grew up speaking German. Then I came as a refugee to America, which has been to me a kind of safe haven and a heaven of opportunity. In this country, we speak a kind of English, a variant of that global tongue. (I think it was Churchill who said that England and America are divided by a common language.)
So I had to learn this English. Well, the regular verbs were easy. “I learn, you learn, he learns, we, you, they—all learn.” And all learned or have learned, and all will learn or would learn. But then there’s the verb “to be”—the most colorless and most substance-laden of terms, the merest auxiliary or copula and the most determinative and self-sufficient of words! I imagine, in my self-entertaining phantasies, the first fully human being awaking from an Adamic sleep in its earthly paradise, standing up, “erect with native honor clad,” as that poet-theologian Milton puts it, and looking into its world. What is the first human word ever uttered? I can hear it: “Being”—and the rebel angel, Lucifer-Satan, lurking in the bushes, mutters as a complement: “Non-being.”