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To AU’s Class of 2016: Look Beyond Yourself

Literature Professor Richard Sha

Literature Professor Richard Sha

What do Odysseus, Hamlet, and the Higgs Boson have in common?

They all engender a sense of wonder. And for students embarking on the intellectual voyage that is college, says Richard C. Sha, AU’s 2012 Scholar-Teacher of the Year, there can be no greater gift.

Learn what advice the CAS literature professor Richard Sha offered the Class of 2016 at AU’s opening convocation.

Welcome class of 2016!

American University is a community of dedicated teachers, scholars, and learners: the faculty here truly cares both about being leaders in their fields and mentoring students. Unlike many institutions, we consider the ability to teach as an essential factor in our hiring and tenuring decisions. Take advantage of our greatest advantage. But to do so well, you need to nurture your intellectual curiosity. Feed your curiosity and wonder. Aristotle and Plato claimed that philosophy itself began in wonder, and look at the doors it opened for them.

I’ll begin with a few words of caution.

Let me start with the Odysseus problem. Odysseus begins his odyssey thinking it is all about me. You will recall that after poking out the eye of Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, Odysseus cannot resist bragging about who did it. It is I Odysseus who poked out your eye. Had he kept his mouth shut, the Cyclops would never have been able to get his father, Poseidon, to curse Odysseus and to delay his journey home by ten years. Odysseus eventually learns from his error—it takes him ten years as it were to graduate--and upon his return home, must disguise and deny himself, so he can surprise and destroy Penelope’s suitors. Self-denial is that most difficult act for a Greek hero, but it is also the first step to true Greek heroism.

Odysseus has to learn it’s not all about him. Heed his warning because it’s not all about you. How often have I heard students reject a work of art because it doesn’t speak to them. But works of art and literature are not about speaking to you. Considered in their own right, works of art can offer nothing less than means to re-apprehending the world. Great works of art open new vistas. Don’t let narcissism stand in the way of such brave new worlds. Don’t reduce our universes to a mirror.

Take, for example, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Part of its amazing story is that Michelangelo had to learn how to paint fresco in the act of painting it. You can think of it as his senior project. In the early parts of it, Michelangelo has no sense of what it will look like from the ground. The figures are far too small. Part of that story is the responsibility of trying to paint God. We should all perhaps wonder why he paints God’s naked ass.

Flash forward a century. I now turn to the Hamlet problem. If you are the typical AU student, you believe in making the world a better place. But what counts as better, and how do you know? The sad truth is that even Hitler thought he was making the world a better place, and now Assad thinks he is doing the same thing. Is it even possible to know what is “better” in advance? While Hamlet worries about to be or not to be, in the backdrop, is Fortinbras—whose name means strong in the arms—champing at the bit to do something. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek urges us quell our inner Fortinbras and to revel in our internal Hamlets. Why? The problem is that action has replaced thought. He comments, "Like when you buy an organic apple, you're doing it for ideological reasons, it makes you feel good: 'I'm doing something for Mother Earth,' and so on. But in what sense are we engaged? It's a false engagement. Paradoxically, we do these things to avoid really doing things. It makes you feel good. You recycle, you send £5 a month to some Somali orphan, and you did your duty. But really, we've been tricked into operating safety valves that allow the status quo to survive unchallenged? Yes, exactly." Just Odysseus teaches us that it’s not all about me, we need to learn that feeling good is not the same as doing good. Much of the philosopher Immanuel Kant can be boiled down to the mantra that if it feels good, it’s bad. Indeed, Nietzsche warned in the Genealogy of Morals that too often morality was about feeling good at someone else’s expense. Leave it to the Germans to name morality, Schadenfreude, which means to take pleasure at another’s suffering.

You are here for enlightenment, but no one said it would be easy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emilé: “No one is exempt from the first duty of man; no one has a right to rely on the judgment of others” (iv, 472). As a student, listen to, but don’t rely upon the judgment of your teachers. Likewise, Immanuel Kant defined what counts as enlightenment as the move from immaturity to maturity. Immature thinkers cannot think without the guidance of another. Mature thinkers, by contrast, know that the “freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters” is one of our most precious freedoms.

The poet and visionary William Blake urged his audience to “Cleanse the doors of perception.” Jim Morrison wrote his senior thesis on Blake and hence the band, “The Doors,” was born. I suggest that education is all about cleansing your doors of perception. One important caveat: I can’t, of course, endorse Morrison’s actual pharmaceutical methods of cleansing. If I’m being too cryptic here, this is not a prescription for a substance-induced Breaking Bad.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in Possibility/ A fairer house than prose.” Your undergraduate years are all about dwelling in possibility: you may never have the chance again to dwell in possibility again. You are here to ask the big questions and to figure out how to come up with some answers. Like her, may possibility help you to “gather paradise.” What is the meaning of life? Do human beings have free will? Tolstoy in War and Peace was deeply skeptical of free will; he claimed that human beings attribute free will to the actions of others when we do not understand the cause of them.

Of course, how to know when one has genuinely determined one’s self? Our forms of identity have only made the problem worse: in self-identifying in terms of one’s sexual practices, ethnicity, race, social class, gender, one is allowing a part of one’s identity to subsume identity. One’s identity is also being determined by an identity category. This is why philosopher Michel Foucault didn’t think much of identity and sought to understand it as a form of social control so that it could be placed on the dung heap of history. If identity is our greatest technology of social control, then, the worst you can do is to make it about you.

This is an amazing time to nurture curiosity and wonder. Physicists will tell you that they now have proof of the existence of the Higgs Boson, the particle imagined in 1964 to be responsible for why matter has mass. Peter Higgs and others worked on this hypothetical particle/field for more than twenty years without any guarantees that it would be true. Follow what intrigues you; curiosity has landed NASA on Mars. What does it mean that we are only now beginning to understand such a basic thing as how matter has mass? When matter is not a thing, but an interaction with a field, do human beings have the right to own it, control it? What happens to subjectivity when objects are animated? Although we are accustomed to thinking about matter as dumb or inert, we are only beginning to understand that there is nothing dumb about matter. It is we, not matter, that is dumb. 84% of matter is so called dark matter, and we know almost nothing about that. 76% of the universe is dark energy, and we know even less about that.

I segue from the dumb to dumber, zombies. If you’re like my sons, you’ve spent no small amount of time killing zombies. Why do zombies continue to fascinate and terrify us? Neuroscience may have some disturbing answers. In seeking to understand consciousness, and to connect that hunk of meat known as the brain to consciousness, neuroscientists like V. S. Ramachandran and David Eagleman have begun to think about how unconscious much of our conscious life is. Among Eagleman’s examples are tennis players. The more they think about what they are doing, the worse they do. The key is to rely on muscle memory. The key is to act like a zombie. Maybe this explains Roger Federer? We’re afraid of zombies, then, because they reveal a truth about our consciousness that we don’t want to admit. We’re more unconscious than we think. Even worse, our unconsciousness may be a more effective actor in the world than our consciousness. But that neither means one should be unconscious about one’s education, nor that one should remain unconscious of what makes us wonder and why. Zombies don’t wonder. If you want to kill your inner zombie, just wonder. When we wonder we must confront the limits of our knowledge even as we seek to convert that wonder into knowledge.

While we’re on the problem of consciousness, let’s tarry a moment over the Benjamin Libet Problem. Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment in which he asked participants to flex their wrists spontaneously while their brains were hooked up to an EEG. He then asked subjects to report exactly when they intended to act. It turns out that the brain activates a readiness potential, measured by the EEG, that precedes activation of the muscle by 550 milliseconds. This readiness potential precedes our first awareness of the wish to act by 300-400 milliseconds. The machinery of the body, as it were, has a mind of its own. Your brain has made it possible to flex your wrist, before your conscious intent. This of course has reinvigorated a debate about whether or not humans have free will. Libet was able to preserve free will but only at the expense of reducing free will to deciding not to do something after we have decided to do it. He noted that fittingly most of the 10 Commandments are “do not” orders (149). Who knows what neuroscience will suggest in the coming decade?

Spend these four years learning how to transform wonder into knowledge. Learn how academic disciplines both shape and distort knowledge. Take classes in things you know nothing about. How does mathematics help you to think about the world? If you can use the same formula to talk about two different things like matter and energy, are they really that different? How did Charles Darwin recognize the pattern of evolution? How might knowledge of a foreign language change the way you treat any given concept or idea? In Mandarin Chinese, the words for opportunist are Mun Kai Jin. Whereas “opportunist” has a very negative connotation in the West, in Chinese, it simply means door, open, enter. Now that you are here at American University, be an educational opportunist. I suggest you can best do so by reveling in your wonder. Let wonder cleanse your doors of perception. Let wonder open doors to knowledge. Remember that an open door is just empty space unless you pick yourself up and walk through it.

Thank you.


1) For advice, I’d like to thank Nate Harshman, Myra Sklarew, John Hyman, and Jonathan Loesberg.

2) For a wonderful short history of the Sistine Chapel Fresco, see Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

3) I’ve quoted Zizek from this Guardian article, which appeared on June 10, 2012. I thank my colleague Professor Deborah Payne for calling this article to my attention.

4) See Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (New York: Pantheon, 2011).

5) Benjamin Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004). Ruth Leys offers a critique of Libet in “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry, 37, (Spring 2011): 434-472.

6) On mathematics as a form of thinking, see Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lectures at Cornell, available, courtesy of Bill Gates, on Project Tuva. Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and widely regarded as one of the best physics teachers of all time.