The following is based on the commencement address given to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California at Berkeley in the Hearst Greek Theatre, May 15, 2005.
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked for a title. I dillied and dallied, begged for more time, and of course the deadline passed. The title I really wanted to suggest was the response that all of you have learned to expect when asked your major: What are you going to do with that? To be an English major is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of “existential dread.” To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget: What are you going to do with that?
To the recent graduate, American society—in all its vulgar, grotesque power—reverberates with that question. It comes from friends, from relatives, and perhaps even from the odd parent here and there. For the son or daughter who becomes an English major puts a finger squarely on the great parental paradox: you raise your children to make their own decisions, you want your children to make their own decisions—and then one day, by heaven, they make their own decisions. And now parents are doomed to confront daily the condescending sympathy of your friends—their children, of course, are economics majors or engineering majors or pre-meds—and to confront your own dread about the futures of your children.
It’s not easy to be an English major these days, or any student of the humanities. It requires a certain kind of determination, and a refusal—an annoying refusal, for some of our friends and families, and for a good many employers—to make decisions, or at least to make the kind of “practical decisions” that much of society demands of us. It represents a determination, that is, not only to do certain things—to read certain books and learn certain poems, to acquire or refine a certain cast of mind—but not to do other things: principally, not to decide, right now, quickly, how you will earn your living; which is to say, not to decide how you will justify your existence. For in the view of a large part of American society, the existential question is at the bottom an economic one: Who are you and what is your economic justification for being?
English majors, and other determined humanists, distinguish themselves not only by reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or Joyce or Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston but by refusing, in the face of overwhelming pressure, to answer that question. Whether they acknowledge it or not—whether they …