Basil Gildersleeve:



 Address to the Graduating Class of 1888 of the Johns Hopkins University. [handwritten note by unknown person in Yale Classics Library copy: “not printed in JHU circulars.” From Gildersleeve’s collected papers, pp. 509-512.  Posted by Otto Steinmayer.

 OUR President has requested me to say a few words to the new graduates of the Johns Hopkins University, and our President, as most of us have found out by this time, is not a man to be denied. A gentle but fatal insistence, and I am here; and yet I could have wished that he had waited until next year. Then I should at least have known how to begin my speech. Forty years would have looked down on me from the apex of my own bachelor’s degree; for forty years I should have been sitting, if not on the throne of Solomon, at least on the throne of one who is wiser than Solomon—to begin with; or for forty years I should have been wandering in the wilderness of ‘practical life’, of which baccalaureate orators have so much to say. But what can an orator do with the number thirty-nine unless he takes for his text the forty stripes save one, which have indeed a certain Scriptural sacredness, and unless he applies the trebly unlucky three times thirteen to the scourgings of life—those scourgings that figure in the Greek motto of Goethe’s autobiography:

i mØ dareÐw ênyrvpow oÈ paideÊetai,  [ o( mh\ darei\s a)/nqrwpos ou) paideu/etai]

or as it might be translated for this occasion only,

The man who is not skinned alive gets no degree.

But the ‘scourgings of life’ would not be a cheerful theme even in the retrospect for such a time as this, and I will not seek any longer for personal coincidences wherewith to begin or to end my discourse. Whatever changes a man passes through only to forget, he never forgets the time when he takes an academic degree, and the mere juggling of numbers has nothing to do with this Arcadian fellow-feeling. He who has never known it is poorer by a peculiar experience. We talk, and talk justly, of the great university of life, of the wider and deeper culture that men often get without the college walls; but after all there is something apart in the seclusion and the consecration of the academical novitiate, whether spent in tending the seven lean kine of trivium and quadrivium or in the piping of Major and Minor moods in the green pastures of the Johns Hopkins B.A. course, or in the long wrestling of Principal with Subordinate, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law in our happy family of Ph. D.’s. In any case there has been a certain overcoming, a certain endurance of boredom, a certain compression and a certain expression that go to make a mint-mark; and instead of falling into the usual vein of speakers on such occasions, instead of telling you that life has much worse things in store for you than examinations and lectures, let me tell you honestly that in all those scourgings of life of which I have spoken there is to me no more terrible memory than that of the time when I was searched to the bottom of my consciousness as the exact relation of two words in the Odes of Horace, Lib. 1, Carm. 1, or when, years afterwards, a grim inquisitor wanted to know all about all the Leges Corneliae. So far from telling you that you know nothing of the burden and heat of the day, I can honestly say that the mechanical drudgery of the school-task and the Tophetic glow of the examination-room are the worst things that a civilized man has to go through, as they are the best things that a civilized man has to go through. To be sure, modern theorists tell us that learning ought to be made delightful, that we ought to absorb it unconsciously, that the teacher who does not make his teachings interesting is a failure, and so on. My young friends, my old friends, teaching is a surgical process. You may administer an anæsthetic, an anodyne. You may perform your sleight-of-hand trick while the patient is under the influence of laughing-gas, but the healthy human being feels the after-effects, and no matter whom the pupil has studied under—momentous preposition—he has had to endure, and that this is all over I congratulate you most heartily. You will find people enough to sneer at the college-bred man. It is a sneer begot of envy. Remember that and take comfort. You will find people mean enough to ask you, as I was asked when I took my Ph. D. degree and had attained a height from which I have been steadily declining ever since, ‘What are you going to be?’ As if a Ph. D. degree were not an answer to all that! Never mind. Major and minor, principal and subordinate, can never vex you more, for you are free of the guild, and you have gained your freedom by that submission to law wherein alone true freedom resides. Heaven forbid that I should mar your just pleasure by telling you of all the lions in the path. The lions whose mouths you have already effectually stopped are among the grimmest you will ever have to encounter, and the zeal and earnestness and patience with which you have undergone the heroic tests set before you are sufficient proofs that you do not need the sermonizing that men in my position think themselves qualified to inflict on those who have taken the first great step forward to active life. It would rather become us oldsters to ask ourselves whether we should have done as well in your case, and to show that despite all our own failures—most of which the Great Examiner hides until we graduate from this world and even beyond—to show, I say, that despite all our own failures we have sweetness of temper enough left to rejoice with them that do rejoice—ay, and justly rejoice.