Robert W. Austin,
May 31, 1964
The typescript version of this speech is available at the Duggan Library
Archives, Hanover College (Hanover, Ind.).
N.B. Ellipses are as they appeared in the original text.
"The Threshold of Boredom"
What can a man in his middle 50's say to a
group of about 150 young men and women on May 31, 1964?
Young men and women who are on that day graduating from a fine college and moving on to further education, to work, to marriage in the Space Age.
I have, more often than not, been unhappy with commencement speakers. They often, it seems to me, pontificate on the "great opportunities" available to youth, or welcome the graduates to the "responsibilities of adulthood, or tell them that they face a confused world and must realize that they will be "running it" in the not too distant future. They are too often too solemn, too bound up in the "big problems" of the day.
I want to talk to you -- not about the problems of developing countries, nor the conflict between the free world and communism in its various forms, nor the new problems of leisure time caused by automation, nor unemployment, nor desegregation, for you are and will be constantly bombarded with the pros and cons of problems such as this!
I want to talk to you about you, to make some very personal observations about living in this world that is changing so rapidly, to see if I can get you thinking about Touchstone's famous question in As You Like It, "Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?"
A famous minister was asked for his secret of always preaching an interesting and compelling sermon. His answer was, "Tell them what you're going to say -- say it -- and then tell them what you said!"
This is what I'm going to say:
1. You live in a rapidly changing world -- but the world you will live in will have a rate change faster than any you have yet experienced.
2. Human nature
doesn't change, and hasn't changed, and will not change as rapidly as
the world to which we humans must reconcile ourselves.
3. In reconciling yourselves to the world you will live in, your chances for happiness and success will depend on the wisdom with which you adjust your unchanging human nature to an ever accelerating world.
An equally famous minister who always preached excellent sermons (he was, incidentally, a famous Presbyterian in New York) was not willing to reveal his secret. One day his sexton, cleaning up the church after a service in which a particularly stirring sermon had been delivered, found the pastor's manuscript in the pulpit. This, he felt, was the opportunity to probe the secret. He found that the sermon resembled a working stage manager's script for a play. In the margins, in red, were detailed notes for voice control, gestures, and timing. Such comments as "rise up on your toes, raise your arms over your head, make your voice deeper and louder."
The sexton was much impressed with the effort and care that went into such a sermon, and, remembering the stirring conclusion of the sermon, he hastily turned to the next to the last page. Here in red link was the injunction "Argument weak here. Yell like hell!" If I begin to yell at any point, you will want to check my logic.
Now to say it: First this rapidly changing world:
The salient feature is today's world for me is not the fact of the Space Age, nor the world of the atom bomb, nor the problems I have enumerated about which I am not going to speak, nor any of the other problems constantly before your eyes in the daily papers. The salient feature, to me, is the incredibly rapid and increasingly rapid change in the world in which we live. And that isn't quite the precise way to state it. Not only is the change rapid, but the rate of change is also increasing in geometric terms.
Think of it in homely ways. When I was ten, my family had a summer camp in the Berkshire Hills. It was at an elevation of 2, 000 feet. We had a 1917 Chandler. The road to that camp went up about 1,400 feet in six miles. One of my chores as a ten year old was to hold a folding canvas bucket in my lap and get out of the car three times in that six mile trip to fill the radiator of the Chandler from horse watering troughs by a brook because the radiator would boil over three times in six miles.
When I was 14, I made a crystal radio set with headhones and a fine wire filament which had to be placed at precisely the right spot on the crystal to pick up one radio station (and one of the first radio stations) in the city of New York.
When I was 19, Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in a single engine plane.
When I was 25 and starting to practice law in New York, it took 17 hours to go from New York to Chicago by the safest and fastest possible means of travel – the famous 20th Century. You didn't really yet feel quite like flying, although I had flown to Washington two or three times.
When I was 30, I was commuting to Austin, Texas, each week on a sleeper plane to try a law suit.
The automobile and the airplane and radio were revolutionizing the United States and the more advanced nations of the world from 1900 to 1941, but then came the true explosion. I don't mean World War II, although that was a worldwide explosion. I mean the technological explosion caused by the war and the billions of dollars poured into research.
If one thinks that the word "revolutionize" is apt for what happened in the first four decades of the 20th century, there is no word in our vocabularies for what has happened in the last 20 years; atomic energy; jet flight; satellites sending TV pictures between continents; space shots at the Moon and Venus; man traveling 18,000 miles per hour without physical harm, computers that process clerical work of 600 employees, that used to take days, in literally seconds; a computer that in April at the Harvard Business School taught a class of 90 students, answering their questions, analyzing their reasoning, and rebuking them when they were illogical; the miracle of transistors! There is no word for changes such as these in 20 years.
Today my car will climb that same road in the Berkshire Hills in high gear at 40 miles per hour; my radio will pick up Moscow; my TV set is in color, and I have commuted 3,000 miles a week or more for a year and not missed a night in bed!
Here is the point. The rate of change of the last two decades is still too slow, the rate is still increasing; the two decades from 1964-1984 will produce change that will beggar by far the predictions of Hurley and George Orwell.
Companies with which I am familiar are researching, with success, areas such as these: a) pneumatic tubes to move individuals from point to point in huge metopolitan areas -- where no vehicular traffic will be admitted; b) instantaneous adhesives so men can cling to and repair space ships moving at 25, 000 miles per hour without the danger of drifting into space and becoming little, individual, and very distressed, satellites; c) what will be the system of distribution in a country where there are few, if any, retail stores and all staples, at the very least, will be sold by TV and delivered by underground tube; d) direct and immediate electronic communication systems as between individuals.
I will not be surprised to see some of these in my lifetime, but I would be greatly surprised if you do not see all of them in your normal life expectancies. And this is the world you move into and with which you must reconcile yourselves.
Second. Human nature – its slow rate of change.
Some years ago I was reading the letters of William James and came across a letter written in 1876 and printed anonymously in The Nation. It hit me where I live, and to me it expressed magnificently the basic philosophy of all real teachers. It states, I am sure, what the members of the faculty here at Hanover feel about their work.
". . . However skeptical
one may be of the attainment of universal truths. . .one can never deny
that philosophic study means the habit of always seeing an alternative,
of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid
again, of imagining foreign states of mind. In a word, it means
possession of mental perspective. Touchstone's question, ‘Hast any
philosophy in thee, shepherds?' will never cease to be one of the tests
of a well-born nature. It says, Is there space and air in your
mind, or must your companions gasp for breath whenever they talk with
you? And if our colleges are to make men, and not machines, they
should look, above all things, to this aspect of their influence….
As for philosophy, technically so called, or the reflection of man on his relations with the universe, its educational essence lies in the quickening of the spirit to its problems. What doctrines students take from their teachers are of little consequence provided they catch from them the living, philosophic attitude of mind, the independent, personal look at all the data of life, and the eagerness to harmonize them. . .
In our context, I am particularly interested in that sentence that describes and defines the meaning of Touchstone's question "Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?" that question, says James, asks "Is there space and air in your mind, or must your companions gasp for breath whenever they talk with you?"
I am concerned lest you find as you go to your further study or your future occupations that you are, in your work, in a constant state of "gasping for breath" as your companions talk to you.
That is, whether as you work you will be content with a constant state of boredom, for, "gasping for breath" is a peculiarly apt way of describing the way boredom in your work affects you.
I have called this talk with you "The Threshold of Boredom" because the word "threshold", for my purposes, can be defined in two ways: the first is the plank, stone, or timber which lies under a door, especially of a dwelling, church, or temple; hence, an entrance or gate; hence the place or point of entering -- as in the phrase 'the threshold of life'.
And, in looking for that other way of life, look for work where you in your own hearts can feel that what you are doing is making a significant contribution to what to you is a significant goal.
If you do these things you will have answered "yes" to Touchstone's question, "Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?", for you will demonstrate you have learned here what James called "The living, philosophic attitude of mind, the independent personal look at all the data of life, and the eagerness to harmonize them."
-- Robert W. Austin