Convocation Address by Emmett O’Malley ’15

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Welcome to convocation. This speech is divided into three sections—the three S’s if you will—Socrates, “Success,” and Summing Up.

Part One: Socrates

Since it’s the start of another academic year, it’s probably appropriate that we engage with the big Socratic question right off the bat. That is: What course of life is best? A question that Socrates directed toward Calacles, a sophist – a person not in pursuit of virtue — in Plato’s masterpiece, “The Republic.”

From my humble perspective, the answer to that existential question — What course of life is best? — is that we acknowledge the convergence between our own personal pursuits and the moral obligations that we owe to others for our privileged positions as members of the Williston community. That convergence between our personal and moral obligations is, at least for me, where the answer to the question – What course of life is best? — lies. In addition, our answer to the essential Socratic question inculcates us with — as Mr. Hill likes to remind us — purpose, passion, and integrity.

Of course, it is fair to infer that humans aren’t going to universally agree about the correct answer to the great question: What course of life is best? With that said, I want to examine our more personal hopes, the ones that will propel us and thus engage the better angels of our respective natures to—hopefully— move our community forward. Forward in the sense of justice and mercy to all humans, regardless of where they live or how intimately we know them.

One caveat: Please don’t conflate personal pursuits and narcissistic ones—something that is done all too often in our egotistical world. When pursuing some goal or passion in a way that benefits us, it is imperative, as Immanuel Kant taught us, to “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time an end.”

Part Two: “Success”

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Of course, everyone here has a sense of hope towards a very personal goal. That goal is “success.” This is an assumption, but as far as assumptions go I think it’s a pretty safe one. We crave “success,” oftentimes in a material sense. But this is not enough—particularly in a world full of racism, economic inequality, sexism, gut-wrenching poverty, homophobia, catastrophic climate change, Ferguson, and Gaza. In short, we need a sense of empathy to answer the question: What course of life is best?

I stand before you today not to tell you how to specifically answer the big Socratic question, or to how to be “successful,” but to encourage us to be skeptical of what traditional “success” even is. Let’s be honest: We attend the Williston-Northampton School, a New England prep school where educational opportunity, material abundance, and physical safety are the norm. Yep, we’re the one percent. Many people—parents, staff, faculty, and alumni—have sacrificed to make this place very special, and many of us are frighteningly good at doing what we’re supposed to do to achieve “success,” but we don’t understand WHY we’re doing it. We’ve become very good at doing a variety of things – sports, academics, service—without really knowing why we’re doing any of them. We have a tendency to confine ourselves to a herd of our privileged peers, matriculating in a school of conformity in pursuit of indirect self-acceptance.

William Deresiewicz calls those of us who achieve stereotypical success by not wrestling with the great Socratic question, and thus confining ourselves to materialistic pursuits, excellent sheep. We must rally against simply becoming just another member of the conforming herd, grazing on a commodified field that’s been laid for us, and never digging deeper than the surface—stuck in one place, and solipsistically pretending it’s all that exists. This is a scary idea, and for many of us —including me—a jarring one. One that makes us feel uncomfortable. That’s because it’s a tough realization for many of us who have been merely following orders.

Of course, at this stage in our lives, conformity has its own rewards. If we focus on our trivial pursuits and neither think about what’s going on around us, nor take into account other peoples’ perspectives and feelings, we may achieve great material success. Unfortunately, as Christopher Lasch, author of “The Culture of Narcissism,” warned us, “the appeal of toys comes to lie not in their use, but in their status as possessions.” Thus, it’s time to put aside our toys – that car we must own, that game we must win, that college we must attend, and that GPA we must maintain and focus on the great question, What course of life is best?

For as the writer G.K. Chesterson admonished us: “The self is more distant than any star.” Indeed, our ultimate goal, at least from my humble vantage point, is that we give virtuous voice to our perspectival answer to the Socratic question: What course of life is best?

Part Three: Summing Up

So what’s left? What’s left when we don’t obsess about our own ego-driven pursuits, and decide to reflect and engage life on a more humanistic level. What’s left is what matters. What remains when we defy the preconceived notions of “success” and instead enhance the amazing world we live in today? What remains is life. So pick up trash, treasure what you have, try not to complain, recognize our privileges, give until it hurts, maintain multiple perspectives, be funny, be kind, listen, help others, and care about more than mere “success.” Oh, and also pursue with alacrity the Big Three: Meaningful work, loving relationships, and a comprehensive worldview.

Thank you!

One thought on “Convocation Address by Emmett O’Malley ’15”

  1. Excellent speech, Emmett. I loved the Socrates element. Were you implicitly casting doubt on Socrates by imparting your words teaching what it means to live with virtue in spite of Meno (Stephanus 99a) and Socrates’ assertion that virtue cannot be taught?

    Btw I love the call to action in the wake of Deresiewicz’s criticism of “elite education” (whatever that is). To thoughtlessly accept privilege is to fall prey to the things Deresiewicz warns us about. I think Williston, especially with your intellectual motivation in the forefront, is well-prepared for the challenge.

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