Talk to the doctoral graduates at NYU, May 2016

May 13 2016 Graduate Hooding, NYU

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Perstare et Praestare.


Our university’s motto is perstare et praestare: to persevere and to excel. Nobody lives up to that motto more fully than you who are gathered here to receive your degrees today. You have persevered, you have excelled. This is an exciting moment. Exciting for you, obviously. You are stepping over the threshold into a new life. Exciting for your families, who must be enormously proud of your achievements. And exciting for me, because I have the honor of speaking to you on behalf of the graduate faculty of this great university. I am, in fact, the last professor who will lecture you before you get your degree… and since you’ve been waiting years for this moment, I will not keep you too long.


I am a humanist—a philosopher and a literary scholar—but also an admirer of the work of the natural and social sciences, and I even once wrote a book defending the relevance of science to ethics. But as a philosopher, I’d like this last little lecture, to be a chance to reflect with you on the meaning of the achievement we celebrate today. And so let me begin by asking you to cast your mind back a few years to when you applied to our graduate school.


If you’d ask me, when I applied to graduate school, why I was going on to do a doctoral degree, I would have told you that I couldn’t imagine doing anything more interesting than studying philosophy for the next few years, expanding my knowledge of the subject through reading and writing and discussion, identifying questions for which I might be able to find new and (of course) better answers. I wanted, above all, to deepen my understanding and to continue my education. With more philosophy under my belt, I was sure I’d be better placed to do whatever I was going to do next. In the meantime, I was planning to enjoy the intellectual feast.


I don’t think I was atypical: surely, the main reason most people get doctoral degrees in the humanities and the social and natural sciences is that they love their subject and they want to do more of it. Given the unpredictability of the job market five or six or seven years down the road, it wouldn’t be rational to get a doctoral degree because you had a particular career in mind—in this commercial research lab, that business, or the other magazine or website—let alone at one specific university or college. Even people who plan to be independent researchers, making a living through writing about their doctoral field—or, for that matter, novelists inspired by it—can’t be sure that there will be publishers willing to pay them to do so. Certainly, I didn’t know, when I entered the graduate program at Cambridge, that Mrs. Thatcher was about to cut back support for Britain’s universities, so that there weren’t going to be teaching jobs aplenty waiting for me when I stood where you stand today, the dissertation accepted, looking for a way to make a living in the years ahead. In short, when I started my graduate education I didn’t think of myself as entering a profession but as pursuing a subject.


Of course, I knew, as you did, that I would need a job. But I also knew that, having pursued my love of my subject for those five years, I would think for the rest of my life in ways that would be enriched by my graduate education, whatever I ended up doing. The philosophy PhDs who work in Silicon Valley today, or in the world of finance, or in foundations and corporations and magazines, large and small, do what they do, both at work and in the rest of their lives, in ways inflected by their graduate education. And the people who hired them recognized in them the distinctive intellectual skills of a philosopher and were smart enough to see that they could use their talents.


Why do I say all this? Because as I look out on this diverse crowd of newly minted PhDs, I know that you are as diverse as your disciplines and as your backgrounds, and that you will have futures that are unpredictable, multifarious, and—so this is my hope for you—brilliant and exciting. But I know too that you won’t all be using the doctoral degree as a preparation for college teaching, even though the very word doctor comes from the Latin, and means teacher. Indeed, PhD is an abbreviation of philosophiae doctor, which means, strictly speaking, teacher of philosophy, which describes me precisely, but actually applies to very, very few of those with the doctoral degree.


I am supposed to be speaking for my colleagues on the graduate faculty today, but unlike some of them, I believe that those of you who take this degree out into the world beyond the university with energy, intelligence, and vision, will be among our great successes: as representatives of our disciplines, you will take what we have taught you and what you have learned on your own and from each other and from the traditions of our fields, and use it to enrich your own lives and the lives of those with whom you live and work.


A PhD with a profound command of the sexual politics of the Albigensian Crusade in the early thirteenth century was propelled by an avidity for reading documents closely and carefully and, sometimes, against the cultural grain. The point isn’t that the same skill set will enable her to discern the intricate trickeries in an Enron annual report. Your doctorate in number theory won’t give you command of a business budget; your PhD in chemistry won’t teach you how to run a university. (Well, maybe it will!) But the skills, the habits of mind, the thirst for discovery, and—every beginning scholar’s specialty, the zeal for overturning the inherited wisdom of a previous generation—these things have a use outside the classroom and the laboratory.


The sense of education as a preparation for life and not just for work is the vision that guides undergraduate liberal education. It should guide graduate education, too, I believe. Not because your graduate teachers did not prepare you for professional life, but because they weren’t preparing you just for our profession. Rather, we have left you richly intellectually endowed for whatever professions you find your way into and for the multifarious lives you will lead.


So, unlike some speakers at a graduate hooding, I am not going to welcome you to the professoriate … though, if you do plan to become a professor, NYU has certainly prepared you for that as well. Instead, I am going, first, to urge you to keep in touch with us as you make your way in the world, whatever you do. As a humanities professor, I can’t resist pointing out that gradus, from which the word graduation comes, is just the Latin for step. This higher degree takes you a step further, then, into whatever life you will make. But there are many more steps ahead because education and self-development are life long projects. Welcome, therefore, not to the professoriate but to the next stage of your life. May you flourish and bring us honor. Or, as the classicists among you might say: Perstate et praestate. Persevere and excel.