A Registry of Surprise

Remarks at Baccalaureate, May 22, 2011

We have been present in the midst of great teachers and important ideas. Over the years, the always near time of my own St. Lawrence student days is usually recollected in the “never-past present tense.” Using this syntax of experience, Commencement is not the end, just an interlude.

It was not surprising, therefore, when I arrived before the beginning of your junior year, that my friend and teacher in government Bob Wells, still seeing me as a student, gave me a two-page bibliography on the Great Recession, a dozen news clippings, and Leo Damrosch’s book Tocqueville’s Discovery of America. I need to give some brief account of what I learned from one of these extra credit assignments; I want to reflect on Tocqueville for a moment.

In the month of May, exactly 180 years ago, two young men, only a little older than members of today’s graduating class, embarked on a journey equivalent to a study abroad adventure. They came from France to the United States, toured for nine months, deviated from their original research project, which was to study American prisons, and went around the country talking to everybody they encountered. They met Charles Carroll, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, and Andrew Jackson, but also mule-skinners, moonshiners, and riverboat gamblers.

Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, both in their mid-twenties in the year 1831, lived in a very uncertain and dangerous time in France. They made a pact to hide their real itinerary, which held the secret purpose of examining the practice of democracy, the values of a modern, experimental society, the liberal arts in backwater places, and the paradox of a nation balancing the paired opposites of conformity and individualism. As a result, four years after his visit, Tocqueville delivered the masterpiece Democracy in America.

In his notebooks, Tocqueville called this brief American experience “a registry of unending surprise.” He covers many topics—government, commerce, religion, the media, courts, and social customs—in beautiful language that continues to give definition to democracy. But throughout the book, he occasionally leaves aside the academic analysis for observations about human behavior, the soul of a people, and the values of American communities in Boston or the Mississippi Valley. It is the “registry of… surprise” that I believe has been part of your own days as a student, not just at, but of St. Lawrence.

One of the major themes framing “the registry of surprise” is Tocqueville’s constant acknowledgment of the American habits of association, of people organizing themselves into useful governing and care-taking entities—schools, committees, causes, churches, and councils. Based on his American field study, he argues that a civilized people must “perfect the art of associating.” Of all the places in my own life’s journey, covering thousands of miles, a variety of blighted towns and majestic cities, privileged communities and underprivileged neighborhoods, St. Lawrence teaches “the art of associating” better than any place I have known. But even here we ask, why belong? The question is always in front of us, wherever we will live—why belong to anything? Why associate? Why join a group or a college class?
In many ways, the whole point of Democracy in America is to serve as a counterpoint to an older European history of dynastic competition. And the real difference for Tocqueville is the greater depth in the American vocabulary about ideas of the common good. By the way, he did not avoid by some convenient dodge the fundamental imperfections of American society when he reported first-hand the horrors of slavery or the Trail of Tears.

What can we say about the common good as we understand our time of belonging at St. Lawrence? How shall we know the standard of the common good has been affected by our belonging? I suggest it all has much to do with giving and being generous. I think the common good is achieved by three principles, strongly implied by Tocqueville’s reflections, of giving upgiving in, and giving more.

Tocqueville was most surprised by the numbers and varieties of people in an American society who were so willing to “give up” something for a common purpose and shared benefit. He says, “I have often seen Americans make large and genuine sacrifices to the public good, and I have noted on countless occasions that when necessary they almost never fail to lend one another a hand.”

At St. Lawrence, I have seen the common good expressed in shared sacrifice: I have seen faculty and staff pull together in the face of an economy that severely reduced our available revenues; I have seen students take on a cause with passion because a friend’s parent has come down with an insidious, incurable disease; I have seen students quietly volunteer to babysit the children of our faculty and staff to give young parents a night out at “1844” and the Laurentian Singers concert.

A second guiding principle in the registry of surprise about joining the common good is “giving in.” We learn to discuss, disagree, discourse, and differentiate by giving in, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. But we learn how to negotiate, be respectful and polite. I said in complete sincerity to our prospective class of 2015 a few weeks ago, St. Lawrence is a place with good manners. It’s what the world needs, especially when you consider all of its intractable disputes; and you have experienced that code of decency in many deep down ways on this campus.

Tocqueville noted the forms of respect and civility as “a long series of small services” and as “habitual and unremitting kindness.” In a world shaped by fierce competition, chronic injustices, and multiple adversarial norms, we should remember the common profitability of giving in, of being decent in small, unremembered acts, which in many places today would look heroic.

Finally, there is much to say about supporting the common good by “giving more.” I am not asking that you give more in material ways (at least not for a while!). Rather, it is tied to the most important characteristic of leadership; one that I believe is in evidence and abundance at the core of the University.

We have surely learned in our campus life how important it is that leadership be spread around; Tocqueville also noticed this about America when he said, “I frequently admired the boundless skill of Americans in setting large numbers of people a common goal and [then] inducing them toward that goal voluntarily.” It would be hard to improve on that definition of leadership, except to say leaders are not takers, they are givers. They give more thought to a problem, give more thoughtfulness to the other person, and give more slack to the tug-of-war with rivals.

Many years after the rag-tag army led by George Washington survived the cruel winter at Valley Forge, veterans of that awful ordeal would say about their general, “his sleepless nights gave us rest.” Leaders must give more—more than they thought was within them, more than others may have imagined they had, more than the first mile to fulfill the minimum distance.

You will have many things to remember about St. Lawrence, this chapel, the grass-green quad it faces, the Adirondack rim it beckons to enter this glacier-swept valley. But you will perhaps most remember yourself in the company of friends and classmates, a better self that was never by itself. In Augustine’s Confessions, the Latin he writes is spare, but packed with meaning. He writes in the famous tenth book,mihi et ipse occurro, which means “And this is where I bump against myself.” It is surprising that you could do that, when you think about it. And yet, you will do that many times in life, bump against yourself.

Augustine goes on to recollect that when this happens, “I call back what I did, and where, and when, and how I felt when I was doing it.” Your St. Lawrence education holds a living “registry of surprise”—that how you once felt when you were giving upgiving in, or giving more made all the difference in knowing that self, that solid, grounded, determined self you will bump into now and again, while you are about doing the good work in our world.