Ken Starr: Spring 2013 Commencement Address

May 18, 2013

You've doubtless heard expressions to this effect: "Gone, but not forgotten." "We will never forget." "I'm so sorry. I totally forgot." "I can forgive, but I can't forget."

These familiar expressions from everyday life remind us of the power of memory. Estimates vary, but a rough approximation of the memory storage capacity of the human brain is 2.5 petabytes. You may well ask: what's a petabyte? It's equal to 1 million gigabytes. And 2.5 petabytes is the equivalent of 600,000 DVDs, or 700 million MP3s, or 3 million hours of TV. (That's over 340 years of television.)

Even more impressive, our brains operate on a mere 20 watts of power -- scarcely enough to run even the most energy-efficient light bulb. To state the obvious -- the human memory is a God-fashioned miracle.

The power of memory is captured whimsically in the lyrics of a country song from yesteryear: "I forgot to remember to forget." In the hymnals of bygone days, a song was lifted up at memorial services: "Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever fill my soul."

We are in a time and place of remembrance. We chose to be adorned in the centuries-old custom of cap and gown. Efficiency and cost-cutting experts might well advise: "Just send the diploma via email. Why all this pomp and circumstance? It's a lot of trouble to be here."

But we do so because of one word: tradition.

Traditions grounded in memory of those who have gone before and done exactly what we do here today. For it has been done this way in university life literally for centuries. Here at Baylor, since Stephen Decatur Rowe became Baylor's first graduate 160 years ago, followed by Mary Kavanaugh Gentry the next year, Baylor has scrupulously honored this tradition.

Traditions -- such as the symbolically rich mace -- connect us to a community -- a cloud of witnesses -- that transcends us in both time and space. Traditions connect us to a story -- a grand narrative -- encompassing more than our own lifetimes and experiences.

The late political philosopher Russell Kirk once said: "Tradition, by its very nature is opposed to moral and social isolation. Tradition, by definition, is the common possession of a people, what Gabriel Marcel calls 'diffuse gratitude,' closely joined to piety, and linking together the generations that are dead with the generation...now living and with the generations...yet to be born."

Tradition. In the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings proudly of his faith community's hallowed traditions. At the end of the prologue, Tevye proclaims: "Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as...as a fiddler on the roof!"

Traditions abound here at Baylor. Think of your own favorite tradition. For undergraduates: Line Camp. Sing. Pigskin. Stompfest. Steppin' Out. For graduate students: the Friday night doctoral dinner, celebrating the completion of years of scholarly work. For all of us: Dr. Pepper Hour. Singspiration at Seventh and James. Diadeloso -- this year marked by our honoring the fallen heroes of West.

And perhaps above all and for all: Homecoming -- the oldest university homecoming in the nation. That in itself tells us something important about Baylor. Each year, Baylor calls the extended family to come home -- heeding the clarion call first issued by President Samuel Palmer Brooks in 1909 (114 years ago).

Think in spiritual terms: The Lord's Supper. "Do this in remembrance of me." (Luke 22:19). Traditions are not only special; some traditions are sacred.

Traditions call on us to remember. We remember particular times together. For families, memories of the Thanksgiving table. Four weeks later, gathering around the Christmas tree. This past Sunday, we remembered Mother's Day. (Remember, Father's Day is just around the corner.)

Traditions are all the more important now in the 21st Century. So many of our contemporaries are unmoored from anchors of time, place and heritage. University of Virginia sociologist Allison Pugh calls ours the "Tumbleweed Society." More than ever, we need ways to remember. We need institutions to bring us together in a community of shared memory.

In the Old Testament, Samuel erected a stone to remind future generations that God had given his chosen people victory over their enemies and sheltered them in the Promised Land. This is the raising of the Ebenezer, the "stone of help."

By walking across this stage, you affirm your connectedness to a vibrant tradition -- and you create a never-to-be-forgotten memory. You will come on stage individually. You will be recognized as a unique person for what you have accomplished during your years at Baylor.

Yet, by assembling together, you affirm your membership in the Baylor family through cap and gown, through music, through singing "That Good Old Baylor Line." You remember -- at least symbolically -- passing through the iconic columns of Academy Hill in the little village of Independence, where this unifying journey called Baylor began 168 years ago.

And you remember by gathering here with those who encouraged and supported you on your Baylor journey. Your dear family and loved ones. But even more than family and loved ones, you made this journey -- which we celebrate today -- with friends.

Friends. C.S. Lewis once wrote: "Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods." I love the story of that group of C.S. Lewis friends, the Inklings as they were called, those brilliant minds gathered together over a warm fire at an Oxford pub. There, these friends laughed together and encouraged one another.

One of the friends in C.S. Lewis's circle of Inklings was J.R.R. Tolkien. He will forever be cherished in the Christian world because Tolkien helped Lewis become a believer. Around that glowing fire in that ancient city, they shared -- as you do this day -- hopes and dreams with friends.

For his part, Tolkien was a towering academic figure at Oxford, where he taught for 39 years. He not only taught brilliantly, he had an intriguing hobby. In his spare time, Tolkien wrote about a mythical land, and mysterious characters. He called some of them Hobbits. He was blessed with a soaring imagination. But Tolkien, a deeply private person, wrote those mighty tales for a small, private audience. It was his friend C.S. Lewis who said, in effect, "My dear Tolkien, the world needs to read about your hobbits." And thus Lord of the Rings came to public life by virtue of a friend's warm encouragement.

After C.S. Lewis passed from this life on the same day that John Kennedy was tragically felled by an assassin's cruel bullet -- 50 years ago this November -- Tolkien wrote this: "The unpayable debt that I owe to Lewis was not influence as it is ordinarily understood but sheer encouragement."

That's what friends do. They encourage one another. They lift us up when we're down. That's what your Baylor friends, including these dear faculty members, have done in the years of your own Baylor journey. To draw from Tolkien, these are unpayable debts.

Our musical friend Tevye was on to something with his imaginary fiddler on the roof. Tevye sensed that tradition, in human experience, was compellingly important. And at Baylor, we are deeply honored today to carry on that tradition with you and for you.

And may, by God's grace, this gathering together -- in keeping with this ancient tradition of academic life -- tie us irrevocably to one another, in unity, in shared love for the institution that called you here and now honors you this day.

Daughters and sons of Baylor. You have accomplished much, and given us great cause for joyous celebration. Memory -- as we in community gather to remember and honor the living tradition of your time in this good place.

Congratulations. God bless each of you. And God bless Baylor University.

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