William Thomas

Dr. William G. Thomas, III, John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on August 13, 2010.

Art Does Not Come Easy


Graduates of the University of Nebraska, my fellow colleagues, and friends, parents, spouses, families and distinguished guests.

This is a moment to celebrate — to pause and admire what our graduates have accomplished.

Graduates, this is your day and your time, when we recognize and applaud your hard work and your success.

We also confer a degree on you which makes your parents, spouses, and friends justifiably proud . . . and relieved.

A few weeks ago, I was beginning to think about what to say today and I was volunteering at the Special Olympics National Games held here in Lincoln. I was doing flag football, and a graduate student in educational psychology here at the University of Nebraska was working there too. So I asked her "what would you want to hear from a commencement speaker when graduate with your doctorate?" I was prepared for her to say just about anything. A wry comment perhaps (that she wanted most to hear the words . . . "in conclusion."). But instead she was quite serious and thoughtful and said, "I'd just want to hear 'we're amazing.'"

She's right. You . . . are . . . amazing.

When we recognize your accomplishment today, and this may surprise you, I think we should celebrate it as a work of art and you as amazingly creative.

Your accomplishment is not just one of data collected, or of credit hours completed, or of examinations passed — though these are important (and my colleagues here would strongly suggest that you make those who follow you do these things too).

Your accomplishment is a work of artistic endeavor, an effort that has been deeply creative. I don't want you to forget that.

Whether you studied engineering, history, chemistry, educational psychology, law, or mathematics, you have shown your creative spirit in your thesis, your dissertation, your research projects.

You may not think of yourself this way — as so creative, artistic, artful. At times I've lost sight of this myself. Probably because as graduate students and professors we sometimes focus on the mundane, on the next report we have to write, but also because thinking of yourself as truly creative in spirit is risky. But I hope you will.

You have been dedicated to the craft of your discipline, to producing the highest quality material.

You have placed a high value on the intrinsic worthiness of what you are doing — a value that is not always translated into immediate marketability (though it would be nice if were!).

You have appreciated the inherent beauty of your work — formulas, poems, designs, essays. In this way you have held your work in your heart.

You share an appetite for truth, a suspicion of arrogance.

Most of all, you have had the patience to pursue questions that take years to answer, not days or weeks.

This different sense of time is fundamental to art, to the creative spirit in you, and to higher education. And it is what I love and appreciate most about the University.

All of this takes a brave soul, to go after questions that take years to answer, to break new ground in research, to speak in a new voice, to look differently at the world, to see something others pass by. We don't have to look far for examples in academic life. They are all around us. People who spend ten or twenty years on a vein of scholarship, on mastering the art of their discipline.

It took Norman Maclean years to produce his great novel of the American West, A River Runs Through It. He was a Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He was 74 years old and in retirement when his masterpiece was published. Robert Redford made the movie and Brad Pitt starred in 1992, after Maclean was gone.

In describing his father, a Presbyterian minister and fly-fishing enthusiast, Maclean wrote:

"My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things--trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

Maclean knew what he was talking about. Your accomplishment today has not come easy--art never does.

It has also come by or through grace. By this we mean in part the serendipitous moments in your work (you know them), when it all fell together. But we also mean most especially the often countless, quiet contributions of others who gave you help:

the comment of an advisor that changed the way you thought about your work,
the much needed compliment of a fellow student that your work meant something important to them,
the encouragement of a staff member who helped you apply for a fellowship.

We are all helped in small but decisive ways not always visible to us at the time.

The grace of the academic environment has recently felt pressured, harried — the same may be said for other professions.

As you go from here — to teach, to research, to open new ventures — you carry with you the experience of the University of Nebraska, the grace you have received here, in ways large and small, visible and invisible. You know how difficult it is to be creative, to ask a question no one has asked before. And you have been part of a place — the University of Nebraska — that values these endeavors, that recognizes the heart, the courage, it takes to pursue them. And you have been shaped by those around you in profound ways.

So, as you go forth, hold on to your creative spirit, to the art that lives in you and in your work. Protect it. Nourish it. It is not always easy to do that. It takes constant care and hard work.

Finally, know this: you are, indeed, amazing.

Congratulations.