Sunday, October 24, 2010

Week 40: The Last Lecture

Thanks to a nostalgic weekend visit to my alma mater, I decided to go to the Cornell section of iTunes University for this week's dose of inspiration. One lecture that caught my eye was a "last lecture" given in 2008 by former Cornell President Hunter Rawlings. The last lecture series was created by Mortar Board, a senior honor society I had the privilege of joining. Each year a distinguished professor is asked to give his or her theoretical last lecture, the idea being that smart, successful people will say insightful things when the chains of regular course lecturing are unshackled. Professor Rawlings chose to give his last lecture on the virtues of what classicists call "close reading." Perhaps the best way to define close reading is by describing what it is not - blogs, tweets, and texts would most certainly not fit the bill. Close reading is digging into the heavy, deep, and allegedly fulfilling type of stuff you dreaded being assigned back in college. In short, Rawlings thinks that most reading today is the opposite of close reading - it is superficial reading. While Wikipedia and Google are tools for accessing information quickly, they are not substitutes for meaty, enlightening, and yes, dense, texts. The former will get you to the easy truths in life, but Rawlings correctly notes that those aren't all that interesting or important. If this sounds simple or hokie to you, I would encourage you to ask what Rawlings asked the audience: How often do we read concentrated, sophisticated ideas? How often are you confronted with careful, subtle, complex ideas? If you are like me, the answer is not very often.  

Rawlings gives three examples in which a rigorous approach to reading has had a meaningful impact on his life. While studying the classics at Princeton in 1968, Rawlings found strong parallels between Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War and his own struggles with the Vietnam War. But coming to realize these underlying similarities was not easy; Thucydides wrote in a sophisticated and complex manner. To top it off, he used an esoteric form of Greek, making translation a chore. It was in Rawlings' own words "not fun", but from the experience he was able to understand with more depth what war can do to a democratic society.

The second example was Rawlings' study of James Madison, which revealed a fascinating portrait of a man who was not charismatic, but who was tremendously influential. One story I cannot help repeating begins with George Washington asking then Congressman Madison to review his innaugural address, which had been written by Washington's speech writer. When Madison found it to be terrible, he was asked by Washington to write a new inaugural speech. The Madison speech went exceedingly well - so well that Congress wanted to reply with its own speech. Guess which Congressman they elected to do the honors? James Madison, of course! And the Congressional reply went so well that Washington wanted to again reply to Congress. Naturally, he asked Madison to draft this reply to the reply. And, naturally, Madison did - one for the Senate, and one for the House. How incredible that at the inception of our democracy, Madison was having a conversation with himself that would set the tone for the relationship of our executive and legislative branches for centuries!

The final example given by Rawlings is his readings and re-readings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's rhetorical skill and ability to communicate at perhaps the darkest time in American history may have saved the country - more Americans died in the Civil War than in World War I, II, Vietnam and Korea combined. In the midst of tragedy and chaos, we were lucky to have someone who had worked arduously and for decades on his speaking, reading, and writing. As Rawlings noted: "a masterful reader can take the rhythms and phrases from great texts and can turn them into powerful instruments to deal with terrible situations." Rawlings can speak to the development of Lincoln's communicative power, because, for instance, he took the time to read all of Lincoln's speeches, in chronological order. Close reading.

I fully recognize the irony of writing a blog post on the importance of serious, thoughtful study. I am doing so because Rawlings' point is valid, and it struck a chord: words mean something. To understand and internalize the dimensions of an important speech or historic book takes proactive thought, careful consideration, and, frankly, time. How many times recently have you read something for which the words were the clues and you had to search for the meaning? It is sadly laughable how we are exposed to new information - my morning routine consists of reading the Wall Street Journal (on my iPad, of course), scrolling through the Bloomberg headlines, skimming a few market research bullets, and checking my Twitter feed. In other words: cursory, tactical, shallow. While I'd like to think that a certain extracurricular weekend project of mine has absolved me from guilt, it has not. This project has been wonderful for learning superficially about an array of topics. It has also helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a thinker. I have learned that communication is a craft, not a college major. By definition, a craft takes an incredible amount of time and effort to master. The speech given by Professor Rawlings reminds me of one glaring, painful truth: I've got a lot of work to do.


  1. For the ITune illiterates among us:

    And, for good measure, another Last Lecture:

    Back to back intensity to start the week!


  2. Thanks so much for the great links!