05/17/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

A Little Out of Your Way

St. Lawrence University Professor of English Bob Cowser Jr. won the Class of 2012's Owen D. Young Award, which comes with the invitation to give the class their "last lecture." This is the text of that talk, given May 14, 2012.

Thank you, Class of 2012, for this singular honor of the invitation to give you your "last lecture." It's fitting that, after four years of me assigning you writing, you got the opportunity to give me an assignment.

I've always wondered what the world would look like from up here. I'm drawn perversely to pulpits, but don't worry, I'm not about to preach to you. I do want to try and convert some of my experience into truth here tonight.

Prodded no doubt by this gracious invitation, I have been thinking recently about my last few days as a student on the campus of my own alma mater, Loyola University in New Orleans. What I remember best about that weekend was a run I took on the morning of graduation around the bridle path that rings Audubon Park across from the campus. I listened to Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" on my Walkman (a cumbersome precursor to the iPods you kids use today), a piece I had first heard in my "World of Music" course that semester, a class which was supposed to have been a blow-off (I trust this is a familiar concept, the blow-off course?) but which instead became a source of real solace during the frenzy of that last term.

The park was my favorite place in the whole city, classroom and cathedral and gymnasium all in one, and it was where I learned that you don't need to own something for it to belong to you. As I ran, I thought about all the work my degree represented and looked with excitement toward the next phase of my life. Amid the craziness of your senior week and commencement, you should carve out time for reflection in cathedrals of your own, time to consider your achievements, numerous and noteworthy, and what is ahead for you.

Of course many of you won't begin your lives in earnest right away. And that's fine. Our culture encourages that in twentysomethings, particularly of a certain social class. Self-regard is permitted as we make our way in the world -- even lenders give us a six-month grace period before they expect payment on our student loan debt (just paid mine off, by the way, 20 years after graduation, which I think warrants a round of applause).

A senior recently emailed me about the anxiety he was feeling about this "grace period," at the prospect of just floating after graduation. What he was struggling to resist, I suspect, was what Bobby Kennedy called "the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education." I told him the drift was not unusual, temptation's pull is strong, but also told him, and I will tell you now, that when you're finished floating, when you alight somewhere, I hope you'll find that your time here has prepared you well for the world beyond the college bubble. If we've done our job, you've identified talents and affinities, things you do well and things you love to do, and you've found worthy mentors who've helped you hone valuable skills.

But I hope we've also encouraged you to think about how these talents and skills will allow you contribute to the communities you live in, and that these contributions will feel satisfying to you, have value apart from merely what is recognized in the marketplace. A liberal arts education ought not to be just about making a living, after all. Even more, it is about making a life.

Many of you came to college concerned about getting ahead, "lest shame and starvation catch you," the writer John Leggett explains. Your parents no doubt encourage this kind of thinking -- a college education represents a huge investment for them, and they want to see you come out the other side aimed toward gainful employment. They want some assurance that you'll have rooves over your heads (and preferably not the same rooves they raised you under). Americans grow up believing that as long as we achieve, we will be loved and valued perpetually, and that this will be enough. The good life.

I lived that way a very long time. Trust me, it wasn't any particular conviction that sent me straight to graduate school after college. It was mostly anxiety. Having grown up on a college campus, I was a creature of this sort of institution and probably feared leaving the university "bubble" even more than the average senior. I have enjoyed the comfort of one ivory tower or another for all of the last 20 years. It wasn't until I had achieved a level of security and comfort only possible inside the academy, only after, frankly, the whole thing began to bore me a little, that I ever gave a thought to leaving my garret even for a little while. I suppose what follows is a story about what I found right under my nose.

Six or so years ago, I was asked if I knew anyone who might be interested in teaching a summer writing course at the federal prison in Ray Brook, NY. I offered to do it myself. There are a couple of explanations for my interest in that work: for one, my father had done prison teaching in my childhood in Tennessee, so it was something I'd always been curious about. For another, I was writing a nonfiction book about a man who'd spent 20 years in prison so I wanted an introduction to that world, the "inside world" one of my students has since called it. But perhaps most importantly, there was this complacency that I had begun to feel about a professional life spent in pursuit of financial security, accolades and acknowledgement and approval.

So I signed on, became "writer-in-residence" at a federal prison. Little surprise, probably, that the work there was a revelation. Of course there were the almost incredible stories the incarcerated men shared in the essays I had them write. A description of the great lengths to which one man went in order to prepare for his cell mates the traditional Christmas lasagna his Italian mother used to make, hoarding commissary tomatoes in his cell for weeks, straining cottage cheese through a gym sock until it passed for ricotta, standing in front of a microwave oven for four hours, all for that taste of home. Or the Chicagoland gang-banger who described 30 days in the hole and how he eventually learned to survive there, though college was an institution he never learned to navigate (he'd won a scholarship for a free semester through a reform school essay contest). "I couldn't get used to all those white people smiling at me all the time," he wrote.

But even more impressive to me was the great value these incarcerated men placed on education, on learning, though in the beginning I could offer them no academic credit for the work they did. What I came to realize was how my students and I took the privilege of our working together for granted -- to most of us, college must have felt like a birthright, but it was beyond the wildest dreams of most of these imprisoned men, whose enthusiasm restored to me faith in what I was teaching, faith in its worth. At a celebration of folksinger Pete Seeger's 90th birthday several years ago, Bruce Springsteen said that Seeger believed music could change the world and lived his life every day as though it were true. I saw very clearly that this was what I wanted, a true sense of vocation.

At that point, one in 100 Americans were behind bars, more than in any country in history. The prison-industrial complex was one of very few "growth industries" in northern New York, and prisons still dot the local landscape like Wal-Marts. When the state threatened to close one prison near campus, the rhetoric of the opposition, their out-and-out fear-mongering, alarmed me, and flew in the face of what I had experienced at Ray Brook and the handful of other prisons where I've since taught. I recalled Bobby Kennedy's 1968 warning after the MLK assassination: "When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city but not a community."

I gradually came to understand that I needed to get my own students involved, for their sakes and mine, and that I needed to work at getting academic credit for the inside students. With the help of the staff of local prisons and members of the University community, and the board of a national prison education network, working together for several years, we were able to make that happen. Last fall we launched the inaugural St. Lawrence University Inside-Out course at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, New York State's "maxi-max" prison (the only such program hosted by a maxi-max).

Many of the members of that inaugural class are in the audience this evening and they have my endless gratitude and admiration. When we got together for pizza at the end of the term, I thanked the students for their extra effort, for making the detour with me. "You went a little out of your way," I told them, "100 miles round-trip once a week, and look at the difference it's made." I know they aren't the only ones among you who've pushed past charity and service toward forging real community in the North Country, and I commend all of you.

Yet as good as our work made me feel, I was still suspicious of that good feeling. I have never been a man for others (ask even those who love me) and have always mistrusted any do-gooding impulse that arises in me. I am suspicious now. Though my alma mater Loyola is a Jesuit university dedicated to social justice, I paid almost no attention to that mission in my time there. What's amazing, and a little sad, is how long that same cynical attitude kept me in my own bubble.

It was the students here who really changed my mind and heart. They helped me to understand my cynicism as, in part, generational. The 1980s were famously the "me" decade. But current students are different, more earnest, with moral outrage to spare and a sense of urgency, also terrific imagination. So many of you are determined to change your world.

Just after your degrees are conferred next Sunday, you'll be asked to show your allegiance to your alma mater by considering a donation toward the furthering of her mission, the value of which no one understands better than you as her most recent graduates. That is all well and good. Philanthropy has its place. But traditional philanthropy won't really do much to close the vast and ever-widening income and opportunity gap in our society, which an experience like a prison course makes so painfully clear.

So I am going to challenge you now to give in another way. St. Lawrence is a tight-knit community -- we pride ourselves on that, and on our exclusivity, on our status as a highly selective private university with a network of alumni ready to serve us once we emerge from the bubble. That exclusivity is surely part of what your parents are paying for, part of what you've borrowed to attain -- it ensures the good life. What I'm asking is that you endeavor to consider ways to be more inclusive, to share the great worth of your education with people who haven't had the opportunity, to acknowledge that we share our communities with them, that our fates are bound. That's what "redistribution of wealth" has come to mean to me.

I wish I could show you the faces of those incarcerated men when I showed them their names on a university class roster. Not on a diploma like you'll see Sunday, mind you, but a simple roster. And it cost us nothing to go there but the gas money, cost us nothing to extend the opportunity you've all paid so dearly to have except the time it took to drive there, the effort it took to extend ourselves. Yet I'd argue the potential for real change was huge. In the end, for all their differences, perhaps the one thing these two institutions have in common, prisons and universities, is a responsibility to transform the people in their charge.

Not everyone in the prison is happy we're there -- corrections officers, resentful that felons got free credits while they must pay to educate their children, called us names like "hug-a-thugs." But what hurt worst was when one guard told a student "I could tell you were from St. Lawrence because you look entitled." It hit close to home. When I was a kid, we sang a cathechism song that said, "they will know we are Christians by our love." How will they know we are Laurentians? Are we distinguished by our privilege alone? Or might we come to be known by what Thoreau called our "greatly purposing to do right," the real risks we're willing to run in the sacrifices we make to other people.

What I'm advocating is that once you leave the college bubble, you explore a few detours from your career path, go a little out of your way. Consider this line from Pete Seeger's song "To My Old Brown Earth":
Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong...
And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green.

The Earth and its people -- there's plenty of room for each of us along this continuum, I think. Again, we just have to trust each other to work faithfully on the causes in our own corners of the world, wherever we alight. Take heart. Dig in.

At nearly 42 years of age, I'm aware in even the most optimistic of scenarios, my life is half over. I am twice as old as most of you, and it's taken me all this time to arrive even at these meager insights. I offer them now, humbly, that you may "get ahead of the curve," as it were. That has to be the point of such a last lecture. I am tempted to say that I envy you and your boundless futures. I remember fondly the excitement of those last few runs around Audubon Park, the Copland music reaching crescendo. I'd almost agree to blink and go back, if it were possible.

But I can't account for my good fortune between that time and this, and I wouldn't want to tempt fate. The view from 42 ain't bad. Mid-life has not only its infamous crises but also very real satisfactions, which everyone ought to have the chance to enjoy. When I was where you are, I was careful to dream simple dreams that might actually come true -- of a family with whom to share my life, of fulfilling work, the continued good health of everyone I love -- but what I've come to understand is that the realization of even the smallest of these is a bit of a miracle, and always requires the help of others, sometimes hundreds of others. You, the class of 2012, have helped me to realize a dream here this evening. Again, I thank you.

Here's to the realization of your college dream -- let me be the first in a long line to offer you congratulations on the achievment. And here's to the future fulfillment of your own grandest wishes. To going a little out of your way in order to acknowledge community and extend opportunity in your corner of the world. Here's to making a life and not merely a living, one that represents a real grace period, a ridiculously extended period of grace.

So the world is yours now, to save and change. Welcome to it. Keep in touch and let us know how we can help. As grand ole Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to say on every episode of Hill Street Blues "Hey, let's be careful out there."